Compared to the communist period, governments in countries such as Serbia, Hungary and Poland have less brutal and repressive strategies against the independent press. However, the new approaches used are just as effective in stifling critical voices, writes the New York Times.
When the COVID epidemic hit Eastern Europe in the spring of 2020, a Serbian journalist reported a lack of masks and other protective equipment. She was quickly arrested and charged with causing panic.
The journalist, Ana Lalic, was released quite quickly and even received an apology from the government, a small victory against the authoritarian regime of President Aleksandar Vucic. But she was later demonized for weeks as a traitor by the rest of the Serbian press, much of it controlled by Vucic’s allies.
“I have become the public enemy for the whole nation,” she told the New York Times.
Serbia is no longer shutting down its critical journalists, as was the case during Slobodan Milosevic’s time in the 1990s.
The silence of critical voices has been visible in recent days, during the Novak Djokovic scandal, when the approach of the Australian authorities was categorized – by Vucic and by most of the press – as an intolerable affront to the nation.
The few remaining independent media channels in the country also supported Djokovic, but had a more balanced approach.
The situation is visible in several countries in the region. From Poland to Hungary and Serbia, Eastern Europe has become fertile ground for a new type of censorship that avoids brute force and uses more subtle but effective tools to shut down critical mouths, writes the New York Times.
Television has become so biased in favor of Vucic, according to Zoran Gavrilovic, director of the Birodi media monitoring group, that Serbia has become a “sociological experiment that will determine how much the press can influence opinions and choices.”
Serbia and Hungary, countries at the forefront of a global wave of autocratization, as noted by the Swedish organization V-Dem Institute, both have general elections in April, and they could test the way media control works.
Vucic, the favorite of television
A recent study by Birodi found that from September to November, Serbian television broadcast 44 hours of news and other material about Vucic, 87% of which were positive. By comparison, the main opposition party benefited from three hours of news and other material, 83% of which were negative.
Almost all the critical material about Vucic appeared on N1, an independent TV channel that broadcast the materials made by the journalist Lalic, on the topic of COVID.
Currently, there is a fierce battle for the audience between the cable operator hosting N1 – Serbian Broadband (SBB) – and the state-owned telecom company, Telekom Srbija.
Telekom Srbija made an important move, taking over from SBB the rights to broadcast football matches in the English football championship, thanks to a 700% higher financial offer.
The state-owned company’s bid – nearly $ 700 million for six seasons – is an astronomical sum for a country with only seven million inhabitants. “It’s very difficult to fight a competitor who doesn’t care about profit,” said SBB chief executive Milija Zekovic.
Telekom Srbija has not made any statements to the New York Times, but in public comments so far, company officials have said that investment in the acquisition of rights to Premier League matches is driven by commercial interests, not politics.
“Their goal is to kill SBB,” Dragan Solak, chairman of SBB’s parent company, United Group, said in an interview. Eager to stay in the game, Solak announced this month that a private investment company he controls has bought Southampton FC, a Premier League team. The broadcasting rights obviously remain with the state-controlled rival, but some of the money paid will go to Solak.
Government loyalists currently control five TV channels, including public television, which should be neutral, RTS.
The only television stations in Serbia that offer space to the opposition and avoid the odds brought to Vucic are N1 and another Solak channel, TV Nova.
Without them, says Solak, Serbia would be in a bleak situation, like North Korea.
Similar strategies in Poland and especially Hungary
Critical press space has shrunk in the region, and the V-Dem Institute now says Serbia, Poland and Hungary are among the top 10 countries heading for self-government, citing “attacks on justice and restrictions on the press and civil society.” Freedom House lists Serbia as partially free.
In all these countries, the security forces – the main tools for stifling freedom of expression during the communist era – have been replaced in this role by state-controlled or state-dependent companies, which often exert irresistible pressure on the press, writes the New York Times.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland has turned TVP, the public television, into a propaganda channel, while the state-owned oil company has bought a number of regional newspapers.
However, several national newspapers remain critical of the government.
In December, the PiS advocated a law that would have hit the only independent television channel, TVN24, owned by the Americans, one critical of the government. The law, which would ban non-EU companies from owning media outlets, was eventually rejected by President Andrej Duda, otherwise a PiS ally, who feared the move would alienate Washington.
Hungary went further, bringing together hundreds of media outlets in a holding company controlled by Viktor Orban’s allies.
Only one TV station with national coverage remained critical of Orban and financially independent of the government.
Orban’s political rivals managed to unite to try to defeat him in the April parliamentary election, but failed to do anything about his dominance of the media market.
“Vucic now learns from Milosevic’s mistakes”
In Serbia, the media space for critical voices has shrunk so much that Zoran Sekulic, the founder of an independent news agency, says that “the level of control, directly and indirectly, is similar to that of the 1990s” under Milosevic. At the time, Vucic was the Minister of Information.
Journalists, Sekulic explains, are no longer killed, but the control system resists, being “updated and improved” to ensure favorable news without the use of brute force.
When United Group opened a relatively opposition-friendly newspaper last year, it could not find a printing house willing to get involved. The newspaper is printed in neighboring Croatia and sent to Serbia.
Dragan Djilas, the leader of Serbia’s main opposition party and former media director, complained that while Vucic can talk non-stop for hours on Serbia’s main television, opposition politicians appear as targets. “I’m like an actor in a silent movie,” he said.
N1, the only channel that lets him talk, is being watched in Belgrade, but is blocked in many other cities where mayors are politicians in Vucic’s party.
Even in Belgrade, the cable company hosting the channel has begun to face difficulties in trying to break into the homes of tenants in the new residential complexes built by developers close to the government. A huge residential complex under construction for security officials near Belgrade, for example, refused to install cable TV from SBB, the company said.
Meanwhile, viewers of pro-government channels “live in a parallel universe,” says Zeljko Bodrozic, president of the Serbian Association of Independent Journalists. Channels such as TV Pink, which broadcasts reality shows with explicitly sexual images, but also long statements by Vucic, “not only indoctrinate, but make people more stupid”; he adds, according to the New York Times.
The EU and the US have repeatedly criticized Vucic for his lack of media pluralism, but eager not to throw Serbia into Russia’s arms, for example, they avoided making harsh statements.
This gave Vucic space to extend his control over the press. In a way, explains Rasa Nedeljkov, program director at the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, Vucic was even more careful than Milosevic, who did not necessarily want total control and left a few untouched regional channels.
“Vucic is now learning from Milosevic’s mistakes,” says Nedeljkov.
And once independent voices have joined the government camp. The radio station B92, which frequently criticized Milosevic during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, is now owned by a supporter of Vucic.
Critical journalists are the target of attacks by tabloids loyal to the authorities. Solak, the director of United Group, has been described as “Serbia’s biggest combiner” and a traitor working for the country’s external enemies.
Solak now lives outside the country because he fears for his safety and says he has become a regular target of attacks.
Source From: Libertatea