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After Czech elections, new push for public media independence…

After Czech elections, new push for public media independence (HlídacíPes)

Vojtěch Berger, HlidaciPes.org

The nationalization of the Czech Television and the Czech Radio has not taken place yet. On the contrary, they are to receive a “vaccine” against political pressures, writes HlidaciPes.org.

Back in September, just before the parliamentary elections, then-Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš attacked Czech Television for allegedly “dividing society” during the pandemic. The far-right SPD movement spoke openly about its plan to nationalize both Czech Television and Czech Radio. However, after the elections, in which Babiš lost and the radical populists remained behind their own expectations, everything is (somewhat unexpectedly) different. After many years, there is a chance to cut the public media as much as possible from political influence.

MPs could get draft amendments to the acts on Czech Television and Czech Radio to be examined and scrutinized in the coming months. Senator David Smoljak is involved in their drafting, along with the Endowment for Independent Journalism and a non-profit organisation, Reconstruction of the State. The changes in the acts concern, in particular, how media councils, which in the Czech Republic serve as a “buffer” between political power and editorial independence of public-service media, are formed and elected.

“Firstly, they should strengthen the diversity of the Council, so that it is not elected by only one chamber of the Parliament, which has been the case so far, and thus it is not absolutely dependent on the current winner of the election. There is an emphasis on the competence of the councillors and on the reviewability of their decisions,” Smoljak lists the main objectives of the acts.

Smoljak spoke about the preparations for the amendments last year, but he assumed that the Parliament, in its then composition, would not approve such changes. The past year and a half showed the weaknesses of the current system of nominating and electing the members of the media councils. This is true for both the television and radio councils.

A significant number of the Czech Television Council members have been replaced in the last two years when, after last year’s election of six new members, another five out of a total of fifteen were to follow this year. The nominations of candidates, as well as the selection of the finalists, often noticeably correlated with the parliamentary voting alliance of the ruling ANO movement, the far-right SPD and the Communists.

This alliance often selected candidates without the necessary expertise, but with an openly hostile attitude towards, for example, the management of Czech Television. In the Television Council in particular, this led to the Council meetings becoming hours-long skirmishes between some of the councillors and the Director General, instead of the councillors addressing the control agenda that appertains to the Council members.

It was precisely because of the doubts about the competence of the candidates supported by the ANO government that this spring, the then-parliamentary opposition decided to block the election of four new members of the TV Council by obstructions, resulting in its being incomplete for several months.

Elections also interfered in the staffing of the media councils this year when some councillors themselves decided to run for Parliament. One of the councillors resigned because of this, while another councillor was removed. The act foresees that councillors are not to work for the benefit of any political party. However, the resignation/removal of two councillors has contributed to the vacancies in both of the councils, namely in a situation whereby the Parliament has been unable to elect new councils members due to the obstructions and the upcoming elections.

The aforementioned amendments to the Czech Television and Czech Radio acts therefore prefer to expressly ban councillors from running for political office. However, they bring about an even more fundamental change elsewhere: After twenty years, the acts change the very manner in which media councillors are recruited in the Czech Republic and who is allowed to nominate them and who elects them.

While today any social organization or association – even an absolutely marginal one or one that was founded briefly before the nomination – can send a candidate to the council, the amendment stipulates that the nominating organization would have to have at least a decade-long tradition. They would also have to have been active for a long time in one of an exhaustive list of fields, such as, in addition to the media, culture, trade unions, education, science and protection of human rights. According to the authors of the act, this is a safeguard to ensure that “only active entities, and not ‘shell companies’, nominate the candidates”.

The amendment also sets a minimum threshold of expertise for councillors themselves. They should have experience holding a senior position in public administration or a private company and be knowledgeable in fields such as economics, law or finance or management and, of course, the media.

“There was no political support for the German form of the act,” Senator Smoljak said on the examination and scrutiny of the amendment so far, referring to the way media councils are formed in Germany. What is common there is an enumeration of specific social organizations that are allowed to nominate candidates to the councils, for example churches or trade unions.

