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Media Predators

Those willing and able to emulate the most despicable enemies of a free press are a dime a dozen.

by Peter Gross 30 January 2018

Judging by the “Predators Gallery” of political leaders, terrorists, and criminal organizations from 33 countries assembled by Reporters Without Borders, journalists from the world’s other 174 nation states might start feeling safe from this lineup of despicable characters. But just as the world’s 7.5 billion people cannot rest easy because there are only 139 criminals on Interpol’s most-wanted list, those living in ostensibly free media environments should remain vigilant. It can happen to you, too.  

 

Similarly, that just three of the 26 national leaders in this gallery are Eastern European should not be reassuring for the nations lucky enough to be out of their direct control. Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have understudies and apprentices in a region that has spawned its own sizable share of autocrats ready to gobble up free media if and when that serves their personal and political goals.

 

Indeed, a fairly long list exists of those whose efforts to curb journalistic freedoms might not (yet) have reached the level of “success” of the megastars mentioned above, but remain deserving candidates for the junior team. Among them:

 

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban is more than worthy of having his picture – a large-format one –displayed in the arcade of the gallery. He turned public television into a mouthpiece of Fidesz in 2015, managed to eliminate the independent newspaper Nepszabadsag in 2016, and, as Reuters writes, by 2017 had “increased media control by legal changes, regulatory steps, and takeovers of outlets by business sector associates.”

 

Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister, is, for now, only an admirer from a distance of Orban’s approach to the media, so a small picture of him in the gallery will do. The man who so kindly characterized some Slovak journalists as “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” now seeks “inspiration in Orban” as Beata Bologova, editor in chief of the daily SME, wrote last year for the International Press Institute in her account of attempts to defang the Slovak public broadcaster. The speaker of the Slovak parliament, Andrej Danko, is one of Fico’s main accomplices in this endeavor, and should receive at least an honorary mention.

 

Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), which won the Polish presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, should both be prominently displayed. They managed to reduce the status of Poland’s media from free to partly free by 2016, according to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press Report; have sought to force out foreign media owners; and continue to push for more controls and restrictions. The PiS “has complained [that] private media paint a biased picture of the domestic political conflict and support the opposition,” writes Bloomberg.  The party recently followed up on that complaint by having the Polish National Broadcasting Council fine the prime private television channel, TVN24, $420,000 ($337,000) for “promoting illegal activities and encouraging behavior that threatens security.” That charge related to allegations that the station, owned by the (American) Scripps Networks Interactive, had aired inappropriate coverage of anti-government demonstrations in December 2016.

 

Aleksandar Vucic, former prime minister of Serbia from 2014 to 2017, and currently the country’s president, is a former information minister for Slobodan Milosevic, which should tell you something. The latter was the ex-Yugoslav president who died in prison in 2006 during his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party have dominated the Serbian media since their parliamentary victory in 2014.

 

It would take too much space to also talk about the leaders and political parties from the rest of the Balkans who also merit induction in this hall of shame. They share the philosophy of the more prominent and highly infamous killers of free media, and make the same nationalistic and imperious arguments to control the press, eliminate those who stand in their way, and silence the voices of independent journalists.

 

Glance at the statements made at one time or another by all of the aforementioned “mediavors” or by their surrogates, and you will invariably notice that they are versions of what that little megalomaniac with a funny mustache once said about free media: “It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation [a quote from Mein Kampf, with emphasis added].” Enough said.

 

The world’s mediavors may have been “emboldened” by “receding media freedom in established European democracies and in the United States,” as Nina Ognianova writes for the Committee to Protect Journalists, but that is not the core issue.

 

After all, they would follow an authoritarian path regardless of any goading and, therefore, let’s not get distracted from the fight against these media predators by such arguments. Continuously and prominently pointing a gigantic accusatory finger at the brightly illuminated mug shots of all the perps is an important component in the battle against them. 

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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