Populist leaders in Central Europe employ Putin strategy to control media

According to speakers at a conference hosted by the Aspen Central Europe platform, authoritarian populists in Central Europe have learned from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin how to use state broadcasters as propaganda mouthpieces. Their aim is reported to be disseminating false information, and using supportive private or state-owned businesses to create servile media conglomerates, IntelliNews wrote in an analysis.

State broadcasters in Hungary are seen to be government mouthpieces

State broadcasters in Hungary are already seen to be government mouthpieces, and recently, pressure has also been placed on their counterparts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Public broadcasters are far more state-directed in Central and Eastern Europe than they are in Western Europe. According to a report released by the Center for Media, Data, and Society, only the Czech Republic and Lithuania have entirely independent public service media.

“Public broadcasters are the canary in the goldmine,” said Jamie Fly, CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the US Congress. “You can practically foresee what will happen next if you see public broadcasters getting co-opted.”

  “We are moving right up to what Putin did in Russia,” said the speaker.

Andrej Babis targeted the public service media – Dvorak

According to Petr Dvorak, general manager of Czech Television (CT), former prime minister Andrej Babis targeted the public service media which he saw as a competitor.

The populist billionaire, who runs his media and radio empire, often attacked the state-owned network while he was prime minister and declined to speak to its reporters or appear on its programs.

The main source of funding for CT was the license fee, which was attempted to be reduced or even abolished by representatives from his ANO party and other extreme opposition parties. They also made “lying audits” of the broadcaster public in the Czech parliament and frequently verbally attacked its journalists.

Extreme parties attempted to destabilize public Czech Television

ANO and the extreme parties “filled the media councils [boards]” with nominees “tasked with destabilizing Czech Television,” including by initiating slanderous attacks on Dvorak himself, after the laws restricting CT failed to pass in the parliament.

International journalist organizations issued warnings in response to the attacks.

A reform to provide the more independent upper house a say in choosing the boards of public broadcasters has been proposed by the new center-right government, which should stop political parties from terrorizing the public media.

Martin Reznicek, the deputy editor-in-chief, drew attention to the purposeful underfunding of the highly regarded public broadcaster by Czech politicians, a practice that is widespread in the country. He claimed that CEE broadcasters were still in a struggle for survival.

Disinformation spreaders

Promoting disinformation sources, which have become a common source of news for many people in Central Europe, is a second strategy employed by populist political leaders. Viktor Orban, the authoritarian leader of Hungary, has access to state-controlled or supportive media outlets as well as state-funded advertising efforts, while opposition figures like Slovakia’s Robert Fico frequently disseminate false material on social media.

Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, frequently makes appearances on alternative television networks like the partially Chinese-owned TV Barrandov and gives interviews to the news website Parlamentni Listy, which has previously served as a major disinformation source.

Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, frequently makes appearances on alternative television networks like the partially Chinese-owned TV Barrandov and gives interviews to the news website Parlamentni Listy, which has previously served as a major disinformation source.

Zeman’s program included an important component of “strengthening more peripheral misinformation media,” according to Dvorak.

Babis frequently criticizes the media for lying, and in September he even ran full-page ads urging voters to disregard it and instead follow his social media program.

Disinformation websites undermine confidence in independent media.

Disinformation websites’ propagation of false information fuels misinformation and undermines confidence in independent media.

Natalia Antelava, the co-founder of Coda Story, a New York-based online crisis-reporting news outlet, claimed that “noise has replaced censorship.” “Journalists are finding it harder and harder to get through the noise. We are in serious problems if we can’t get through this noise.

constructing phony independent media,” she said.

Right-wing populists purchase private media network

Right-wing populists like Orban and more moderate populists like Babis employ the third key strategy, which is to create their own ally-friendly private media conglomerates to propagate their message and create the appearance of media diversity and independence.

Babis purchased his network in a Czech media market that is now controlled by homegrown businessmen. Some of these oligarchs used their media to curry favor with Babis and increase his reach.

According to Dvorak, “Czech businessmen quickly learned that owning media was interesting from an influence standpoint but not very appealing from an economic point of view.

According to Dvorak, “Czech businessmen quickly learned that owning media was interesting from an influence standpoint but not very appealing from an economic point of view.

“Compared to nations like Hungary, media capture in the Czech Republic is fundamentally different. The IPI research emphasized that instead of a state-led media takeover, the Czech Republic saw the acquisition of many of the main commercial media outlets by a small group of oligarchs who could utilize media to advance their larger corporate interests.”

Oligarchs buy main commercial media outlets 

The IPI research emphasized that instead of a state-led media takeover, the Czech Republic saw the acquisition of many of the main commercial media outlets by a small group of oligarchs who could utilize media to advance their larger corporate interests.”

Hungary has gone even further along this path under Orban, with more than 500 media outlets joining up to form a foundation to coordinate their output and independent media being denied access to information. Hungary’s position for press freedom has dropped from 10th in 2006 to 85th.

The biggest issue, according to Marton Karpati, CEO and founder of Telex.hu, a news website started by journalists from Index.hu after it was acquired by an oligarch close to the government, is access to information. “We have not received any press conference invites, government politician responses, or government politician interviews.”

In Hungary, it’s difficult to spread non-government news – Karpati

It might be difficult to get independent news to the general public. Locals in Budapest will look for independent news online, while voters in rural areas frequently rely more heavily on state-run or oligarch-dominated media. Outside of Budapest, it is very difficult to spread non-government news, according to Karpati.

All government advertising is also limited to positive media. “The state is the biggest advertiser, and this money doesn’t go to independent sites, which significantly affects the market,” he claimed.

Additionally, “[private corporations] are scared that if they advertise in the media like us, the government will not give them money.”

It is extremely difficult to develop a successful business model under such restrictive conditions, but it is also challenging in countries with more open political structures and economies, like Slovakia and the Czech Republic. For the majority of media, finding funding is a never-ending battle that is getting more difficult.

Scroll to Top