Government attempts to control the narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrict the media under the guise of public health have created a crisis of information integrity, argue watchdog groups. The problem is particularly acute in Central and Eastern Europe, where press freedoms are shrinking as authoritarianism rises, and public trust in media is declining. International organizations are grappling with how to reverse these trends.
How has the pandemic impacted media freedom in Central and Eastern Europe?
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an organization that focuses on safeguarding the right to information and protecting the press, consistently ranks Eastern Europe as the second-worst region for press freedom after the Middle East and North Africa. Within the European Union, Hungary and Poland have drawn the most concern. COVID-19-era policies further threaten the situation in the region, which has been deteriorating over the past decade.
Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has long sought to control the press, imposing censorship laws, pressuring independent outlets, and subsidizing a state-led media machine. In March 2020, Hungary’s parliament granted him sweeping emergency powers and passed new measures that criminalize the spread of allegedly false information. Journalists face fines and up to five years in prison, and reporters say they have been denied access to hospitals and prevented from speaking to health workers.
Poland. Warsaw has similarly sought to reshape the country’s media market by supporting pro-government outlets and restricting other organizations, especially foreign-owned media. The government and state-owned companies have brought hundreds of lawsuits against journalists, and COVID-19 reporting brought further litigation. In February 2021, Poland’s private media protested a government plan to tax advertising revenues to raise money for the country’s health-care system.
Other countries in the region have raised similar concerns. Journalists in the Czech Republic have warned about the growing concentration of media ownership among a handful of tycoons, the shuttering of independent outlets, and increased attacks on reporters. In four years, the country fell from twenty-first place on the World Press Freedom Index to fortieth. Bulgaria, the worst-ranked EU country on that index, has sought to make pandemic-related “fake news” punishable by jail time. Observers, including EU officials, also point to increasing government pressure on journalists in Slovenia and rising attacks in Slovakia.
What is the state of press freedom globally?
It has come under increasing pressure amid a global rise in authoritarianism.
According to watchdog group Freedom House, democracy declined for a fifteenth consecutive year in 2020, and less than one-fifth of the world’s population now lives in “fully free” countries. Since 2013, RSF’s Press Freedom Index has recorded a 12 percent decline in media freedom worldwide.
In 2020, pandemic restrictions introduced new opportunities for authoritarian leaders. China, which ranks third to last on RSF’s index, expelled foreign journalists reporting on its early COVID-19 cases, while Iran, which also ranks near the bottom, heavily controlled information about its outbreaks. Major democracies were not excluded from this trend: in the United States, arrests of journalists skyrocketed by more than 1,200 percent compared to 2019, including for charges of violating pandemic-related curfews. Accompanying these attacks is a crisis of public trust in the press: one global survey found that 59 percent of people believe journalists purposely mislead the public.
How are international organizations responding to the decline of press freedom in Eastern and Central Europe?
There are many calls for action. In March 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists joined more than one hundred civil society groups to call for limits to lawsuits against journalists in Europe. The Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body with forty-five member states, has criticized Orban’s “indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency.” Likewise, the United Nations human rights office has expressed concern over Hungary’s misinformation laws and their potential to have a “chilling effect” on the press.
The U.S. State Department has long expressed concerns about press restrictions in Central and Eastern Europe. However, U.S. leadership on press freedom took a back seat under President Donald Trump, who often attacked the media and sought closer ties with leaders in Hungary and Poland. Now, President Joe Biden’s administration is again raising the issue.
What could the EU do?
Ultimately, member states are bound by EU law to respect freedom of expression. The EU often denounces press restrictions and, amid the pandemic, has made $4 million available to fund press freedom projects.
But enforcing its own rules is a different matter. The bloc has repeatedly clashed with Hungary and Poland over declining democratic norms. It has sought to invoke Article 7 of the EU treaty, which would deprive them of voting rights, and threatened to cut off their EU funding, including pandemic-related economic recovery funds. But since such actions require unanimous support, Budapest and Warsaw can easily veto them; indeed, both countries blocked approval of this year’s EU budget until Brussels backed down.
Still, there are signs that pressure is rising for violators of press freedoms. The center-right European People’s Party—the European Parliament’s largest political group—has moved to expel Orban’s party, Fidesz. And in perhaps the biggest change this year, the EU parliament passed legislation to make it easier to cut off funding to countries that break the rules, though implementation is a long way off.