The emergency situation that has hit nearly the entirety of the world – due to the spread of the Coronavirus epidemic – has had many clear and visible negative impacts to our societies: e.g. a crisis in the healthcare system, economic slowdown, loss of jobs, etc. However, there have also been downturns reported by activists in many countries in sectors such as media freedom, that are less prominent in the wider public discourse. In this episode of our Directors’ Cut, we will tackle precisely the issue of media freedom in Central-Eastern Europe, bringing examples from across the region and highlighting challenges towards institutional hardening.
Giorgia Miccoli: As highlighted by a report by the European Parliament, “the Council of Europe (CoE) Platform for the Protection of Journalists has warned that the fresh assault on media freedom amid the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already gloomy media freedom outlook”. The crisis of media freedom is well-spread all over the world, with China and Russia leading the dramatic consequences of a health pandemic on civil rights. In Europe, however, Hungary has been at the centre of the discussions for PM Orban’s lockdown measures. The majority of Hungarian outlets are managed by people close to the governments, that unsurprisingly have depicted the events in the country, shedding a positive light on Budapest’s moves. The few critical newspapers have told a different story, one of censorship and media freedom repression. Indeed, paragraph 377 of the March Virus Bill aims to condemn the spreading of “false information” by journalists, that can be jailed for up to five years. Viktor Orban admitted that one of his main concerns is the amount of “fake news” spread by critical magazines, without proofs to back his allegations. Indeed, according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index Hungary (at the 89thplace) is the EU Member State with the worst situation in terms of press freedom, together with Bulgaria.
Fabio Seferi: On the other hand, in Central-Eastern Europe there have also been cases where, even if not blatantly challenging media freedom, governments have been able to exploit coronavirus-related attention to avoid public confrontation. This has been the case in Albania, where the Socialist government led by Prime Minister Edi Rama, together with Erjon Veliaj the Socialist Mayor of the capital city Tirana, have perpetuated the destruction of the city’s old theatre in mid-May. The action took place during the night amid protests by actors and civil activists, notwithstanding the application of the curfew after 9 pm. Our focus is not as much on the lawfulness of the action – in Albania there have been discussions from many months now on the fate of the theatre – as it is on the timing of the event. While the country is still recovering from the coronavirus – with an economy that, by all indicators, will be severely hit by the lockdown measures – the government found a leeway provided by the lockdown to take action in thorny issues.
Giorgia Miccoli: If press freedom is violated, especially in times of crisis, the whole society is affected by it. According to Freedom House “the health crisis also creates an inflection point after which things could become much worse, or democracy could be revitalized”. With the media being drastically unpowered, a key watchdog of the well-being of the democratic system is undermined. Citizens will see the amount of information grow, as well as the quality of it decrease. Transparency of information in Central and Easter Europe is now severely threatened as well as the democratic system of the region. In my opinion the main challenge will be dealing with a new normal in a society that had been witnessing change in reverse.
Fabio Seferi: I totally agree. With the unfolding of the health crisis to its dire consequences, media freedom has been challenged as well. However, maybe an even bigger challenge will come with the adaptation to a world that will have to live and cope daily with the coronavirus threat. Amid a general economic downturn and a push towards remote working, the media – and especially the written press – will have to carve out different types of delivery, for different audiences and with different contents. Of course, this phenomenon pertains to a deeper historical conjuncture: the digitalisation of many facets of our daily lives. Thus, if the first hit of the health crisis could be measured in lesser spaces for the media, the second one will most probably regard the challenges coming from looking for whole new spaces. The health crisis has reinvigorated social and technological processes that are pushing all of us towards an ever more paperless world.
Giorgia Miccoli: What the future will look like in terms of press freedom is hard to tell right now. I believe, anyway, that the attention towards the topic is rising. This is happening not only in the countries mostly affected by the issue, but also in those where press freedom is still rather high. As you said, moreover, the world is slowly moving towards a paperless reality. This brings to the attention one new matter: data privacy and protection. Where do Central and Eastern European countries stand? The challenges of the future, in my opinion, will be mainly two: ensuring an international governance able to protect press freedom and counteract fake news, and protecting civil rights when it comes to going online.
Fabio Seferi: You have raised the core issue of today’s world, which has already had an impact in Central-Eastern European countries but will even do more so when all the countries will achieve a full digital transition of their economic sectors. If we go from Estonia – at the edge of the digital frontier – to countries in the Western Balkans, we can look at how not only media freedom, but also digital maturity is circumstantial to the specifics of every country. Our new normal will sharpen several phenomena that have been underlying major changes in the past few decades; however, it will also leave swathes of uncertainty that we have to consider when we will have to shift to a new social paradigm.
 European Parliament, The impact of coronavirus on media freedom, Briefing, Members’ Research Service, PE 651.905 – May 2020. Access here: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/651905/EPRS_BRI(2020)651905_EN.pdf.
 Freedom House Warns of Democratic Breakdown in Central, Eastern Europe, Voa News, May 06, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/freedom-house-warns-democratic-breakdown-central-eastern-europe