At first sight, lumping together Hungary and Turkey in a discussion on media freedom seems arbitrary. Why comparing an EU Member State to a candidate country, why comparing two countries with different histories, two countries whose capitals are 1500km away from each other? Yet, focusing on Hungary and Turkey allows us to look at two countries where press freedom has suffered in recent years and it enables us to look at how the EU is and should be responding to such violations in countries with different affiliations to the Union.
The latest Freedom of the Press Report by Freedom House considers the press as “not free” in Turkey and “partly free” in Hungary. To be fair, there are EU countries which score worse than Hungary, for example Croatia or Bulgaria. But Hungary exhibits a noteworthy pattern as press freedom in the country has declined steadily since 2010. An even steeper decline can be seen in the case of Turkey.
Newsrooms as “open-air prisons” in Turkey
“I don’t need these reports to feel the pressure on the media in Turkey,” explained Sevgi Akarçeşme at an event on media freedom organized by FNF Europe and TUSKON. Akarçeşme is a senior editor at Today’s Zaman, an English language newspaper in Turkey and a columnist for the Turkish language paper Zaman. While the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey has decreased in recent years, newsrooms are becoming “open air prisons,” explained Akarçeşme. Journalists have resorted to self-censorship out of fear of losing their jobs.
Akarçeşme attributed this anxiousness to the development of what she dubs a system of “arbitrocacy,” i.e. an environment in which journalists are arbitrarily put before courts and face severe penalties. She herself has been sued for a comment she made on Twitter about Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, but she sees her prosecution as a “piece of cake” in comparison to what other journalists have to go through. “There is not a single critical journalist in Turkey who has not been sued,” she said, adding that insulting the President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may lead to more severe punishments than corruption and other major crimes.
Media market distortion in Hungary
While intimidating journalists has become a popular way of suppressing press freedom in Turkey, the Hungarian government has chosen a more subtle path. “It’s a strange feeling to be on a panel with Turkey,” said Attila Mong, an award-winning Hungarian journalist and member of the watchdog platform Atlatszo.hu. In the past, he would discuss the state of media freedom with likeminded speakers from Poland or the Czech Republic. Then he was frequently invited to panels with representatives from the Balkan countries. And now Turkey. “It was not heaven before, but 2010 marked a clear turning point,” he said.
That year saw a swift political change with Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party reaching a two-thirds „super majority“ in the Hungarian parliament. Orbán’s plan to fundamentally restructure the country did not spare the media. Rather than threatening journalists, he resorted to distorting the media market through buy-outs of media companies and preferential treatment of loyal media in the allocation of state advertising. The result is similar as in Turkey: journalists resort to self-censorship in order to keep their jobs.
Double-standards and party loyalties on the EU level
How can the EU and its Member States respond to these developments? To begin with, they should recognize their own double-standards, said Jean-Paul Marthoz, a Belgian journalist and longtime press freedom and human rights activist. When the EU is recommending to non-EU countries to drop laws that criminalize libel and two thirds of the EU Member States still have similar laws in their legal codes, the EU’s credibility suffers. Marthoz went on criticizing the strong party loyalties in the European Parliament on that issue: Resolutions of the European People’s Party (EPP) have been influenced by the membership of Orbán’s Fidesz party in the group. For Marthoz, this leads to disrespecting the values upon which many of the parties are founded and he hopes for more principle-based resolutions.
Furthermore, the EU would need to develop strong mechanisms to engage with Member States which disregard the fundamental values of press freedom. According to Marthoz, this kind of interference would be justified considering that Member States subscribe to the fundamental values of the EU with their accession. Thirdly, the journalist suggested, that the guarantee of a free press should be a critical part of the Copenhagen criteria – not only for the sake of the new country’s media, but also for the sake of coherent EU integration.
Being asked whether media suppression has reached a high point, Sevgi Akarçeşme remained pessimistic for the near future, but emphasized that changes of this dimension needed time and that democracy was in the making in Turkey. Attila Mong pointed at positive signs in Hungary, such as the widespread protests against an internet tax the Orbán government (unsuccessfully) tried to introduce last winter. With regards to the EU, Jean-Paul Marthoz stressed the importance of being consistently committed to its core values and the necessity to develop tools to safeguard these values, especially in the area of press freedom.