Another major change is the election of television and radio councillors, which is now entirely in the hands of the Chamber of Deputies. Under the new arrangements, half of the councillors would be chosen by the Chamber of Deputies and half by the Senate at each election. At the same time, the number of councillors would be reduced to 12 for the television council and to six for the radio council.

However, according to David Smoljak, this would also mean building both councils on a completely new basis. In other words: removing the existing councils, with their current members. “My view is, and not everyone agrees, that when this act comes into force, the existing council should end and a new one should be created because it is difficult to combine that,” Smoljak confirms.

But even if the media acts arrive to the Chamber of Deputies soon, it will probably take many months before the Chamber of Deputies discusses them. The aforementioned vacant positions on the Council of the Czech Television and one position on the Council of the Czech Radio will have to be filled much earlier. And even that could be a problem.

When the election committee of the Chamber of Deputies selected the 12 finalists – candidates for the Television Council – in the spring, some media experts failed to be selected, while open critics of the current management of the Czech Television got the green light. The then-opposition, which became the government majority after the October elections, resorted to the aforementioned obstructions and prevented the election.

The option now is for MPs to start the whole election once again. “Now the election committee has a new composition and the same applies to the whole Chamber of Deputies, so the process will have to be done again,” says Senator Smoljak. Petr Gazdík, the deputy chair of the STAN movement and a member of the election committee in the previous Chamber of Deputies, feels the same way: “In my opinion, nominations and selection should start from the beginning.”

However, representatives of the ANO movement, which led the election committee for the past eight years, disagree. “I don’t like it, but I can’t do anything about it, I have to respect it. I’m curious to see how the former ‘democratic opposition’ will behave now. Whether they outvote us by force and push through their 12 members in the committee,” said Martin Kolovratník, a deputy and member of the committee for ANO.

“In addition to the fact that it’s not all that fair, it also involves a risk that the same obstructions may occur which would replicate the previous obstructions. Looking at it this way, the council is actually unelectable forever,” said another ANO MP, Patrik Nacher, criticizing the announcement of new elections for the television council.

The amendments to the act on Czech Television and the act on Czech Radio, however, envisage other significant changes. Not only the decisions of the councillors themselves, but also their election or dismissal by the Parliament should be subject to judicial review. The review would be carried out by the Supreme Administrative Court.

In addition, the acts also address the issue of sustainable funding of Czech Television and Czech Radio. The Act on radio and television license fees proposes to insert a procedure for adjustment of fees so that they are automatically increased on a regular basis by the current inflation rate announced by the Czech National Bank for a specific calendar year.

The draft act is now undergoing final examination and Senator Smoljak claims that public service media “have priority”. Whether this will remain the case in light of all the gigantic problems awaiting the new government – from COVID-19 and the national debt to expensive energy – remains to be seen in the coming months.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Read more.

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The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex) Library

The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex)

The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex)

Viktor Orbán’s takeover of the media didn’t come overnight. It’s been a long time in the making. Hungary’s Telex.hu traces the evolution of media capture.

For 30 years Viktor Orbán and his old political colleagues have held the view that the press is against them, that journalists always help their opponents. If Fidesz loses, they think, the power of the press has won. If Fidesz wins, it does so in spite of the media headwind. The same line was taken in Orbán’s 2019 governmental press conference— when he told members of the Hungarian and foreign press that more journalists were against him than for him, “but even in such circumstances it is possible to win” — as in the analysis of the 1994 election result, where Fidesz’s defeat was blamed on a media superiority stacked up against the party. However, the party did not always view the press this way.

In this article we look at the development of the Hungarian media over those 30 years. Today, Hungary is in a dismal 92nd position in the World Press Freedom Index, which is put together by Reporters without Borders (RSF). How did it reach the point where ownership of most of the Hungarian TV, radio, printed and internet media is in some way tied to the government and its politicians.

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

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MFRR in Focus - Episode 2 Library

MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 2

MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 2

The second episode of the MFRR in Focus News Webinar focuses on International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

In this month’s episode you may find the monthly and annual media freedom alerts, as reported on MappingMediaFreedom.org and presented by ECPMF’s Antje Schlaf.

