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The "Under pressure, together" Press Freedom Edition

The "Under pressure, together" Press Freedom Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #4 • View online
Hi and welcome to the fourth issue of the Weekly Focus!
How’s your attention span doing? Time to take a break and read this week’s magazine with voices from Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, Greece, Hungary and Russia.

Have you already gotten used to hearing about killings of journalists inside the EU? About reporters and editors getting fired or even imprisoned due to political pressure in the middle of Europe? To the news of governments buying their way into leading media outlets with the help of shady business people?
It’s become almost a cliché to point out that press freedom is under immense pressure. For a number of years, rankings of Reporters without Borders and others have shown a constant decline in media freedom scores, not only, but especially in Europe’s east. 
Reporting the details of these stories and informing fellow Europeans about the sometimes cleverly covert, sometimes openly brutal forms of repression, intimidation and oppression, is truly important not only on World Press Freedom Day. 
But in this week’s Weekly Focus, we wanted to scratch beyond the often quite technical surface of the topic and focus on our greatest strength instead: our European community of journalists. 
Hear from them firsthand how it feels when freedom is shrinking in front of your eyes and how they and their colleagues are coping with unprecedented changes. We bring you examples of resilience, of journalists who continue working despite pressure and intimidation, and of new, encouraging projects born out of solidarity and a sense of calling.
Konrad Simon & Christian-Zsolt Varga, this week’s coordinating editors
This week's author team: Lukáš Diko, Jan Niebudek, Nasta Reznikava, Tassos Morfis, Gyöngyi Roznár, Konrad Simon
This week's author team: Lukáš Diko, Jan Niebudek, Nasta Reznikava, Tassos Morfis, Gyöngyi Roznár, Konrad Simon
🇸🇰 Opinion: Silence kills
Protest in Bratislava after the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová on March 9, 2018. Photo: wikipedia.org
Protest in Bratislava after the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová on March 9, 2018. Photo: wikipedia.org
It’s been over three years since the murders of young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová sparked shock and anger in Slovakia and beyond. No one expected that a journalist could be murdered for his work in the heart of Europe.
But also no one, especially not the alleged masterminds and murderers, foresaw the public outrage and the solidary response of Ján’s colleagues.
Much has changed in Slovakia since the murder of Ján and Martina. The biggest protests since 1989 brought down the powerful prime minister Robert Fico and triggered the creation of a special law enforcement team hunting the killers. The pressure of the streets pushed the police to become more courageous in investigating political crimes. And it put the fight against anti-corruption on top of the agenda in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Now, those who had long held power lost it. The path leading to rigorous investigations and prosecutions that Slovakian journalists had been working towards for many years finally opened up, shaking those who had once thought themselves untouchable to their very core.
Another remarkable change was in fact a great dream of Ján’s: investigative journalists from competing media outlets have been joining forces, working alongside one another under the umbrella of an investigative center that bears Ján’s name.
Cooperation keeps us safe. Publishing explosive stories on powerful oligarchs collaboratively in all media at once makes us journalists a dispersed target. Besides, more hands and minds working together speeds up our work and allows us to expose more complicated criminal structures. And finally, covering each other’s backs also helps us to overcome our dark thoughts about the dangers of our profession.
Silence kills. Journalists are not superhumans, and we were deeply shaken by the murders. But the public support at home and the solidarity from abroad helped us to avoid paralysis in the face of fear. It helps us all, journalists and ordinary citizens alike, when people speak up to defend press freedom and advocate for the protection of journalists.
Especially at a time when trust in media is declining and irresponsible political actors keep attacking us, we need the support of society to be heard loud and clear.
Let us not forget Ján and Martina’s sad story: in the beginning, there were verbal attacks, and in the end, two young lives were lost and their families harmed beyond repair.
Lukáš Diko is the chairman and editor-in-chief of the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak in Bratislava. He is a journalist and media manager with more than 20 years of experience, and the former director of news at Slovakian public radio and the TV channel RTVS.
Lukáš Diko is the chairman and editor-in-chief of the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak in Bratislava. He is a journalist and media manager with more than 20 years of experience, and the former director of news at Slovakian public radio and the TV channel RTVS.
