Reported by Daniel Popica
(...)In our group we gathered Wincott fellows and alumni of the Reuters programme as well as other experts on the transition of media in Eastern Europe. The event was organised by the Wincott Foundation, the Reuters Foundation Programme at Oxford University as well as the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue. We addressed the question of what lessons can be learned from the transition of media in Eastern Europe. The offshoot workshop was introduced by two keynote speeches from John Lloyd, former Eastern Europe editor of the FT and now Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Wolfgang Wähner-Schmidt, editor of Reuters Central Europe.
In the subsequent sessions, we heard six reports from Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Russia and Ukraine with regard to the question if media has been a motor or a mirror of transition in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. These case studies pointed out different aspects of the transition of both the country as a whole and the national media. Consequently, the participants received an inside view of the current situation in other countries and were able to discuss common experiences and differences on a comparative basis.
I like to point out some of the main issues we discussed. First, journalists’ responsibilities have been emphasised for countries, where media first has to assume its new role in a democratic society. One of the main challenges, as John Lloyd said, is the burden of the past, of the last fifty years. It is a burden, which sometimes is forgotten. In the case of Romania for example, the revealing of former secret police files affected the editorial boards directly, because for some of their colleagues the legacy of collaboration was revealed fifteen years later. In the case of Estonia as well as the Czech Republic, a very rigid method has been used to get rid of the burden: after removing most of the editorial staff, the national media started from scratch. The courage to start with new, inexperienced people prevented protectionism and nepotism by the old guard and changed thoroughly the way of doing journalism. Apparently, these two countries are among the best places to be a journalist among the other former communist countries.
Second, if media has a fundamental role in a democratic society, journalists have to foster media’s mandate for democracy. But years after the liberation from Communist control, they have to face new challenges. Journalists have to move from the freedom movement to investigative journalist. The quality rather than the right intention are crucial nowadays. The responsibility to deal correctly with sources for instance, takes a more prominent place in day to day journalism, when various sources try to manipulate journalists through public relation means.
Thirdly and having said that, foreign ownership from Western media companies emerged as being very important when analysing the media in Eastern Europe. One of the most distinctive changes, as the Ukrainian case study pointed out, is that hidden advertisements in magazines have been banned from newspapers. Also in other countries, foreign companies have often pushed for higher journalistic standards, while involvement in the editorial board has been remarkably low or non-existent. Another feature, which also draws a rather positive picture of foreign involvement, is the fact that journalists have often been sent abroad for further journalistic training.
Driven by prospective gains from the expanding media market, the penetration of foreign capital is still growing. Media companies from Germany and Sweden for example seek to get their stake in the emerging economies from Ukraine to the Balkans to the Baltic states. In Russia, the growth rate has been over twenty percent in radio, in TV, and in printed media. It is a market of three billion Euros for advertising. However, a common feature for Russian, Rumanian and Ukrainian journalists, is that they have to deal with an oligarch ownership structure with an entanglement between business, politics and media.
To conclude, we explored the possibility of creating a network among Wincott and Reuters fellows, in order to monitor further transitions especially in countries of South-Eastern Europe. The aim is to draw lessons from the success stories of Central and Eastern Europe and to convey them to our colleagues in the Balkans as well as the former Communist countries around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Several forms of cooperation will be explored in the aftermath, such as a web-based network, a publication, practical collaboration and maybe internship programmes.