Hungary: Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station…

Hungary: Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station Tilos Rádió

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council – the country’s powerful media regulator – to block the frequency license renewal of the symbolic independent station Tilos Rádió.

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council – the country’s powerful media regulator – to block the frequency license renewal of the symbolic independent station Tilos Rádió.

Our organisations are concerned that this decision appears to be yet another disproportionate move by the Media Council, whose members were all nominated and appointed solely by the ruling party, which will force another independent voice off the country’s airwaves and further weaken media pluralism.

We note the Media Council’s decision on April 14 came shortly after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party secured an unprecedented fourth term in office, which has already led to heightened concerns about the future of what remains of independent media in the country.

Tilos (Forbidden) Rádió began broadcasting as a pirate radio station in Budapest in the 1990s and became the first non-profit independent radio station in Hungary, making it a symbol of press freedom. Since 2015, the community station has broadcasted on the 90.3 MHz frequency in Budapest, where it provides cultural, social and political programming sometimes critical of the government.

The Media Council justified its licensing decision on the grounds that the station’s media service provider, Tilos Cultural Foundation, had violated legal requirements regarding inappropriate language four times during a seven-year period since 2015. This meant that in 20,000 hours of broadcasting, inappropriate language was used four times. The regulator also cited two failures to provide data to the authority and two minor irregularities regarding annual reports.

Tilos has not denied the violations but stressed the heavy-handed nature of the decision. The station’s 90.3 MHz licence is now set to expire on 3 September 2022, at which point it will fall silent on the airwaves. The National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) has already said it will reopen the tender and seek to find a new provider for the frequency.

Our organisations believe the Media Council’s decision to block the renewal is disproportionate and based on oversized regulatory powers, which are often applied selectively and in a politically motivated manner. The violations identified do not, in our view, constitute reasonable grounds to strip a radio station of its license – and will only further weaken media pluralism in Hungary.

We also note that, while the radio stations differ, the ruling bears clear parallels by the discriminatory decision last year to force the country’s last remaining major independent radio broadcaster Klubrádió off the airwaves – a ruling which led the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings over what it said was a breach of EU law on proportionality, transparency and non-discrimination.

As detailed in a recent report by MFRR partner the International Press Institute (IPI), as a result of a lack of appropriate legal safeguards for upholding the Media Council’s independence, over the last decade the regulator has used the media law to arbitrarily deny broadcast licenses of stations critical of the government, instead then handing them to government-supportive owners, further entrenching a pro-government narrative in the country’s media ecosystem.

Moving forward, we urge the government to guarantee the independence of the NMHH and its executive body, the Media Council, which should immediately cease regulatory practices designed to marginalize independent media or force them from the market. The tendering process for radio and television licenses must also be depoliticized to ensure decisions are proportionate and measured, and the problematic dual-headed leadership structure of the regulator should be reformed.

As the European Commission launches the long overdue rule of law mechanism against Hungary to uphold EU values, it should closely scrutinise the work and rulings of the Media Council – which has been instrumental to the systematic erosion of media pluralism over the last decade. Our organisations will continue to monitor the situation and draw attention to all future problematic decisions, as well as the wider challenges for media freedom in Hungary.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
MFRR Italy Mission Library

Who is afraid of journalists? The MFRR Italy Mission…

Who is afraid of journalists? The MFRR Italy Mission Report

On 11 May, partners of the MFRR launched the report of its fact-finding mission to Italy during a live event with journalists and media freedom stakeholders.

From 4 to 6 April 2022, a delegation of the MFRR was in Italy for a fact-finding mission focused on two main topics: defamation and future legislative developments against SLAPPs on one side and the safety of journalists and State protection measures on the other. In 3 days there were 8 meetings in 2 regions (Rome and Campania), with 11 MFRR participants.