Among the updates of the month are listed the cases of impunity and trials concerning journalist-murders in Europe, namely those of Peter R. de Vries in the Netherlands, Georgios Karaivaz in Greece and the ongoing calls for justice for the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta.

The guests of the webinar include Head of Europe and Central Asia team at Article 19, Sarah Clarke who talked about the Malta Mission and the battle for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia; as well as OBCT’s Coordinator of the Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe Paola Rosa who talked about the increasing number of physical attacks and intimidation targeting journalists in Italy in recent weeks.

IPI’s Jamie Wiseman as part of MFRR in Focus interviewed Georgios Karaivaz’s son Dimitris Karaivaz.

The panel discussion this month was led by EFJ’s Communications and Project Officer Camille Petit who also is doing monitoring as part of the MFRR, and she was joined by guest speakers David Bevan -a media specific risk consultant- and Stefan Bentele -a freelance journalist from Germany who specializes on extremism.

The webinar is presented by Gürkan Özturan, the MFRR Coordinator. The MFRR is organised by an alliance led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) including ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT).

This webinar 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.

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MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 1

MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 1

Media Freedom Rapid Response’s MFRR in Focus News Webinar in its first episode presents an overview of the press and media freedom violations across the EU states and candidate countries, elaborating on the rapid response mechanisms.

ECPMF’s Antje Schlaf explains the 2021 statistics and all the alerts reported on MappingMediaFreedom.org since the beginning of the year.

The focal topic of this month’s MFRR in Focus news webinar episode is Slovenia where the press agency STA is facing imminent financial collapse following a year long struggle with the government over its independence.

Among the guest speakers of the first episode of MFRR in Focus were Policy & Advocacy Officer at Free Press Unlimited, Guusje Somer speaking on the safety of journalists and impunity; Communications & Project Officer at European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) Camille Petit evaluating the latest Pegasus spyware scandal; Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes at International Press Institute (IPI), Oliver Money-Kryle who talks about State Media Capture with a specific focus on LexTVN and Poland, as well as Coordinator of the Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe at the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), Paolo Rosa who informs the viewers on the criminal defamation laws in Italy.

The MFRR in Focus episode one also features an interview conducted by IPI’s Jamie Wiseman, with Slovenian Press Agency STA’s editor in chief Barbara Štrukelj. The panel discussion during the webinar was also led by Europe Advocacy Officer at International Press Institute (IPI), Jamie Wiseman who hosted the following guests:

  • Lenart J. Kučić, Investigative Journalist, Pod črto, Slovenia
  • Renate Schroeder, Director, European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Petra Lesjak Tušek, President, Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS)

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.

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Spying scandal further increases worries of Hungarian journalists

Spying scandal further increases worries of Hungarian journalists

IPI Contributor Blanka Zöldi

In mid-July, revelations about the abuse of the Israeli Pegasus spyware sparked scandals across the world. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary made international headlines as the only EU member state where, evidence suggests, the highly intrusive cyberweapon was used against journalists, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen critical of the government.

The manufacturer of the spyware, NSO Group, claims to sell Pegasus exclusively to foreign governments and state agencies to fight terrorism and organized crime. However, according to an international investigation led by Forbidden Stories, a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers apparently selected for surveillance includes those belonging to almost 200 journalists worldwide, from Azerbaijan to India to Mexico.

The list also includes four journalists from Hungary: Szabolcs Panyi and András Szabó, reporters with investigative centre Direkt36; Brigitta Csikász, who was working with the investigative website Átlátszó at the time of her surveillance; and former hvg.hu journalist Dávid Dercsényi, according to reports by Direkt36, the Hungarian partner of the international investigation.

While being on the list does not necessarily mean that the target was actually attacked with Pegasus, in the case of Csikász, Panyi, and Szabó, forensic analysis of their phones identified clear traces of the Israeli spyware. The journalists cover a wide range of topics connected to abuses of power and suspected corruption by Hungarian politicians and authorities. During the surveillance, Csikász wrote about the misuse of EU funds, while Panyi and Szabó worked on an article about Russian-led International Investment Bank, among others.

