Last week, the Financial Times Brussels Blog reported that Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes sent a letter to the Hungarian government reminding them that ‘ the respect of media freedom and media pluralism is not only about the technically correct application of EU and national law, but also and more importantly, about implementing and promoting these fundamental principles in practice’. This is a quote from the letter that was curiously, initially available through the FT blog, only to have magically disappeared when I looked today (luckily I printed it). I collect such letters from the time when the European Commission used to send them to candidate states from Central and Eastern Europe when something was not going in the right direction in terms of democratic institutions and principles. Pre-accession to the EU, they used to be a part of the EU’s set of tools that are popularly referred to as the stick and carrot of conditionality. The expectation shared among these of us who studied the last enlargement has been that the EU would not have similar leverage when after accession. It is still not completely clear to me where this is true. Interestingly, the EU is now trying to use some of its tools and methods developed in the pre-accession period, to deal with the Orban government. As the FT’s Stanley Pignal notes, Orban’s strategy seems to be to go for minor adjustments in laws criticized by Brussels and go on much the same at home. Neelie Kroes’s letter seems to be part of the Commission’s response to that, as she notes that: ‘The Commission will remain particularly vigilant…’.
Pity, however, that the vigilance has not extended to Bulgaria, or not yet. Last month, Reporters without Borders placed media freedom in Bulgaria on the abominably low 80th place, 40 places behind Hungary. A Bulgarian MEP wrote an open letter to Bulgarian journalists about this, which was also sent to Ms Kroes (reported by Deutsche Welle, here, in Bulgarian). The dismal state of Bulgarian media is not a surprise for anyone who has ever tried to find a decent daily newspaper in many small towns in Bulgaria where the couple of serious newspapers of the Economedia group do not get ordered or delivered. Analysts point out that the ownership of media outlets, newspapers, but also TV is a big part of the problem, depriving individual journalists who have the ability and courage to deliver proper journalism, of outlets where they could do so. One can only dream, in this context, of the Hungarian Klubradio and similar outlets that take themselves the initiative to seek the support of EU institutions for free and independent journalism. And indeed, in recent years sharp investigative journalists in Bulgaria are found more often on the internet and Facebook, especially when they cover hot topics in a way that deviates from the bulk of the press. The problem seems to be that political and economic powers have tried to capture media the way they have tried to capture the state, to create a reality in which shady businessmen are ‘builders of capitalism’ as the newspaper Kapital calls them. Still, one hopes that the European Commission and these same independent journalists would not give up on media freedom in Bulgaria… after all, the whole public sphere and democracy itself suffer when no one delivers objective news any more. As journalist Tatiana Vaksberg notes in her Deutche Welle comment , Bulgarians themselves trust the media much easier than their politicians. Strange but true. Now there is an occasion when the well-known and all-pervasive Bulgarian skepticism should find a well-deserved outlet.
In other news from the world of media manipulation, Vladimir Putin apparently blogged with a guest blog in the Financial Times. Most instructive, especially if one has never read a press release from any of the congresses of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Of course, the text the FT published was an excerpt from an article (officially) by Putin published in Vedomosty (Russian version here), and it’s not really a blog. This is.