The fact-finding mission provided the MFRR with an opportunity to assess the legislative delays that are preventing Parliament from responding to the repeated calls of the Constitutional Court in reforming defamation laws, and to get to know the coordinated State monitoring and protection system implemented in Italy for intimidation acts against journalists, a good practice mentioned in a recent Recommendation of the European Commission.

This mission was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
The main building of the Czech Television (Ceska televize; CT), a public television broadcaster Library

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated…

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated against future attacks

Partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) have published a statement urging the Czech Government to come good on its promises to strengthen the independence of public broadcasters and to seize the opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its EU presidency programme.

Press freedom in the Czech Republic has undergone a welcome boost since the government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala came to power. The undersigned media freedom and journalists organisations today urge the new administration to use this momentum to push forward with amendments which will strengthen the institutional independence of Česká televize (Czech Television) and Český rozhlas (Czech Radio).

Under the previous government, Czech Television came under sustained pressure and saw politically-motivated attempts to unseat its director general. Since coming to power, the new administration has been developing draft amendments to the Act on Czech Television and Czech Radio with the aim of creating additional institutional safeguards. These plans have been developed with the welcome input of journalists’ groups and media associations, above all NFNZ, CZ IPI and Rekonstrukce statu.

While initial progress in developing the bill was swift, the process has since stalled as the Ministry of Culture navigates the complicated legal challenges of passing such a reform. The latest round of appointments to the broadcasters’ oversight bodies have also slowed progress. As the Czech Republic prepares to take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in July 2022, we urge the government to refocus its attention and double its efforts to pass these amendments in the coming months.

The draft amendments contain six important elements. This first involves changing the law so that both chambers of parliament, rather than just the Chamber of Deputies, are involved in appointments to the broadcasters’ governing bodies. Currently, a government can use its parliamentary majority to decide the composition of the boards, allowing it to place political allies within management structures. A more staggered system would reduce the ability of an election winner to overly politicise the bodies and will result in more pluralistic councils.

Secondly, the draft amendments include plans to establish, for the first time, clear criteria for those who can be appointed to the governing councils. This will help ensure professionalism and integrity are the principal factors in the selection process, rather than political affiliation. Under the previous government, appointments to the TV council were clearly aimed at politicising the oversight bodies and eroding the broadcaster’s independence. The changes would mean only those with relevant experience and knowledge would meet the threshold for appointment.

A third element would tighten the rules for who can nominate candidates. Currently, any social organisation or association can put forward nominees, even those linked with political parties or with little knowledge of the media ecosystem. This has led to the appointment of unsuitable and unprofessional candidates, some of whom have recently displayed an openly hostile approach towards the ČT management. Under the proposed amendment, only established institutions with 10 years of experience in the fields such as media, culture or human rights would be permitted to nominate candidates.

A fourth element involves greater judicial oversight over dismissals of councillors. Currently, there is no legal recourse to challenge the firing of councillors by parliament. Under the proposed changes, the Supreme Administrative Court would be given powers to review the decisions by parliament, reducing the avenues for pressure by government on councillors. Finally, the legislation includes provisions for sustainable funding for the public broadcaster, with automatic increases in the licence fee in line with inflation, creating a strong economic foundation for the future.

If passed, our organisations believe these reforms would represent a major step forward in insulating the broadcaster from political interference and future-proofing it against attempts to gain control over its oversight bodies. While the transition from the current council to a new body brings short-term challenges – and must be carried out in line with democratic principles and the Czech Constitution – in the long term this new design will create a far stronger buffer between political power and public service media, improve accountability, and further increase trust in public broadcasting. Failure to pass these reforms in full would leave gaps in the broadcaster’s defences which can be abused by future governments.

Constructing these safeguards is urgent considering the state of public service broadcasting in the wider region. Governments in Hungary and Poland have distorted public service media into state audio-visual propaganda organs, while in Slovenia there have been fresh concerns over political appointments to the management of Radiotelevizija Slovenija. Contrastingly, the Czech public broadcaster has long been a bastion of independent journalism in Eastern and Central Europe. Creating even stronger ramparts for the broadcaster’s independence would provide a much-needed model for neighbouring countries to follow in years to come.

