Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
The United States is far from the only country where journalists work in a toxic political environment, one in which the leader of the nation routinely attacks and demonizes the media. A recently published report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in the UK describes how similar patterns can be seen in a number of other countries in central and eastern Europe, including Hungary — where leader Viktor Orban has centralized control of the press — and Turkey, where president Recep Erdogan has done more or less the same thing. The report, entitled “Fighting Words: Journalism Under Assault in Central and Eastern Europe,” surveyed working journalists in 16 countries about the working conditions and attacks they face. And this week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we hosted a series of interviews based around the publication of the report, including a discussion with Meera Selva, the director of Reuters Institute’s fellowship program (and a veteran journalist with experience in Singapore, London, and Nairobi), as well as a number of discussions with fellows about their perceptions on the topic of journalism under attack.
Selva noted in her interview that there has been a notable decline in press freedom in many countries in the region, including Poland and Hungary, where populist parties came to power and exerted partisan control over the media. There are similar problems in countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, Selva said, where journalists have become targets for threats and violence. In Slovakia, an investigative journalist named Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, while working on a story about government corruption. His death sparked protests across the country and eventually brought down the government. In other countries, however, attacks continue, a process that Selva says has two prongs: “One part involves verbally criticizing journalists, and the other part involves weakening the legal, economic and structural frameworks that support independent journalism. This can involve changing laws on media ownership so that only government-friendly investors can buy media outlets.”
One aspect of this toxic environment that she found really striking, Selva says, was how many journalists talked about attacks that came not from the government but from other journalists. In many of the countries the media have split on pro-government and anti-government lines and journalists from one side have no solidarity with those from the other, she says, and so “the idea of a journalist as an impartial, independent observer is being undermined.” In some countries there has been support for the press, such as in Slovakia after Kuciak was murdered, but “in other countries, protests have been a general howl of anger against the establishment, and the media is seen as part of that establishment,” says Selva. Reuters fellow Nana Ama Agyemang Asante, who is from Ghana, said that she has noticed a similar trend in her country as well. “There has been a shift in the relationship between journalists and the Ghanaian public,” she says. “They are no longer trusted and in some cases are seen as part of the problem, as part of the corrupt class and now face constant attacks online and offline.”
Continue reading “Fighting words: Journalism is under attack in Europe”