The past 24 hours have been uniquely grim for European media. Poland, Hungary and Belarus all saw steps aimed at further reducing already falling levels of press freedom – albeit all through different mechanisms.
Belarus targeted individual journalists, charging them for their work. Hungary moved to muzzle the last major independent radio station in the country. Meanwhile, Poland’s authorities are eyeing a new tax that would harm private media, further strengthening their grip over the sector overall.
More from The Fix: 2015 vs. 2020 changes in press freedom across Europe
Multiple Polish publishers and broadcast media went dark today, while others published an open letter, to protest proposed legislation that would tax advertising revenues.
Named a “solidarity fee,” the new tax would affect advertising of products deemed unhealthy. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki claimed the charge is in line with EU moves on a digital tax on tech giants. Government estimates say it could raise around 800 million zloty (approx. 180 million euros).
The government plans to spend half on healthcare, 15% on monument protection, and a third on funding culture. Public media, which have become government mouthpieces under the PiS administration, would be exempt.
Private media firms, however, claim the tax would selectively target them and damage to the country’s media landscape. An analysis quoted by press publication Wirtualne Media estimated tech giants would end up paying 50-100 million zloty, while private media will face up to 800 million in additional cost.
“This is nothing other than extortion that will harm Polish viewers, listeners, readers and internet users,” the open letter begins.
The move is widely seen as part of government efforts to bring the media sector to heel and push out foreign-owned players. This campaign, dubbed “repolonization”, recently saw state-controlled oil company Orlen buy regional media publishing house Polska Press. It runs 20 regional dailies, nearly 120 local weeklies and 500 online sites.
According to an analysis by investment bank Wood&Company quoted by NotesFromPoland those hardest hit by the tax will include Agora (publisher of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily), American-owned broadcaster TVN and Ringier Axel Springer Polska (the Swiss-German owner of media such as Fakt, Newsweek Polska and top online portal Onet).
More from The Fix: Poland moves in on media
Notorious, self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” Hungary took measures on a publication-level. A court decision rejected appeals by Klubrádió, the last major independent radio station in the country.
A court verdict on Feb. 9 in Budapest upheld a previous decision not to renew the radio’s license. Klubrádió appealed after Hungary’s Media Council – controlled by Victor Orban’s Fidesz party – revoked its license last year for allegedly violating advertising rules.
“Recently redesigned media laws leave Klubradio no other way to extend its airwaves license beyond 14 February. Another silenced voice in Hungary. Another sad day for media freedom,” tweeted Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe Dunja Mitajovic.
Klubrádió, one of few outlets to regularly feature opposition politicians, will still be able to broadcast online. Yet experts point to a systematic effort to silence the platform, which operated on short-term licenses and engaged in several legal battles since Orban took power in 2010.
“Make no mistake: This is the outcome of a deliberate, decade-long effort by political forces in Hungary to eradicate Klubrádió from the airwaves. The court has merely delivered the final blow,” commented Deputy Director of the International Press Institute Scott Griffen.
Last year saw the effective collapse of Index.hu, then leading independent online portal. Most of the editorial staff migrated to Telex.hu, a recently launched crowd-funded initiative and spiritual successor.
Reporters Without Borders downgraded Hungary to 89th place in the 2020 Press Freedom ranking (vs. it was 56th in 2013).
US-government backed Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty decided to reopen local operations (closed after the end of the Cold War) as a result of the ongoing decline.
Belsat journalists Kaciaryna Andreeva and Daria Chultsova spent more than 6 hours in cages during kangaroo court hearings yesterday.
The journalists were detained on November 15, 2020. They were broadcasting live from memorial for deceased activist Raman Bandarenka (who died after reportedly being beaten by security forces). They could face up to three years in prison for “organizing actions that grossly violate public order.”
Judges refused to satisfy a petition to change the preventive arrest measures. However, they chose to break for a week before the final decision.
“Since the [court] process itself is entirely political, I can assume that the postponement is associated with the upcoming All-Belarusian People’s Assembly and the protests that are announced because of its holding. I think that they [judges] want to make a decision on this case based on the results of what will happen in Belarus at the end of the week,” commented journalist Igor Ilyash, Andreeva’s husband.
Media have been a key victim of the crackdown on protests since August 2020.
Press Club Belarus head Yulia Slutskaya is still detained despite multiple calls for her release from international organizations. Authorities arrested her at Minsk airport on Dec. 22 following her return to the country.
Sasha Skutskaya, Yulia’s daughter, has been sharing information about her mother’s detention and her letters through her Facebook page.
In one letter Yulia wrote about the overwhelming propaganda and brainwashing efforts. “I begin to notice that I succumb myself, knowing very well this is not a reality,” she noted.
She also added “everyone, including her political [prisoner] cellmates, are morally preparing to serve time in the Gomel colony.”
More from The Fix: Press Club Belarus leadership arrested
Since protests started, 540 journalists [as of December 30th] have been targeted by the government. They have faced fines, detention, confiscation of equipment and physical violence.
More from The Fix: What can be done to support Belarusian media