Ahead of the EU presidency, the Czech Republic has an opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its programme. Passing this flagship legislation would provide a timely example in Europe of the resilience of media freedom. It would also add to the welcome list of improvements our organisations have observed since the new government took office, including the normalisation of communication with media, the re-admittance of independent journalists to government press conferences, guarantees to end the abuse of government advertising and rapid improvements for journalists’ access to public information. We look forward to seeing the further preparation of this law in the coming months and our organisations stand ready to support the development of this bill.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Public Media Alliance (PMA)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos

Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must…

Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must be investigated

The partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), together with Safe Journalists Network and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have written to Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection of Albania, calling for a swift and thorough investigation into a recent private data breach and intimidation of at least two journalists in Albania.



Sent electronically


Dear Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection,


The undersigned media freedom and journalists’ organisations are writing to express our serious concern over the recent private data breaches and intimidation of at least two journalists in Albania linked to their reporting on the high-profile vetting process of the now dismissed Head of Tirana Prosecution Office, Elizabeta Imeraj.


Our organisations urge your office to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into the breach of personal data – which was then used to frighten and pressure one of the journalists – and for those involved to answer questions about their role in what appears to be coordinated intimidation of the press.


In late March and early April 2022, Albanian journalist Isa Myzyraj of Ora News faced intimidation from multiple individuals who demanded he stop commenting and reporting on the appeals process for the vetting of Imeraj, which was being carried out as part of a judicial reform project in Albania aimed at rooting out corrupt judges and prosecutors.


The pressure started after Myzyraj posted on social media that some of the online media with non-transparent ownership that had been publishing smear pieces attacking members of the International Monitoring Operation (IMO) – a constitutionally mandated body made up foreign judges and prosecutors which was supervising the vetting process – had links to Imeraj.


One of Myzyraj’s family members was approached by an individual with a deal for the journalist to stop covering the prosecutor. This was followed by a threatening phone call by another individual who said there would be consequences for him and his family if he continued. As the vetting continued, Myzyraj was then sent a message by another individual which contained a screenshot of the certificate of his family from the Civil Registry – a document only available to registered notaries in Albania. The messages contained threats against the journalist and were clearly aimed at intimidating him.


In late April, Edmond Hoxhaj, a journalist at the BIRN Network Albania and who had also been covering the vetting process, discovered a similar suspicious breach of his personal data on the e-Albania portal. Hoxhaj could see that a notary named Agron Bajri, who is the former husband of Elizabeta Imeraj, had generated their family certificate on April 14, 2022, without their authorisation. Unlike Myzyraj, Hoxhaj did not receive threats about his reporting linked to the certificate.


In the case of Mr. Hoxhaj, there appears to be clear evidence that the notary, Mr. Bajri, accessed their data without the family’s permission. As Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection, we urge you to firmly establish the facts about this case. The MFRR partners will also write to Agron Bajri with a request to clarify his role in accessing the family certificates of both Mr. Myzyraj and Mr. Hoxhaj without their authorisation. We also welcome the investigation opened by the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office.


At the wider level, our organisations suspect these two cases are linked and are part of the same campaign of harassment against members of the IMO. Pressure and intimidation of journalists reporting on the vetting process of a prosecutor – a clear matter of public interest – are unacceptable and were clearly aimed at frustrating transparency and reporting the much-needed implementation of justice reform. These cases also point to a wider issue of threats to the safety of journalists who investigate the nexus between state authorities and corruption.


Effective investigations and definitive answers on these two cases are needed. Our organisations will continue to follow your investigation closely in the coming weeks and look forward to seeing thorough findings. We will also continue to closely monitor the wider challenges facing media freedom and threats to independent, watchdog journalism in Albania, which plummeted in 2022 to 103rd rank – the last in the Balkans – in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Safe Journalists Network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos

Estonia: Criminal fines for journalists over public interest reporting…

Estonia: Criminal fines for journalists over public interest reporting send dangerous signal

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners are concerned about the imposition of fines on two journalists and a news outlet in Estonia after they published information about pre-trial criminal proceedings without seeking permission or informing the prosecutor’s office.

