Patrons and Clients: The Media Systems of Hungary and Poland

December 10, 2018

By Péter Bajomi-Lázár

Media systems vary across the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. New research studying how the media covers migration in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia confirms that, in the former two countries, media discourses are shaped by political influences, where incumbent governments’ favouritism distorts media markets heavily, and pro-government journalism is now on the rise.

Multiple post-communisms

The expression multiple post-communisms, coined by Jakubowicz and Sükösd, describes the ways in which media landscapes of Central and Eastern European countries evince obvious similarities, and yet also differ in many ways. Similarities are mainly rooted in these countries shared histories, and, especially, the decades of state-socialism that came to an end in 1989–91; differences, in turn, are chiefly explained by current environments, including political environments

A key difference among many of the former communist countries lies in the question of media freedom. New research has confirmed that, in some countries, most journalists have a relatively high level of autonomy and are free to decide what they report on and how they do it, while in other countries they are subject to a combination of political and business pressures. 

Migration and the media: cross-country differences

The REMINDER project looks into the coverage of migration and mobility in a number of European Union member states. The Central/Eastern Europe research studying Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia on the basis of focus group sessions with journalists identified major differences in how the media relate to these issues across the region. Immigration is high on the media agenda in Hungary and Poland; by contrast, it is much less of an issue in Slovenia and Romania. Further, a nationalist approach dominates the media discourse in Hungary and Poland, while a humanitarian approach prevails in Romania and Slovenia. The migration discourse is of a highly emotional nature in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Poland, while it is more rational in Slovenia and Romania.

The way migration is covered by the media appears to be a function of the political actors in office: Hungary and Poland have populist and nationalist governments driven by marked ideological agendas, whereas Slovenia and Romania are led by technocratic ones. In the two former countries, governments have made repeated and largely-successful efforts to politically instrumentalise the media; according to international freedom watch organisations, such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, media freedom has declined in recent years.

A system of privileges

In Hungary and Poland, governments have taken over much of the media via the passing of media laws. New legislation created new media authorities and enabled the governing parties to nominate loyalists for decision-making positions. The resulting favouritism in the re-distribution of media resources such as public information, state-controlled advertising revenues and radio frequencies has created a media culture of privileges: media resources are traded for pro-government coverage, while critical journalism is sanctioned with the withdrawal of resources. Government pressures now affect, in addition to public service broadcasters and national news agencies, several private outlets, too, which, after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing withdrawal of multi-national investors from the Central/Eastern European media markets, were purchased by domestic oligarchs informally associated with the governing parties.

A recent case may shed light on how the system works. In Hungary, as the independent news portal has recently revealed, several journalists of pro-government outlets have been contracted by the Ministries of Human Resources and of Agriculture to act as communication advisors and speech writers for their ministers. By contrast, critical journalists interviewed during the REMINDER project have repeatedly noted that they faced existential challenges and were uncertain about whether they would be able to continue work as journalists or not.

The re-rise of loyal journalism

The REMINDER project’s research on the media coverage of migration and mobility in Western Europe has shown that many journalists in the EU-15 countries consider it their job to mitigate the migration discourse in order to avoid polarisation of positions, a finding which also seems to hold for Romania and Slovenia. However, many journalists in Hungary and Poland are not in the position to do so. Instead, they act as clients ready to meet their patrons’ directives. Nearly 30 years after the demise of state-socialism, journalism loyal to the government is on the rise again.

The liberal tradition of journalism ascribes the role of watchdog to journalists, and hence imagines them as agents of change in the system of checks and balances; many journalists interviewed in Western Europe expressed their intention to watch power holders and to ‘make the world a better place.’ In contrast to this, loyal journalism is meant to preserve the status quo by serving the interests of those in office. In the context of migration discourse, this means that in at least two of the countries studied — namely Hungary and Poland — many journalists keep the issue of mass migration on the agenda, frame it in such a way that it feeds nationalist and populist concepts of migration as promoted by their governments, and neglect to offer a critical interpretation of such discourses. This practice of journalism does not assist citizens in making informed choices: while focusing on the cultural aspects of migration, and particularly the potential conflicts that multiculturalism may generate, journalists often fail to contextualise the issue economically and demographically.  European Social Survey data reveals that, under the impact of real life events such as the migration wave of 2015, in addition to anti-migration government messages and largely uncritical media coverage, the ratio of xenophobia among Hungarians grew from 45 to 54 per cent, and that among Poles from 18 to 25 per cent between 2015 and 2016.

Some normative implications

In an ideal democracy, media policy should be based on the principle of universalism and should promote equal access to the media for all. In Hungary, and to some extent in Poland, by contrast, particularistic media policies prevail. Public goods are used to promote private interests via complex exchanges of mutual favours. These countries evince clientelistic media systems where state intervention is not aimed at giving all voices equal chance to be heard, nor at generating an informed and rational public debate. On the contrary, it is meant to promote some voices and marginalise other ones, and thus to manipulate public opinion.

One cannot serve two masters. Neither media outlets granted state resources on the basis of favouritism nor journalists on the payroll of the government can be reliable servants of the general public. Yet loyal journalism is not a matter of choice. Most journalists faced with government pressures have no other alternative. When media resources are to a great extent controlled by the state, and the state is controlled and manipulated  by the governing parties, loyalty to the government is an adaptation strategy for many, and even a viable business model for some.

Péter Bajomi-Lázár  is Professor of Mass Communication at the Budapest Business School. His latest monograph is Party Colonisation of the Media in Central and Eastern Europe (The Central European University Press, 2017). His latest edited volume is Media in Third-Wave Democracies. Southern and Central/Eastern Europe in a Comparative Perspective (L’Harmattan, 2017).

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