How Eastern Europe, Turkey Are Cracking Down on Free Media

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Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland's Law and Order Party, left, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

A rising tide of right-wing nationalist governments, from Russia to Istanbul, has moved to quiet, or silence, opposing voices. 

Growing anger at the political establishment, fueled by fears of Muslim immigrants and wild conspiracy theories bring a nationalist to power. That scenario may sound like the game plan for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, but it also describes the political landscape in parts of Europe, where Trump-style rhetoric, once taboo, has become increasingly common and views once consigned to the political fringe are suddenly mainstream.

Germany, France, Netherlands, Denmark and the U.K. have all seen the rise of anti-establishment right-wingers. But it's in Eastern Europe that this new nationalist populism has been most successful. More than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a series of ultra-conservative regimes, from Russia to Poland and Hungary to Turkey, have begun to put put their policies into action, resulting in what observers fear is a crackdown on media freedoms.

In Russia and Turkey, where conservative, nationalist leaders Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been in power for more than a decade, the crackdown is taking on increasingly dramatic forms. On March 4, Turkish police firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, stormed the headquarters of Zaman, one of Turkey's leading opposition newspapers, turning the paper's operation over to a panel of court-appointed trustees.

It was only the latest in a series of court-backed attacks on journalists and media outlets in Turkey who have criticized the Erdogan government. Last October saw a raid on Bugun, a commercial TV station, justified on the grounds of alleged financial irregularities, which the station's editor in chief Tarik Toros called "the biggest crackdown on press in Turkish history."

In Russia, independent media outlets, at least on television, have been nearly entirely wiped out. The last two small independent channels were forced off the air — Moscow's TV Dozhd's shut down in 2014 and TV2 in Tomsk, Siberia was switched off early last year — and news shows no longer dare questioning the Kremlin. Putin's recent surprise announcement that Russia would be withdrawing the main part of its military forces from Syria, for example, was universally praised in the Russian press as a victory.

Free speech on the Internet is also under pressure. A controversial law adopted in 2014 forces certain bloggers to register with a government media watchdog. Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontakte, Russia's answer to Facebook, fled the country after clashing with officials over allowing anti-government sites to be hosted by the platform. VK was acquired by Mail.ru, one of Russia's largest Internet groups, which is controlled by Putin ally Alisher Usmanov.

But while many have come to expect such actions from Istanbul and Moscow, recent moves by the conservative governments of Warsaw and Budapest have shocked Western observers and sparked sharp criticism from the European Union.

On March 11, the Council of Europe took the unprecedented step of warning Poland that moves by the new government “could undermine democracy” in the country. The council was addressing a new law in Poland that, critics say, would force the country's constitutional court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, to toe the government party line by requiring a two-thirds majority for most of its rulings. Poland's Law and Justice Party, which won parliamentary elections last October, has stacked the court with five new appointees to the 15-member body.

The Law and Justice Party has also come under fire for changes to state media law, which gives Warsaw the right to directly appoint executives to state-run media outlets. Several high-profile Polish journalists have been fired or have quit in protest since the law took effect in early January. Poles have also taken to the streets calling for the new law to be tossed out.

Polish culture ministry official Krzysztof Czabanski recently told Germany’s DW-TV channel he hopes to transform the state news services into outlets with a “national mission” focused on "Polish history and patriotism.”

That focus caused controversy earlier this month when Poland's 2015 Oscar-winning film Ida screened on local TV for the first time. Before showing the drama — which looks at the barbaric treatment by Poles of their Jewish neighbors while under Nazi occupation during World War II — Polish network TVP aired a discussion with historians and studio guests that questioned the film's historical accuracy.

According to Mike Downey, deputy chairman of the European Film Academy, the move was “an active attempt to distort the work of the writers and directors of the film. ... TVP's attempts to deceive their audience is reminiscent of totalitarian media in former times in Poland."

For its part, Poland's government has justified its media reforms by arguing that previous left-wing regimes exerted too much influence over public television, presenting a distorted, liberal view of events that didn't represent the opinion of the majority of the public.

But the moves by Poland's Law and Justice Party are remarkably similar to actions taken in Hungary after the election, in 2010, of the conservative Fidesz party, headed by prime minister Viktor Orban. Orban, a vocal admirer of Putin, is on record as saying he wants to "ditch" liberal democracy in favor of building an "illiberal state.”

One of his first political moves was to create a national media council, made up of members appointed directly by the ruling party, with powers to fine media outlets for offenses including failing to provide “balanced coverage,” or publishing news “offends public morality” or is "insulting to communities." Those found guilty face fines of up to nearly $1 million. The Hungarian government also imposed a new, punitive tax regime that targeted RTL Klub, the country's leading commercial broadcaster and a major critic of Orban's policies. Conveniently, RTL Klub is also controlled by Bertelsmann, a German company.

Hungary faced criticism from European and international press freedom advocates, but moved ahead with the reforms. Since 2011, the country has been rated only “partly free” by Freedom House’s widely-followed Freedom of the Press report.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's former prime minister and still head of the ruling Law and Justice Party, made no secret of his wish to copy the Hungarian model, noting that he would like to "bring Budapest to Warsaw."

Europe's migrant crisis, which reached new heights last year, has exacerbated the situation across the media landscape. The conservative governments, new and old, are fervently, often virulently, anti-immigration.

Kaczynski said refugees are bringing “parasites and protozoa” to infest Europe, while Orban has said Hungary will not take in any Muslim immigrants, saying Islam "has never been part of Europe." In Hungary last summer, state television was ordered to avoid screening footage of migrant and refugee children. Officials said that was to protect minors, but critics claim it was designed to limit public sympathy for refugees fleeing war in Syria and other countries.

A Hungarian camerawoman working for nationalist channel N1TV was forced to resign after she was filmed kicking and tripping refugee children as they streamed across Hungary's border with Serbia.

International criticism, however, has largely worked in favor of the conservative governments in Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest and Istanbul. In an echo of Donald Trump's attacks on the “lying disgusting” mainstream media, they have portrayed attacks as further evidence that the powers that be are run by an out of touch liberal elite. The recent success of anti-establishment, anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe suggests many voters appear to agree with them.

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