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners are concerned about the imposition of fines on two journalists and a news outlet in Estonia after they published information about pre-trial criminal proceedings without seeking permission or informing the prosecutor’s office.


On 25 March 2022, journalists Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler published an article in the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress which named former management at Swedbank Estonia who had come under suspicion of money laundering activities between 2014 and 2016. On 14 April, following a complaint by the prosecutor’s office, the Harju County Court fined both journalists and the outlet’s publisher EUR 1,000 each for publishing the article without the permission of the prosecutor’s office. 


The decision is based on a section in the Code of Criminal Procedure that prohibits the publication of materials from the criminal case file without the permission of the prosecutor’s office. In its ruling, the Court stated there was no public interest in disclosing the information and that the only motive had been to satiate curiosity. The decision relies on the reasoning in a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that concerned the publication of paparazzo pictures of Caroline Princess of Hanover to restrict free speech and sanction the journalists and outlet. 


However, in this case at hand, the public interest is unquestionable: the article was related to the suspected fraud at a major financial institution that had possible implications for public funds. Moreover, Swedbank itself had announced to the Tallinn Stock Exchange that the prosecutor’s office suspected it of possible money laundering, one day before the publication of the impugned article in Eesti Ekspress. Several former bankers confirmed the suspicions and some even commented on the news themselves. Overall, the MFRR considers that the article was written in line with journalistic deontology and professional standards.


In the view of the MFRR partners, the implication of the ruling, i.e. that the prosecutor’s office’s permission must be sought before publishing articles or that they must be informed so they can choose which topics are of public interest and which are not, and the imposition of criminal fines, constitute an undue interference with the right to free speech and undermine press freedom.


The journalists and media outlet appealed the decision on 29 April. The MFRR partners will continue to follow the proceedings closely. We call on the Circuit Court to thoroughly revisit the County Court’s reasoning and reach a decision that respects the right to freedom of expression and to report news in the public interest.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.


MFRR to host press conference on journalist safety in…

MFRR to host press conference on journalist safety in the Netherlands

As part of an international fact-finding mission to map the declining safety of journalists in the Netherlands, Free Press Unlimited, the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, and the International Press Institute are organising an international press conference on April 13th 3:30-4:30 PM CEST.

The report is published as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response. A panel discussion will be held with, among others, crime reporter Paul Vugts and Thomas Bruning, Secretary General of the Dutch Association of Journalists. This will be a hybrid event with the chance to ask questions both in-person and online.

The Netherlands is internationally known for having one of the highest levels of press freedom worldwide (ranking 6th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index); PersVeilig often being cited as a best-practice example. However, there are growing concerns regarding an uptake in aggression against journalists. With an increase in attacks on journalists in the Netherlands, the decision by major Dutch Public Broadcaster NOS to remove their broadcaster logos from its vans in order to protect employees, and following the murder of Peter R. de Vries in broad daylight, the topic of press freedom in the Netherlands is receiving more and more international attention.

To investigate this further, Free Press Unlimited took the lead in an international fact-finding mission. As part of the mission, Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners together with the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, conducted several interviews with, among others, some of the country’s most renowned investigative journalists, editors-in-chief, the Police Department, key academic figures, and influential policy-makers. The findings of these interviews have been compiled and mapped out as part of an international research study on the safety of journalists in the Netherlands. Ultimately, the research study maps out key findings of the discussions that were held, providing expert recommendations in line with the Council of Europe and the European Commission’s Recommendations on the Safety of Journalists. If you wish to join, please register using the button below. Registration is required for both physical and online participation.

This press conference was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.


Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece

Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece

Today, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) publishes the report “Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece”, which details the findings and recommendations of its online fact-finding mission to Greece. The mission, involving interviews with more than thirty local stakeholders, was implemented by the MFRR together with Reporters Without Borders in December 2021. The partner organisations conclude that challenges to the independence of the media and the safety of journalists are systemic in the country. While the problems are not unique, their intensity is highly problematic and sets it apart from most other EU Member States.

The result of this crisis is that news that is inconvenient or unflattering for the government, which includes reporting on serious human rights violations, does not get reported in many outlets. This creates a significant obstacle for the public’s access to information and, subsequently, their informed participation in the democratic process.

Understanding the political polarisation and fragmentation of the media landscape requires taking the long view. The current situation has been shaped by more than a decade of severe financial and political crisis which has harmed the way journalism is understood. At the same time, there has been a deterioration of press freedom since Nea Dimokratia’s electoral victory in 2019, who are “obsessed with controlling the message” and minimising critical and dissenting voices, as we heard again and again during the fact-finding mission.

The murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz represents a low point for media freedom in Greece and drew international attention to the significant problems with journalists’ safety. The investigation progress appears slow and lacks basic transparency, which has had a chilling effect and leads to mistrust about the authorities’ ability or willingness to protect the journalistic community.

Migration policy, human rights violations committed in its implementation including pushbacks, and the humanitarian crisis that the refugee stream has created are highly sensitive topics for the government. Reporting on the issue is increasingly difficult, as journalists face obstructions including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance, and harassment.

Reporting on protest is another particularly problematic area of journalistic practice in Greece. Journalists face aggression and harassment from law enforcement and from protesters. Overall, there is a lack of political will to ensure that journalists can safely report from demonstrations, which translates to a lack of adequate protection at the operational level.

Legal threats are also a significant problem for media freedom in Greece, including criminal prosecutions as well as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Such threats can lead to self-censorship.

In light of these findings, the MFRR has issued a series of recommendations to the Greek authorities and to the European community, including the institutions of the European Union and the other EU Member States.

The fact-finding mission to Greece was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Delyan Peevski Bulgaria Library

Bulgaria: Magnitsky sanctions against mogul Delyan Peevski shift media…

Bulgaria: Magnitsky sanctions against mogul Delyan Peevski shift media landscape

By IPI contributor Rossen Bossev

In the past six months, Bulgaria, considered the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union, has undergone a serious change. After nearly 12 years of almost uninterrupted rule, prime minister Boyko Borissov left power. Following six months of political deadlock a four-party coalition appointed Kiril Petkov as Prime Minister. Parallel to the change of political power, however, there was another, no less significant change – in the media sector.

Last autumn Bulgaria was shaken by a wave of anti-corruption protests demanding the resignation of the center-right government of then Prime Minister Borissov and prosecutor general Ivan Geshev. Back then, the editorial policy of Telegraph and Monitor, two of the most popular daily newspapers in Bulgaria, suddenly changed. For years, the front pages of both publications, owned by then lawmaker and media oligarch Delyan Peevski, had run headlines targeting every independent voice against Peevski, Borissov and Geshev.

Judges, journalists, publishers, protesters, NGO activists, human rights defenders, EU diplomats, and opposition leaders were portrayed as members of a conspiratorial network undermining the country’s national interests. To illustrate this conspiracy, the two media outlets frequently resorted to the rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and the Kremlin, often packaging anyone who raised their voice against the status quo as “sorosoids”, enemies of the state or anti-Bulgarians.

But one year or so ago, those kinds of stories disappeared from both newspapers. Monitor and Telegraph continued to be supportive of Borissov’s government and the other powerful institution in Bulgaria – the state prosecution – but stopped attacking their opponents. In the following weeks, the archive of Monitor was suddenly purged of dozens of articles – either those praising Peevski or attacking his opponents.