Surveillance of journalists: a new level

The space for independent journalism has gradually been shrinking in Hungary since the current governing party, Fidesz, came to power in 2010, with the country falling from 23rd to 92nd in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders. In 2019, almost 78 percent of media were pro-government according to an analysis by media monitor Mérték, while accessing information has become increasingly difficult for independent journalists.

Still, the high-tech surveillance of journalists marks a “new level” in Hungary’s media environment, according to Péter Pető, chief editor of one of the most popular independent news websites, 24.hu. Although the website’s owner, Zoltán Varga – whose phone number also appeared on the Pegasus lists – had already suggested earlier that he might be under surveillance, Pető said that their journalists were both shocked and surprised when the news broke.

“Obviously, we have been under no illusion. But now, even our minimal sense of security has been shattered”, Pető said, adding that the scandal will make journalistic work even more difficult by increasing the potential costs of media owners, journalists, and sources alike. “It’s not only that media companies will have to spend more if they want to ensure their workers’ security. The potential surveillance might also discourage sources from sharing confidential information, and young students from becoming journalists.”

Under the assumption of being watched

At the same time, several journalists told IPI that the Pegasus scandal will not bring dramatic changes in their everyday operations, as they have already been working with the awareness that their communication might be intercepted and have taken security measures accordingly to protect their sources.

“Personally, I was not very surprised by the news”, Szabolcs Dull, one of the editors-in-chief of the news site Telex, founded after mass resignations over Dull’s dismissal from his previous workplace, Index. Dull recalled that in an attempt to discredit him, his list of phone calls was leaked to pro-government media last summer, and, as a political reporter, he has also seen high-level sources deeply worried about surveillance. “There was even a senior Fidesz politician who was wary of meeting me in person. He feared that our matching cell tower information would give us away”, Dull explained.

One of the surveilled journalists, Brigitta Csikász, told Direkt36 that she had received one of the first “friendly warnings” in 2010: “I was told that they are eavesdropping on my phone. From that time on, I was aware that it comes with my job that they are watching what I’m doing.”

Regarding security measures, Péter Erdélyi, senior editor of 444.hu, pointed out that in 2017, they made it compulsory for all of their journalists to use two-factor authentication (2FA) as an extra layer of security for e-mails. For certain projects, they moved their meetings outside of the offices to minimize the risk of surveillance. Similarly, at investigative website Átlátszó, encrypted messaging, storing data on encrypted drives, using VPN and 2FA have been common practices, editor-in-chief Tamás Bodoky said, adding that they are aware that these measures cannot provide perfect security either.

Tools like Signal and other encrypted messaging apps still provide reasonable security, as spywares like Pegasus are currently too expensive to be used on a mass scale, as Szabolcs Panyi, one of the journalists whose phone was compromised, pointed out in a radio show last week. “However, such tools are becoming cheaper and cheaper”, he warned.

Permissive legal framework without remedies

Almost three weeks into the scandal, the Orbán government has not provided a substantive reply to questions about the monitoring of journalists. First, it gave an answer to journalists’ detailed questions that was later described by Edward Snowden – the former CIA employee who blew the whistle about the United States’s spy program in 2013 – as “the most incriminating” he had ever seen. A Hungarian government spokesperson said that they were “not aware of any alleged data collection claimed by the request” followed by a counter-question asking journalists whether “there was any intelligence service to help them formulate the questions”.

In the following days, government officials labelled the Pegasus scandal as an unjust attack on the Orbán administration and avoided answering questions about whether surveillance was carried out by Hungarian state actors – and if so, who authorized it, when, and on what grounds. Most recently, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó stated that even journalists, regardless of their profession, could be surveilled in secret if they “pose a threat to the security and interests of the Hungarian nation”.

