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Coincidence, Collaboration, or Continuity: Europe’s new Authoritarian Media Policy

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Media
Policy Analysis
Sally Broughton Micova
University of East Anglia
Sally Broughton Micova
University of East Anglia

Abstract

At the start of 2016 the government of yet another former communist country in Europe consolidated political power over its public service broadcaster (PSB) and curtailed the powers of its national broadcasting regulator. Just after taking power, Poland’s new government passed a law giving the Minister of the Treasury the power to appoint the members of the management board of the PSB, a process which since 1992 had been done through an open call managed by the regulator. It also terminated the mandates of those who were on the PSB’s board with immediate effect and followed this move with a new law on data retention that sparked harsh criticism from human rights groups and press freedom activists. The international and domestic press is using the term “Orbanization”, insinuating that Poland’s new leadership has learned these media policy moves from Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski, who was Prime Minister for over a decade before stepping down in January this year under international pressure, was also likened to Orban, especially when a highly restrictive 2013 media law consolidated government influence over that country’s PSB and restructured the media regulator. Is there a “how to control your media” manual being passed around Central and Eastern Europe? Or are these new authoritarian leaders simply reviving the methods of their communist predecessors? Much of the research into media systems in the region would indicate that there is continuity from the past. Splichal (2001:34) argued that, while imitating some media policy from the West, new elites in this region copied old mechanisms of control of the media because they continued to have an “old authoritarian conception of the polity”. Jakubowicz (2007) found them more instrumentalist, arguing that, new elites maintained old systems of control because they both felt insecure in their power base, and that they deserved to use the media to support the process of reform. These arguments may explain the persistent instrumentalisation of former state broadcasters, which resembles old systems of control. However, manipulation of national regulators and frequency allocation, fostering clientelism through state sponsored advertising in commercial media, and data retention obligations on telecommunications operators, among others, are new tricks that were not part of the communist repertoire. This paper presents an investigation into the roots and make-up of new authoritarian media policy. Based on an in-depth examination of media law and regulation in Macedonia between 1991 and 2013 and an analysis of the recent legislative changes in Macedonia, Hungary and Poland, it argues that there is a distinct new authoritarian approach to media emerging. It finds this approach is less learned from the past than it is conditioned by relations with domestic and international capital and the positions of private media companies. This paper also suggests that, while it may be that policy models are being shared across countries, some seem just as likely to be borrowed from established Western democracies as learned from their neighbours or larger authoritarian states.