This major shift in editorial policy was a clear indication that the Bulgarian media landscape was changing. In January 2021, United Group, the new owner of Nova TV, one of the three largest national TV channels, announced that it had agreed to buy Peevski’s newspapers – Telegraf, Monitor, Match Telegraf, Politika, Europost, Borba.

However, Peevski’s attempt to shrug off the image of a media mogul by simply selling the media he directly owned did not prove successful. On June 2, the US Department of Treasury announced sanctions against Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act, which imposes economic sanctions and entry bans for acts of significant corruption or gross violations of human rights. Those targeted by sanctions, and the companies they own, face extreme difficulties in using even the most ordinary banking services.

Suddenly, the country’s media baron, who owned the most popular daily newspapers and claimed to control a huge part of the remaining media landscape, had begun unloading media assets and withdrawing from the newspaper market.

The rise of a media oligarch

For years, Peevski has been the most prominent example of the constantly degrading media freedom in Bulgaria. At 41, Peevski is ironically called the “wunderkind” of Bulgarian politics. Since 2001, he has been an MP, an investigative-magistrate and deputy minister of emergency situations. In 2007, his mother, the former chief of the national lottery, bought the newspapers Telegraph, Monitor, and the weekly Politika. In 2013, his appointment as director of the State Security Service provoked mass protests and he was forced to resign the very next day.

Until 2016, while holding a public office for 15 years, Peevski’s asset disclosure declaration listed just a few real estate properties and an old car. In 2016, though, the same year his mother donated him the media business, and he officially declared that he owned companies, some of them registered in Dubai. As of that moment, Peevski started declaring millions of euros as income from these companies. However, it remains unclear what exactly the business of his companies was and where their income came from during those years.

The Pandora Papers investigation revealed that Peevski controlled offshore companies that he did not disclose in his declarations, raising suspicions that his biggest investments remain secret. However, media investigations have linked Peevski to the ownership of Bulgartabac, a cigarette manufacturer sold in 2017 to British American Tobacco, as well as to construction companies that had won public tenders commissioned by the state. He is also linked to the ownership of “Sofia Print Investment” – a private printing house where approximately 90% of daily newspapers are printed.

Peevski’s name was also associated with the ownership of “Kanal 3”, a marginal private television channel, whose editorial policy often repeated verbatim the articles in Telegraph and Monitor. When another oligarch close to Borissov, Kiril Domuschiev, bought Nova TV in 2019, several key Kanal 3 journalists and managers were hired by Nova. In 2020, Kanal 3, as well as two other small music channels and three radio stations, were sold by Nova just before the deal with United Group.

Coverage and influence buying

It is believed that Peevski’s influence in the media sector goes far beyond direct ownership. Most likely the main reason for this is that for years Peevski has built the image of a power broker with strong connections within the judiciary, law enforcement, state regulators, and the executive.

For years, the editorial policy of his newspapers was replicated by national TV channels, websites, and other print outlets. Mainstream media abstained from even mentioning his name, as did official institutions. When Magnitsky Act sanctions were announced on June 2 this year, the news quickly made front-page headlines. However, in the evening news broadcast of Bulgarian National Television, no information was given on why Peevski had been sanctioned.

According to journalistic investigations, the businesses controlled by Peevski are much more than those he officially owns. This would enable him to channel financial resources to the media in an opaque way. In 2016, for example, court records revealed that Bulgartabac’s advertising agency had paid hundreds of thousands of euros for advertising to a website close to Peevski, without it having published any ads at all.

The close relationship that Peevski developed with the government during Borissov’s rule also gave him a strong role in the executive branch. In July 2020, in an attempt to ease the tension around the looming protests, Borissov dismissed three ministers over accusations of being linked to Peevski.

Controlling the executive means more control of the media. EU funds and advertising contracts with the national government or local authorities are an important source of revenue for Bulgarian media which could also be used as leverage to control editorial policy. For the past four years, €5 million was distributed by the government to the media to promote programs, funded by the EU. Appointments to the media regulator, which selects the management of the public Bulgarian National Radio and Bulgarian National Television, is also a way to control these outlets’ editorial policies.

