The "conquered" media are clearing the ground for autocrats in Eastern Europe

Changes in the constitution and laws, merging of the ruling party with the state, political clientelism, subordinate media, repression or defamation of opponents.

This is part of the toolkit with which autocrats like Putin, Orban, and Vucic have been in power for a long time. The former has ruled for 23 years and waged several wars of conquest, while the other two were re-elected by an overwhelming majority last Sunday.

Other similar components of their regimes are social, religious, and hatred of the Other

Although the government allocates public resources primarily to businessmen and oligarchs close to it, it also legitimizes itself through a special set of measures in favor of consumers, including mitigating the price shock in recent months. Support from the poorer, retired and rural people is also provided through the promotion of Christian values, a “glorious” past, and appropriate doses of nationalism. Racism, hostility to women’s rights, and the LGBTI community are on the rise in Russia and its allies in Eastern Europe.

In the aforementioned unprestigious national populist campaign, Putin’s rule has gradually evolved into a veiled military dictatorship. His younger partners have neither the resources nor the desire for such a transformation. They condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine and even accepted Ukrainian refugees. However, Orban is strongly opposed to sending military aid to Ukraine. Serbia has declared neutrality in the conflict, and Vucic does not support EU sanctions against Russia.

Of course, there are much more significant differences between these three countries. Authoritative international studies are classified differently. According to the Freedom House Transition 2021 report, Russia is a “consolidated authoritarian regime”, while Hungary and Serbia are “jumping” one step down (that of the “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime”) and are “only” “transitional or hybrid regimes”. Such governments oscillate between democracy and authoritarianism. However, all three can be attributed to Orban’s “illiberal democracy” formulated in 2014. It and the resilience of the charisma of the autocrats are unthinkable without the manipulation of public opinion by influential but obedient media.

A common feature of these countries is the observed increase in the “takeover” of the media, violence against journalists, and hatred against certain groups in society. The Freedom House statement, made specifically for Serbia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, is even more valid for Russia. Especially after the beginning of its aggression against Ukraine. Attacks on media independence in former communist countries are particularly worrying because it is an important guarantor of democracy, the organization said.

The media in Russia, Hungary, and Serbia are specifically captivated. The situation is different in Latin America, for example, where there is a liberal model of media systems and journalism “taken over” by private and corporate interests, as described by Guerrero and Marquez-Ramirez (2014). Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar (2016) distinguishes between the “conquered” state, in which economic interests and oligarchs take over some part of it (including the media), and the “post-communist mafia state”, as Hungary defines in its book of the same name. It is a “criminal state where the government itself acts as a criminal organization,” Magyar told Capital. It subjugates the economy by monopolizing power.

This country is headed by a “chief polyarch” (“polyarch” – from politician and oligarch)

He “achieves his illegitimate wealth thanks to legitimate political power within a political business. But while his political power is public, his economic power and wealth are hidden from society.” In this framework of analysis, the media in most Eastern European countries can be seen as obsessed with polyarchic interests. An example with a Bulgarian address – is how the fate of the property of the two major private televisions was decided under Borissov’s third government.

As a textbook, this is the case with the Russian media, which have been forcibly involved in supporting the regime for 20 years. The process illustrates very well the transformation of Russia from an oligarchy with a weak president, as it was under Yeltsin in the 1990s, to a polyarchy. In the 1990s, there were two major opposition television stations, NTV and ORT, although controlled by oligarchs Gusinski and Berezovsky. Both channels were subordinated to the Kremlin at the beginning of Putin’s rule, without becoming entirely state-owned (for example, control of NTV passed to the state concern Gazprom).

The process of media takeover ended at the beginning of the war against Ukraine, the German newspaper Spiegel stated in its review of the topic. At that time, the last critical or moderately oppositional media outlets, which had long been informing mainly a niche, urban audience, were suspended or shut down on their own. Their end came amid military censorship, which forced Russian journalists to call what was happening in Ukraine a “specialized military operation” instead of a “war.”

At the same time, “misinformation” about the actions of the Russian army’s aggression in Ukraine was criminalized – in the case of more serious violations, the punishment can be up to 15 years in prison. Against this background, a growing number of independent Russian journalists are fleeing their country seeking protection in Europe, according to Reporters Without Borders CEO Christophe Deloire’s interview with Euractiv. “The wave of migration can be compared to that of 1918, during the Bolshevik regime,” he said.

No wonder that in this media environment so many people in Russia believe the Kremlin’s lies about the war, incl. the need for “denazification” of Ukraine. And Putin’s rating jumped to 83% in March. Provincial and rural Russia, which, unlike urban elites and the middle class, is almost completely informed by quasi-state television, has become the biggest victim of their misinformation and propaganda. “Centralized control of the kind that Putin and his security forces have now imposed on Russian publicity can only be found in the same form in China and North Korea,” Spiegel said.

And Orbán in Hungary, in the manner of the Russian autocrat, tamed the media and controlled, though not as brutally as he did, the oligarchs in the country. It has become very difficult for the media to expose corruption and criticize populist policies.

Virtually all radio stations are friendly to the prime minister. Public television has become a channel for state propaganda

Businessmen close to Orban bought newspapers and online media, reminding the German public television Ce De Eff. Hundreds of newsrooms were donated to a government-friendly media foundation. Especially in the countryside, people see and hear Orban and his views all day long.

The remaining few independent editions are experiencing serious funding problems. In order not to have a headache with the government, companies, incl. international, refuse to advertise them. Not only in the media but also the public space as a whole, there is an atmosphere of intimidation and self-censorship, observers say.

The Orban regime-controlled media has been heavily manipulating Ukraine. A schizophrenic situation has arisen – while the prime minister broadly supported the EU’s position on the war in Ukraine, state media took a pro-Russian stance. Pro-government experts have suggested in the studios that Ukraine may have provoked the war. Similar “framing” of the war is found in other countries in the region. In Bulgaria, for example, where even the public BNT and BNR helpfully broadcast the “other point of view”, which overlaps with the theses of Russian propaganda.

In Serbia, however, there are still media outlets that still talk about Russian successes and use the propaganda term “specialized operation”.

President Vucic and Prime Minister Orban are enjoying a public image of defending the nation in the face of imminent threat. They are portrayed by the media as politicians who have faced a serious dilemma – both to criticize the war and to maintain good relations with Putin as vital to their countries. This proved to be the perfect recipe for defeating the already unconvincing opposition. She was told that she was ready to sacrifice the national interest in the name of integration with the West.

In Serbia, Vucic’s regime controls all national television stations, the entire boulevard press, and almost all local media. In its 2019 report, Freedom House warned that journalists in the country were intimidated, and politicians often called them “traitors” or “foreign-paid enemies of the people.” Even when the other few serious Serbian media outlets uncover corruption and expose government lies, it is silenced by government heralds.

There was a similar media-political symbiosis in Bulgaria under the Borissov regime. It is already past, but the “conquered” media turned out to have deeper roots. Some of them are changing course, but others continue to sabotage the change, quite successfully.

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