The gathering of secret information, however, is so loosely regulated in Hungary that virtually anyone can be put under surveillance, with the order “taking place entirely within the realm of the executive and without an assessment of strict necessity” and “without effective remedial measures,” as observed by a judgement of the European Court of Human Rights already back in 2016. Five years later, however, the Hungarian government only claimed that the “examination of the requirements stemming from the judgment in terms of legislative amendments, which is currently underway, is expected to take some time”.

In the wake of the Pegasus scandal, opposition parties called for the resignation of the government and organized a protest one week after the story broke, with the participation of 1,000 Hungarians – some of whom expressed disappointment over the low public interest in the event. According to a recent poll, while almost two-thirds of Hungarians have heard about the Pegasus scandal and more than half of the respondents thinks it is a serious issue, 58 percent were sceptical about whether it will have any effects on next year’s parliamentary elections.

Disclaimer: IPI contributor Blanka Zöldi is a journalist with Direkt36, an investigative centre that participated in the Pegasus investigation and whose colleagues are among the journalists targeted with the spyware.

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Independent media under attack in Poland: the case of…

Independent media under attack in Poland: the case of TVN24

In the latest example of pressure on independent media in Poland, U.S.-owned broadcaster TVN24 could lose its broadcasting licence following legislative proposals by lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to ban non-European ownership of Polish media.

By IPI contributor Annabelle Chapman

Like its parent company TVN, TVN24 has been 100% owned by U.S.-based Discovery, Inc. since 2015 via its subsidiary Polish Television Holding BV, which is registered in the Netherlands, an EU member state, which means that it abides by Polish regulations.

In the first half of 2021, Fakty, the evening news program broadcast on the TVN and TVN24 BiS news channels, was the most-watched news program in Poland with 2.76 million viewers on average and an audience share of 21.72 per cent.

This put it slightly ahead of Wiadomości, public television broadcaster TVP’s main evening news program, which had an audience share of 20.46 per cent. TVN24’s news coverage has offered viewers an alternative to that broadcast by TVP, which was taken over by the ruling Law and Justice party shortly after winning the elections in 2015.

TVN’s critical news coverage has prompted pressure from the authorities more than once. In December 2017, Poland’s National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) announced a 1.5-million-zloty (356,000 euros) fine for TVN over its allegedly unbalanced coverage of protests outside the Polish parliament in December 2016. The fine was rescinded in January 2018, following criticism in Poland and abroad, including a statement by the U.S. Department of State warning that it “appears to undermine media freedom in Poland”.

In a separate incident in November 2018, TVN said it was facing intimidation after Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) entered the home of a TVN cameraman and called him to a hearing, accused of propagating Nazi propaganda in a report he filmed on a Polish neo-Nazi group. The hearing was later cancelled, after a strong reaction from the U.S. ambassador to Poland at the time, Georgette Mosbacher, who, in a letter to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, expressed her “deep concern” over the government’s treatment of TVN.

This time, the incident concerns the right of TVN – whose license ends in September – to continue broadcasting in Poland, with a draft bill submitted to parliament by PiS lawmakers on July 7 proposing to bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a more than 49 per cent stake in Polish media. If adopted, Discovery could be forced to sell 51 per cent of its stakes in TVN to comply with the new regulations.

Like in previous incidents concerning TVN, it has been defended by the U.S. On July 8, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, tweeted: “TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy.”

Latest step in repolonization

The recent pressure on TVN24 is part of a longer-term current in the PiS-led ruling camp’s approach to the foreign-owned media referred to as “repolonization”, which involves reducing foreign ownership of media companies in Poland (the term has also been used by PiS politicians in relation to banks). This is based on the claim, put forward by some politicians in the ruling camp, that foreign-owned media outlets, especially German-owned ones, are deliberately critical of the current government.

Government representatives had alluded to plans to “repolonize” foreign-owned media in the past, but the subject receded from the agenda as the party focused on winning a series elections between 2018 and 2020, before resurfacing during the presidential election campaign last summer. In an interview with the Polish Press Agency published on July 14, 2020, PiS’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said that “media in Poland should be Polish”.