Similar to the influence in the media, the influence that Peevski has in the judiciary, the executive, and the security services is hidden and much greater than the role of an MP who almost never set foot in Parliament till this year. In 2019, a judge revealed publicly what the informal procedure was to be appointed as head of a court at the lowest level of the hierarchy: he had to personally meet in a restaurant in the capital and be approved by Peevski. The meeting was brokered by the president of the Supreme Administrative Court.

According to the press release of the Treasury Department, the sanctions were imposed because he “negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in return for receiving protection from criminal investigations.” Such quid pro quo, of course, would not have been possible if Peevski did not control certain publications (much broader than the newspapers he officially owned), the security services, and the prosecution.

After the announcement of the sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office announced it was launching a probe, reminding that Peevski had been investigated by the authorities many times before without finding any wrongdoings. The caretaker government adopted a list that expanded the circle of individuals linked to Peevski and the others sanctioned and effectively banned the state from having relations with them.

Media freedom continuing to deteriorate

There are two persistent but sadly true clichés about Bulgaria, namely that it is the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union. Bulgaria also has the worst media freedom in the European Union, according to the World Press Freedom Index.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see that these three rankings are directly related. The lack of media freedom allows abuse of power and corruption to thrive. A dysfunctional judiciary makes even the few independent publications an easy target for politicians with consistent disregard for press freedom.

Paradoxically, the sale of Peevski’s newspapers to the United group, the only direct effect of the sanctions on the media landscape in Bulgaria, came before they were even imposed: the newspapers ceased the smear campaigns against Peevski’s opponents. However, this will hardly be enough to eradicate the problems of the media environment in the country.

While the sanctions imposed on the media mogul by the US authorities exposed his use of media ownership to yield political influence, they have done little to fix the toxic media environment in Bulgaria. They will not make the government distribute EU funds in a fair and balanced way. They will not guarantee the security of regional and investigative journalists. Nor will they stop the police from beating up reporters.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Peter R. De Vries Library

Killing of Peter R. de Vries highlights press freedom…

Killing of Peter R. de Vries highlights press freedom challenges in Netherlands

By IPI Contributor Tan Tunali

The line in front of the Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam was almost a kilometer long, and the waiting time was over two hours for mourners who had come to pay tribute to renowned Dutch crime reporter Peter R de Vries. The 64-year-old journalist had been shot in the evening of July 6, only moments after leaving a TV studio where he had participated in a talk show. He died in hospital nine days later.

The details behind the murder are still unknown, but the office of public prosecution has suggested a link to de Vries’ role in the so-called Marengo trial, a criminal case against leading members of a criminal organization involved in drug trafficking. De Vries had been acting as advisor to Nabil B., a former member who is testifying against Ridouan Taghi, the principal suspect in the trial.

Following the deadly attack on De Vries and threats made against the TV program, the studio moved its broadcasting to a different location outside of Amsterdam. In recent years, organized crime has been linked to threats made against other media outlets and crime reporters in the Netherlands.

In June 2018, the Amsterdam offices of leading Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf was attacked when a van repeatedly rammed the paper’s entrance before been set on fire by the driver. In the same month, the editorial offices of weekly Panorama were attacked with an anti-tank weapon. Perpetrators were convicted to prison sentences, but the exact background of the attacks remains unclear.

The killing of de Vries comes at a time when the media in the Netherlands are under increasing pressure. For the moment, the country still ranks high on international freedom of expression lists. However, the Netherlands witnessed a clear drop on the World Press Freedom Index last year.

Last year, Dutch public broadcaster NOS decided to scrub its well-known logo from satellite busses and other equipment amidst a rise in attacks on the station’s journalists reporting from anti-government demonstrations, often related to protests against the Dutch government’s Covid-19 measures. The decision came as a shock to large parts of the Dutch public.

