Exploring migration reporting in Central-Eastern Europe by Péter Bajomi-Lázár
Media systems vary across the countries of Central/Eastern Europe. A new research studying how media cover migration in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia confirms that media discourses are shaped by political influences in the former two countries where the incumbent governments’ favouritism distorts media markets heavily and pro-government journalism is now on the rise.
The expression of multiple post-communisms, coined by Jakubowicz and Sükösd, describes the fact that the media landscapes of the countries of Central/Eastern Europe evince obvious similarities and yet differ in many ways. Similarities are mainly rooted in their shared histories, and especially the decades of state-socialism that came to an end in 1989–91. Differences, in turn, are chiefly explained by their current environments, including their political settings.
A key difference among many of the former communist countries lies in media freedom. In some countries, most journalists have a relatively high level of autonomy and are free to decide what they report on and how they do it, while in other ones they are subject to a combination of political and business pressures — a new research has now confirmed.
The REMINDER project looks into the coverage of migration and mobility in a number of European Union member states. The Central/Eastern Europe research studying Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia on the basis of focus group sessions with journalists identified major differences in how the media relate to these issues across the region.
Immigration is high on the media agenda in Hungary and Poland; by contrast, it is much less of an issue in Slovenia and Romania. Further, a nationalist approach dominates the media discourse in Hungary and Poland, while a humanitarian approach prevails in Romania and Slovenia. The migration discourse is of a highly emotional nature in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Poland, while it is more rational in Slovenia and Romania.
The way migration is covered occurs to be a function of the political actors in office.
Hungary and Poland have populist and nationalist governments driven by marked ideological agendas, whereas Slovenia and Romania are lead by technocratic ones. Governments have made repeated and largely successful efforts to politically instrumentalise the media in the two former countries where — according to international freedom watch organisations such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders — media freedom has declined in recent years.
In Hungary and Poland, governments have taken over much of the media via the passing of media laws. New legislation created new media authorities and enabled the governing parties to nominate loyalists into decision-making positions. The resulting favouritism in the re-distribution of media resources such as public information, state-controlled advertising revenues and radio frequencies has created a media culture of privileges: media resources are traded for pro-government coverage, while critical journalism is sanctioned with the withdrawal of resources.
Government pressures now affect, in addition to public service broadcasters and national news agencies, several private outlets, too, which were purchased, after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing withdrawal of multi-national investors from the Central/Eastern European media markets, by domestic oligarchs informally associated with the governing parties.
A recent case may shed light on how the system works. In Hungary, as the independent news portal hvg.hu has recently revealed, several journalists of pro-government outlets have been contracted by the Ministries of Human Resources and of Agriculture to act as communication advisors and speech writers for their ministers. By contrast, critical journalists interviewed during the REMINDER project have repeatedly noted that they faced existential challenges and were uncertain about whether they would be able to continue work as journalists or not.
The REMINDER project’s research on the media coverage of migration and mobility in Western Europe has shown that many journalists in the EU-15 countries consider it their job to mitigate the migration discourse in order to avoid the polarisation of positions, which finding also seems to hold for Romania and Slovenia.
However, many journalists in Hungary and Poland are not in the position to do so. Instead, they act as clients ready to meet their patrons’ directives.
Nearly 30 years after the demise of state-socialism, journalism loyal to the government is on the rise again.
The liberal tradition of journalism ascribes the role of watchdogs to journalists and hence designates their role in the system of checks and balances as agents of change. Many journalists interviewed in Western Europe expressed their intention to watch power holders and to “make the world a better place.” In sharp contrast to this, loyal journalism is meant to preserve the status quo by serving the interests of those in office.
In the context of the migration discourse, this means that in at least two of the studied countries — namely Hungary and Poland — many journalists keep the issue of mass migration on the agenda and frame it in such a way that it feeds nationalist and populist concepts of migration as promoted by their governments, and neglect to offer a critical interpretation of such discourses.
This practice of journalism does not help citizens make informed choices: while focusing on the cultural aspects of migration, and particularly the potential conflicts multiculturalism may generate, journalists often fail to economically and demographically contextualise the issue. Under the impact of real-life events such as the migration wave of 2015, anti-migration government messages and largely uncritical media coverage, the ratio of xenophobia among Hungarians grew from 45% to 54% and that among Poles from 18% to 25% between 2015 and 2016, European Social Survey data reveal.
In an ideal democracy, media policy should be based on the principle of universalism and promote equal access to the media for all. In Hungary and to some extent in Poland, by contrast, particularistic media policies prevail.
Public goods are used to promote private interests via complex exchanges of mutual favours. These countries evince clientelistic media systems where state intervention is not aimed at giving all voices equal chance to be heard, nor to generate an informed and rational public debate. On the contrary, it is meant to promote some voices and to marginalise other ones, and thus to manipulate public opinion.
One cannot serve two masters. Neither media outlets granted state resources on the basis of favouritism, nor journalists on the payroll of the government can be reliable servants of the general public. Yet loyal journalism is not simply a matter of choice. Most journalists faced with government pressures have no other alternative. When media resources are to a great extent controlled by the state, and the state is controlled and manipulated by the governing parties, loyalty to the government is an adaptation strategy for many, and even a viable business model for some.
Bajomi-Lázár Péter is Professor of Mass Communication at the Budapest Business School. His latest monograph is Party Colonisation of the Media in Central and Eastern Europe (The Central European University Press, 2017). His latest edited volume is Media in Third-Wave Democracies. Southern and Central/Eastern Europe in a Comparative Perspective (L’Harmattan, 2017).
This article is a result of a REMINDER research on media practices that has been made in cooperation among University of Oxford, Budapest Business School and the European Journalism Centre.
The results of the media practices’ research have been translated and published in the special issue of the Hungarian-language media studies journal Médiakutató (The Media Researcher, 2018 Autumn/Winter). The publication focuses on national differences in migration reporting across European Union member states in both the “East” and the “West,” offering a comparative study of journalists’ role models and the factors shaping reporting practices.