🇵🇱 Viral: How one protest song reshaped Polish radio
Photo: fb.com/SekcjaGimnastyczna
Photo: fb.com/SekcjaGimnastyczna
“Sir, do you know what happened to the Trójka chart with Kazik’s song about Jarosław Kaczyński?” asks FBI Agent Dana Scully. The X-files inspired meme says it all: In the spring of 2020, Poland’s legendary pop music chart on Radio Trójka, the alternative music and culture channel of Polskie Radio, was cancelled overnight by the management of the public broadcaster. 
The reason? Trójka’s listeners had voted a protest song by the singer-songwriter Kazik to the top of the charts. The lyrics criticized that the governing PiS party’s leader Kaczyński was allowed to visit his mother’s grave at a time when cemeteries were closed to the ordinary public due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Trójka had been gradually put under political control since PiS took over in 2015 – and many of the channel’s famous moderators already left before the censorship of the chart show. Now that the hands of power were even pushing the stop button on the DJ’s playlist, one of the last remaining star hosts decided to quit as well – and to join his former colleagues’ crowdfunding campaign for a new independent station: Radio Nowy Świat (New World Radio).
Boosted by the momentum of the ridiculous censorship scandal their campaign immediately became a success and quickly raised three times the amount expected. Today, the radio has 31,000 donors and receives almost 700,000 zlotys (more than 150,000 EUR) in monthly donations.
I also left Trójka (after a decade there) in April and joined Nowy Świat shortly after. From the first day I have enjoyed a sense of freedom. Now we can cover festivals, books, music, and social initiatives that we could have never featured on public radio (many of those discussing women’s rights, LGBTQ+, Polish-Jewish relations, among others).
Even though our radio is still in its early stages and, unlike the public broadcaster, does not offer full-time contracts, our sense of relief is tremendous. 
What’s more, Nowy Świat also paved the way for “357 Radio”, made up of even more ex-journalists from Polskie Radio. As for Kazik’s song, listeners can now sing along on both Nowy Świat and 357.
Jan Niebudek hosts Nowy Świat's daily show “W środku dnia” (“In the middle of the day”).
Jan Niebudek hosts Nowy Świat's daily show “W środku dnia” (“In the middle of the day”).
🇧🇾 Essay: Detained. Arrested. Sentenced.
Letters from my jailed colleagues. It’s always a lottery which letters the prison administration will allow us to receive. “From time to time I think there is nothing behind these walls, as if there is emptiness, like in space”, Dasha writes in her latest letter. Photo: Nasta Reznikava
Letters from my jailed colleagues. It’s always a lottery which letters the prison administration will allow us to receive. “From time to time I think there is nothing behind these walls, as if there is emptiness, like in space”, Dasha writes in her latest letter. Photo: Nasta Reznikava
Toothbrush, soap, a sweater, two pairs of socks: These are the must-have things I carry in my bag every time I leave the house for work. This ‘prison package’ is common practice among many Belarusian journalists who work in the field.
Over the past couple of months journalists have been detained because they interviewed released political prisoners, filmed relatives of killed protesters, or simply asked questions to ordinary people on the street. This isn’t Orwell’s 1984 – a book quoted here pretty often now — but Lukashenko’s Belarus in 2021. 
Eleven journalists are currently in jail facing criminal charges. Why are they detained? Five of them tried to launch a new independent TV station; one journalist discovered in an investigation that after Maidan many Ukrainian policemen fled to Belarus and joined law enforcement here; and my colleagues Katsiaryna Andreeva (27) and Daria Chulcova (24) from Belsat TV live-streamed the protests in Minsk.
For a two-hour video, Katia and Dasha were sentenced to two years in prison. Today marks 171 days they’ve been behind bars. Lukashenko’s henchmen not only took two colleagues from us physically, but have isolated them almost completely from us and their families. Weeks and even months went by when no one received a single letter from the girls. I check my letterbox twice a day and each envelope I find there is like breaking news: sometimes it brings joy, sometimes sadness, but it always brings tears.
