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Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Qualities of Democracy, Qualities of Media

Final Report Summary - MDCEE (Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Qualities of Democracy, Qualities of Media)

The Research project on the Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe operated between October 2009 and September 2013. The project was financed by the European Research Council and was located at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science. The project employed several post-doctoral researchers and hosted numerous visiting research fellows.

Four special issues of academic journals resulted from the project and an edited book containing chapters written by key collaborators is forthcoming. Cooperation with other similar projects in Europe and beyond has been established and led to joint meetings and publications.

The final academic reports produced summarise the empirical findings assembled by the Senior Research Fellows employed by the project. They focus on the project’s main analytical pillars:

1) Media Ownership and Commercial Pressures (Václav Štětka)
2) Media Regulation and Political Pressures (Péter Bajomi-Lázár)
3) Journalistic Autonomy and Professionalisation (Henrik Örnebring)
4) Media and Political Culture (Ainius Lašas)
5) Media Impact on Political Orientations (Michał Wenzel)

Originally we only envisaged three key research streams, or pillars, but the mid-term evaluation led to the creation of two additional pillars (led by Dr Lašas and Dr Wenzel)

The overall aim of the project was to examine the often troublesome and poorly understood relationship between democracy and the media in Central and Eastern Europe. Existing studies tend to focus on whether the media are good or bad for democracy. Western media models assume that democratic institutions pre-date the rise of media and that core qualities of democratic governance exist (including the rule of law, political pluralism, freedom of speech and information). But such assumptions do not necessarily apply in Central and Eastern Europe, where democratic institutions and media institutions emerged simultaneously, and interdependently, in a period of rapid and often chaotic reform.

The MDCEE project adopted a novel and interdisciplinary approach to the key research question. It reversed the common framing of the media-democracy relationship. Instead of asking ‘how media performance of certain normative functions (such as information provision and holding power elites to account) influences democracy’, we asked: What kind of democracy is needed for media to perform its agreed-upon normative functions?

The final reports confirm some of the findings emerging from interim-term reports. Although Central and Eastern Europe should not be seen as a homogenous region, some important similarities are striking. For instance, politicisation of the state is one such distinctive, common feature across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. ‘Business parallelism’ represents another common feature across the region, with some media owners actively engaged in politics and in business at the same time. Media ownership in regions is quite fuzzy and not sufficiently transparent. Journalists are often underfunded, poorly trained, divided and disoriented. All this makes it difficult for the media to act as independent and unbiased providers of information.

The final reports also confirm the project’s main hypothesis; namely deficiencies of democratic structures in Central and Eastern Europe make it difficult for the media to perform properly. Weak state, hegemonic and, at the same time, volatile parties and unconsolidated democratic procedures lead to media capture by political and corporate interests. Continuously changing normative apparatuses produce uncertainty in the field of professional journalism and prevent the establishment of clear professional norms and routines. Many of the normative innovations deriving from the EU accession period have already been abandoned or contradicted. Some governments of the new democracies studied use sophisticated new methods for controlling journalists and information flows, sometimes to the point where the demarcation line between so-called democratic and authoritarian regimes has become blurred. Traditional forms of coercion and corruptive practices are not abandoned either, making it difficult for the media to control their politicians and civil servants. It is not by chance that foreign investors have progressively abandoned the media field in CEE countries: they have seen their investments generating less and less profits while pressures from politicians and governments have become more intrusive.

That said, the media are not just innocent victims of political and economic manipulation. Rather than acting as an independent watchdog and provider of non-biased information, they have often sided with their business or political patrons, indulging in propaganda, misinformation, or even smear campaigns. Manifestations of journalists’ intense or even “intimate” relationships with politicians and media owners abound. Indeed, in the observed countries it emerged very clearly that informality prevails over formal normative and procedural frameworks, and that informal networks maintain and even increase their importance.

The reports also show that both the media and democracy work in a certain socio-political environment that determines their functioning. Powerful transnational economic pressures have shaken several countries of the region two or three times since the fall of communism. Long-term cultural patterns also impacted on the shape of the media and democracy. The lack of respect for law, institutionalised evasion of rules, and distrust of authorities are prevalent in most of the states under consideration, and the reports revealed their detrimental effects on the functioning of the media and democracy.

Data emerging from this project will be further analysed in the coming year, but these reports will hopefully help in drawing some important practical and theoretical observations for the understanding of the relationship between the media and democracy in countries undergoing profound political and economic change. The project’s interactions with experts on new or emerging democracies in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East point to common experiences and trends.