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Two-thirds of Hungarians would welcome refugees fleeing war and persecution

Off the top of his head, Piotr Stasinski doesn’t know how many lawsuits his newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has faced over the years.

After some thought, the longtime editor at the Polish daily told VOA the number is around 100 since the conservative Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015.

About one-third of those cases are still active, he estimates, adding that he believes they are designed to silence the newspaper and its critical coverage.

But Gazeta Wyborcza is not alone.

“There is an avalanche of lawsuits against independent media,” Stasinski told VOA, as he spoke about the current state of press freedom in Poland. “They know that this is the way to tire us, to exhaust our resources.”

The lawsuits that Gazeta Wyborcza is fighting underscore the broader use of legal action by ruling politicians in Poland to target critical journalists. It’s a tactic that isn’t unique to Poland.

The Polish Embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In recent years, the global news industry has been pummeled by an array of forces, ranging from lawsuits and democratic backsliding to corroded public trust and financial pressures.

But at least in the European Union, all hope is not lost, according to a new Freedom House report examining independent media on the continent.

Released on Wednesday, “Reviving News Media in an Embattled Europe” explores the pressures for journalists in Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland — and how they’re overcoming those challenges in resilient ways.

“We see that newsrooms are finding new ways to sustain journalism and defend themselves against attacks,” the report’s author, Jessica White, told VOA.

Digital media start-ups in France and Italy are taking new approaches to building credibility. In Estonia, a public broadcaster launched a Russian-language service to better counter Moscow’s propaganda. And support networks have been established across Poland and Hungary to support reporters facing lawsuits over their coverage, the report found.

“What’s inspiring to see,” White said, “is that when some of the stresses are greatest, some of the responses are more creative.”

The six countries studied vary by a number of factors, including size, history and level of democracy. But financial insecurity is among the issues confronting newsrooms in all six countries studied in the report.

“Financial survival is at the heart of challenges facing many news media organizations in Europe,” White said. “So, we find that news outlets are having to find new ways to fund independent reporting, but they’re also facing cost cutting and job precarity that affects the diversity of news coverage.”

Attacks on media in Europe parallel attacks on media around the world — all of which are a primary element of a 17-year decline in global freedom, according to Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz.

“Free and independent media is a cornerstone of democracy,” Abramowitz said in a statement about the new report. “Amid war and rising authoritarianism, leaders in Europe and beyond must work to ensure that news outlets play a continued, constructive role for democracy, and that media freedoms are defended and bolstered.”White agreed, telling VOA, “There are very broad and systemic issues that are facing media organizations around the world.”Financial difficulties present a particular challenge to Polish and Hungarian media, the report found, because public entities are directing the majority of state advertising to outlets that Freedom House says are perceived as friendly to the government. In turn, more critical outlets are shunned and lose out on state advertising.Stasinski has witnessed that process firsthand. He said state-owned companies have removed nearly all of their advertising from Gazeta Wyborcza and other independent outlets.The situation is similar in Hungary, according to Marton Karpati, co-founder of the independent Hungarian news outlet Telex.“In the friendly press there are state advertisements, elsewhere there are essentially none,” he told VOA.”This is where fragilities can be exploited,” White said. “These weaknesses are more actively being exploited by illiberal governments to skew landscapes in their favor and to make it more challenging for independent media to hold power to account.”Her report found that in Hungary and Poland, independent media does exist — but in an increasingly hostile and repressive environment.

The picture is particularly stark in Hungary, where about 80% of the country’s media are considered pro-government.

Hungary’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Both Warsaw and Budapest have consolidated control over public media, turning such outlets into tools for pro-government propaganda as critics are targeted and state-owned companies take over press distribution networks and regional media, the report said.

“They’re part of the propaganda machine of the ruling party,” Stasinski said. “We don’t call them journalists anymore. They’re media workers, and they’re functionaries of the party propaganda.”

But there’s still reason for optimism, White said.

“I think that it’s not all bleak,” she said, pointing to how Hungary’s dwindling independent outlets are building new revenue models to survive.

Telex, for instance, turned to crowdfunding from its audience to help support its work. About 25,000 people contributed to its initial fundraising campaign in just five days when it first launched in 2020.

“At Telex, we try to do our best,” Karpati said. “We ask questions, even if we know we won’t get any answers. We are trying to be fair with all sides of a story.”

Source: Voa News