However, many of the county’s journalists were less surprised because they had experienced the increasingly hostile environment themselves. NOS editor-in-chief Marcel Gelauff warned in a statement after the decision to forego the station logo: “Journalism is under attack of people who only want to see their own world[view], trying to impede other perspectives, hence harming press freedom.”

Increasing attacks on journalists

The global Covid-19 pandemic has also put the issue of rising violence against journalists in stark relief. Hate speech and attacks on journalists are increasing. During nationwide riots following the government’s announcement of evening curfews, stones were thrown at photographers, and camera crews were violently attacked. At a Covid-19 testing facility in the town of Urk, a NOS reporter and his bodyguard were attacked with pepper spray.

The recent outburst of physical violence towards journalists is unprecedented, but attacks have already become the norm online. Clarice Gargard, a columnist for daily NRC and founder of the feminist platform Lilith Magazine, received thousands of hate messages during the live registration of an anti-Black Pete demonstration in 2018. Gargard reported the messages to the police which eventually led to the convictions of several of the people behind the threats, who were fined or were sentenced to several hours of community service.

Several politicians in the rightwing opposition have joined the fray and publicly lashed out against the media. Leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) Geert Wilders called journalists ‘riffraff’ (‘Tuig van de Richel”) in a Tweet. Thierry Baudet, leader of the far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) repeatedly attacked the media as well, for example by repeatedly calling broadcaster NOS ‘fake news’.

In reaction to the increasing difficulties Dutch journalists are facing, the local journalist’s union NVJ, the Institute of editors-in-chief, in cooperation with the public prosecutor and the Dutch police established a joint initiative called PersVeilig (“Safe Press”) in 2019. One of the main goals of the initiative is to train and advise journalists on how to react to threats and, if necessary, to prioritize court cases against perpetrators. In the first seven months of this year, PersVeilig received 176 cases resulting in 41 reports to the police, versus 121 over the entire last year.

While the Dutch government often stresses the importance of a free press, it has been accused of playing an active role in the stifling the work of the media by preventing access to crucial state documents, something public authorities are legally bound to facilitate under the freedom of information act (Dutch: Wet Openbaarheid Bestuur, WOB). Often documents which are released arrive late and are incomplete. Sometimes they are not released at all.

Earlier this year, the government was forced to resign over a childcare subsidies scandal, in which the government withheld crucial information to press and parliament, allowing state misconduct to continue, at great human cost to the victims who in some cases lost their livelihoods.

In the cabinet’s resignation, prime-minister Mark Rutte, promised ‘a new governance culture’, and ‘more transparency’. But old habits die hard. Recently, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) lost a court case against current affairs program Nieuwsuur. The journalists had demanded access to state documents regarding the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, instead of putting the caretaker prime minister’s promise of more transparency into practice, the ministry defied the court and refused to provide the requested documents, appealing the court order instead.

Compared to their colleagues in many other countries of the world, journalists in the Netherlands are able to freely investigate and work. However, as the events of the past few years have shown, a sense of deteriorating safety for the media is a slippery slope even in a country that until recently led international press freedom rankings.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Viktor Orbán Library

Video: How Hungary’s state media interviews Orbán (Telex)

Video: How Hungary’s state media interviews Orbán (Telex)

Viktor Orbán ignores questions from independent news outlets. But he’s happy to speak to state-controlled media that lob softball questions his way, explains

While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán manages to avoid tough questions domestically, he has been dropping by Kossuth Radio almost every Friday to give an interview to one of the leading editors of the public media, which operates with an annual budget of 325 million euros of taxpayer money. In his third cycle with a two-thirds majority, Viktor Orbán fields questions almost exclusively from Katalin Nagy on the state radio station. The journalist, who was awarded the Knight’s Cross from the Hungarian Order of Merit, doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of these opportunities.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe as part of a collaboration between IPI as part of the MFRR with leading independent media in the region.

MFRR 3 consortium logos