Monday, May 20, 2019

In Eastern Europe, a media battle for hearts and minds

Atlantic Magazine features the clash of ideas in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban vs. philanthropist George Soros.
Many of the right-wing or nationalist leaders of Eastern and Central Europe have been winning votes by attacking the political correctness of the European Union and its allies.

And they have chosen as their whipping boy George Soros, the billionaire and philanthropist whose Open Society Foundations have been funding programs that promote Western democratic values like freedom of expression, human rights, equality, and social justice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is part of the reason. He has never gotten over the humiliation of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Even worse was seeing three former member republics --Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia-- join the European Union in 2004, along with four former Eastern bloc members, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. He is using media to try to get them back.

European media battleground

The European Union, Open Society Foundations, USAid, and the governments of many other Western democracies have been the main funders of independent media in Central and Eastern Europe. Viktor Orban, the right-wing prime minister of Hungary, has referred to these organizations as "Brussels and the Soros mafia" Reuters Digital News Report 2018 (p. 84).

These EU values run counter to the values of right-wing authoritarian governments and political parties that have gained popularity by opposing immigration and promoting national culture, language, and Christian religion.

This conflict has become an intense media battle, as detailed by the National Endowment for Democracy in Foreign Authoritarian Influence in the Western Balkans and the European Journalism Observatory in Can Independent Funding Models Help East European Media Avoid State Capture?

Orban and other right-wing leaders have seized on George Soros, who fled Hungary in his youth, as a convenient target for their anti-Western messages. They embed anti-Semitic messages (Soros has Jewish family roots) to stir up nationalistic sentiments, as detailed in Franklin Foer's excellent study of Orban, Soros, and Hungary in The Atlantic.

In spite of these attacks, I have seen some examples of excellent high-quality journalism in the region: Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, DennikN in Slovakia, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project based in Rumania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Atlatszo in Hungary, among many others.

We are in the middle of a new Cold War, with East vs. West. This puts an even greater premium on investment in quality journalism, both by ordinary citizens and by organizations and governments that value democracy.

Results from 37 countries, people trust the news they use the most. From Reuters Digital News Report 2018.

See also: Defending Independent Media: A Comprehensive Analysis of Aid Flows 
Confronting the Crisis in Independent Media: A Role for International Assistance


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