Katia’s husband Ihar, also a journalist who himself spent 15 days in prison just after his wife was arrested, leaves his house every day with more than just the standard ‘prison package’. He always carries printed photos of himself and his wife, in case he is arrested and his smartphone confiscated. In the past six months Ihar was allowed to see Katia only twice. Although he is sad and tired, he’s never considered leaving the country or stopping his work. 
“There is a war against journalists in Belarus,” Ihar said right after his wife’s sentence was announced. “And to change that we need to work better and even harder. We need to keep reporting and telling the truth — that is what they are afraid of.” 
Nasta Reznikava is a Minsk-based journalist, reporting mainly for the Polish-Belarusian TV channel Belsat. The only phone number she knows by heart is her lawyer’s.
Nasta Reznikava is a Minsk-based journalist, reporting mainly for the Polish-Belarusian TV channel Belsat. The only phone number she knows by heart is her lawyer’s.
🇬🇷 Number of the Week: 22 Hours 39 Minutes
It took Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis almost a day to comment on the cold-blooded murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz on April 9. Mitsotakis tweeted about the horrendous act only after an outcry about the killing sparked a debate about crime, corruption, and the state of press freedom in Greece on social media.
Usually very active and quick on social media, the Greek PM’s delayed tweet assured us that he was horrified by the killing and gave “order to request a fast investigation of the case”. 26 days later, the perpetrators still haven’t been found.
The symbolism of the PM’s slow response is even more telling if we put it into perspective: a few weeks before, he addressed the nation only an hour after a policeman was beaten during a demonstration in Athens. Within 48 hours the authorities arrested one of the alleged attackers, who is still in prison despite questionable evidence. 
Mitsotakis is not the only high-ranking politician who remained idle in the wake of the murder. Greece’s president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, managed to tweet about Greek-born Prince Philip’s death and also the passing of a prominent Greek shipowner one day after Karaivaz’ assassination, but as of today it appears she hasn’t found the time to say or write a few words about the murder of a well-known journalist in the state over which she presides.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, on the other hand, responded promptly with a tweet in Greek saying that murdering a journalist is a “heinous, cowardly act” and sent her condolences to Karaivaz’s family. Similar reactions came from other prominent officials in Brussels. 
Greece is on a slippery slope in terms of press freedom. The prime minister’s family has great influence over much of mainstream media, which systematically denigrates the independent press, calling them “opposition propaganda” and “fake news”.
In light of the above, is it still shocking that the majority of Greek newspapers didn’t mention the murder of Karaivaz, who investigated corruption within the Greek police, in the main titles, on their front pages, or at all…?
Tassos Morfis is the editor & co-founder of AthensLive.gr a non-profit newsroom in Greece.
Tassos Morfis is the editor & co-founder of AthensLive.gr a non-profit newsroom in Greece.
🇭🇺 The slow rebirth of the free regional press
Map of Hungary with the locations of Szabadhirek partners. Source: szabadhirek.hu
Map of Hungary with the locations of Szabadhirek partners. Source: szabadhirek.hu
During communism, Hungarian people living in the countryside read daily regional newspapers, run — and accordingly, censored — by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. After the fall of the regime, privatisation and with it a relative sense of freedom and plurality arrived. But the good days didn’t last very long.
Today, another dominant political force has brought the entire regional press landscape into line again. With the help of friendly businessmen, the Fidesz party bought newspapers and online portals, basically using taxpayers’ money to finance their operation and concentrating all of them in the governmental controlled “KESMA” foundation in 2018.
Nyugat.hu, our small and independent online newsroom based in the western town of Szombathely, was literally the last survivor. Over the past years we watched in disbelief how long-time employees of other local and regional outlets were fired or quit in anticipation of the massive censorship to come under the KESMA behemoth.
A journalist previously with the regional newspaper Vas Népe said it best: “The former regional party daily papers have become party dailies again, the journalists now are propagandists”.  
Living in Szombathely, I know well the pressures on independent Hungarian journalists working in the countryside. The financial conditions of many have worsened, professional careers have been destroyed and some even face threats that their relatives will lose their jobs.
Even as the largest remaining news portal outside of Budapest, Nyugat.hu finds itself in constant struggle to secure funds and to uncover information hidden by the local government. It’s also hard to encourage our intimidated fellow citizens to talk freely again.
A new glimmer of hope: after the takeover of the regional dailies, some out-of-work journalists threw themselves into opening pop-up local news websites as an alternative to the party propaganda, demonstrating impressive commitment and backbone.
Together, we provide independent news coverage in the Hungarian regions and cities like Szombathely, Szeged, Pécs or Komló. Last month, some of us created a central portal, szabadhirek.hu (“freenews.hu”), where we collect and publish all the credible news of the regions to give readers outside Budapest the local journalism they deserve again.
Gyöngyi Roznár is the editor-in-chief of Nyugat.hu, the largest news portal outside Budapest. Her mission: to ensure that independent Hungarian media isn’t concentrated only in the capital.
Gyöngyi Roznár is the editor-in-chief of Nyugat.hu, the largest news portal outside Budapest. Her mission: to ensure that independent Hungarian media isn’t concentrated only in the capital.
🇷🇺 1 question to...Dmitry Kartsev
 Dmitry Kartsev is “analysis” director at Meduza.io, the most widely-read independent online publication in Russia. It was founded in 2014 by Galina Timshenko, after she was fired from her former newspaper for political reasons. She set up Meduza in Riga, Latvia to avoid press censorship in Russia. Photo: private.
Dmitry Kartsev is “analysis” director at Meduza.io, the most widely-read independent online publication in Russia. It was founded in 2014 by Galina Timshenko, after she was fired from her former newspaper for political reasons. She set up Meduza in Riga, Latvia to avoid press censorship in Russia. Photo: private.
Mr. Kartsev, on Friday, April 23, Meduza was declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. How will it affect your colleagues and the newsroom? 
Meduza is registered in Latvia, so you’d think the actions of the Russian authorities wouldn’t be of much concern to us. But that’s not the case: we work primarily for a Russian audience, and if we don’t comply with the Russian regulations we risk being blocked. This would mean the death of our publication, given that we live mostly on advertising money from companies in Russia.
Speaking of advertising money, we are already suffering from an outflow of it. Many advertisers have left us — we have become “toxic” to them. We are required to label each of our texts, including ads, with the indication that we are “foreign agents.” Additionally, we are obliged to open a legal entity in Russia and provide detailed reports to authorities on its activities.
The managers of Meduza are Russian citizens. If they fail to comply, they could be threatened with administrative and then criminal prosecution. Furthermore, virtually any staff member of ours can be declared a “foreign agent” in a personal capacity. Especially at risk, of course, are those who live in Russia. Finally, it will obviously be more difficult to work — for example, to receive comments from officials and communicate with sources. They have already started to shun us.
Our salaries have already been cut by 30-50%. We’ve opened up a program to receive donations from readers. We have collected a good amount, but it’s nowhere close to our annual budget. Unfortunately, some of our staff will leave; it’s understandable under such circumstances. But it will make our work even harder.
The government has de facto declared us its enemies. Putin’s press secretary said that “no one will notice the disappearance of one media outlet,” giving a transparent hint of what they’re trying to do. It’s very uncomfortable to feel like an enemy of your own state.
Konrad Simon is a media researcher and former journalist. His current focus lies on the sustainability of independent media in Eastern and Central Europe.
Konrad Simon is a media researcher and former journalist. His current focus lies on the sustainability of independent media in Eastern and Central Europe.
Author's pick: What we were reading
Long years in jail and terabytes of scandals: The definite end of Kočner’s era
Abseits der Norm | дekoder | DEKODER |
Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis under police protection after death contract reports
Time to stand up for independent journalism in Slovenia - europeanjournalists.org
Message for Hungary on World Press Freedom Day: No help is coming from the EU – Hungarian Spectrum
Two theories: Why did the Russian authorities designate Meduza as a ‘foreign agent’?
Editing: Lucy Papachristou
Editing: Lucy Papachristou
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