This attitude underlay the acquisition of one of the country’s largest media companies, Polska Press, from German company Verlagssgruppe Passau by state-controlled oil refiner and petrol retailer PKN Orlen, which has led to a purge of editorial management at regional newspapers it owns this year.

In this context, critics warn that the draft bill on foreign media ownership submitted to parliament this month is the latest step in this process and that TVN will be the next casualty.

Marek Suski, who led the group of PiS lawmakers behind the bill, has presented it as an attempt to defend national interests. “We protect Polish interests, even though we are friends with the United States,” he said this month at a meeting of readers of Gazeta Polska, a right-wing weekly.

However, the draft bill has faced criticism from the economically liberal Agreement party, one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners. Its leader, Jaroslaw Gowin, has indicated that Agreement will not back the draft in its current form. Instead, the party will file an amendment that would limit majority ownership of the media in Poland to entities within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes the U.S., “so that media operating in Poland cannot fall into the hands of capital from countries that are guided by anti-democratic values,” he said.

Gowin’s stance could force the bill’s authors to rethink its content – not just for the sake of relations with the U.S, but also to preserve the integrity of the PiS-led majority in parliament, which has already been threatened by earlier tensions within the ruling coalition. Speaking on TV Republika, a right-wing television channel, on July 14, Suski himself has indicated that it has made him pessimistic about the draft bill’s future.

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.

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Who, and why, is surveilling journalists in Slovakia (SME)

Who, and why, is surveilling journalists in Slovakia (SME)

They would go to the bathroom and turn the water tap on, so the water filling the bathtub would make it harder for anyone to hear them talk about serious issues. They knew which rooms to avoid if they wanted to speak of secret meetings and critical texts they were writing. Phone calls were like scenic plays for the state that they knew was listening: Hi, how’s life? Do we need to buy any milk?

In the 1980s, Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian samizdat authors knew the state was actively intercepting them and keeping detailed records of their talks. Civic courage and disobedience were their working methods.

Journalists of the banned publications engaged in their own rituals. They set up meetings in surprising places. They never came to the meetings together, and they left only one by one. Sometimes, before such a meeting, they would buy a train ticket to a small village where they would get off and then secretly return to the city.

They recognised the faces of some of those that followed them. If they met in a café in the suburbs, and noticed anyone suspicious around, they would gesture each other into changing the topics.

The real messages they wanted to exchange they wrote on small bits of paper, only to immediately burn them in the ashtray as soon as they were read. There were ashtrays everywhere; smoking was allowed everywhere back then.

It was clear who listens and why

Editors of the Hungarian samizdat Beszélő protected their sources. They openly published their own names, to make sure the police would focus on them rather than on the people who were helping them, with information or with distribution. The police would regularly raid their homes. They reckoned with that and learned to live with it.

Beszélő was a quarterly publication and the publishers’ main goal was for the state to miss the printing day. And so, not even the editorial team knew where the publication was printed and who the middleman between the editorial and the printing house was.

Some 2,000 pieces of the issue would be divided immediately into packages of 25 and sent around the country. The state always managed to catch at least one or two distributors, but it never managed to dissolve the entire network. The editors never had more than a few copies with them at a time.

In the Gutenberg galaxy

This is how things worked in the world where it was clear who was surveilling journalists and why. Journalists knew exactly what communication channels were connected to the state, they knew the secret service was trying to recruit people from among them, to report on their colleagues.

The snitches continued to act as revolutionaries and criticise the communist state, but in reality they had already crossed over.

This was a system that the communist power openly admitted to on the ideological basis. It was the Gutenberg galaxy with no Googles or Facebooks, where civic courage could weaken the state machinery. Some samizdats managed to remain sustainable for as long as an entire decade.

Too much of a lure?

Today, journalists in working democracies mostly do not expect the state to surveil them. Wiretapping or surveillance without a reason is always the first symptom of the abuse of power and the technological apparatus of the intelligence services. If anything like that comes out, the media ring a loud alarm. And they are right to do so.

Today, the state power no longer requires a snitch, a whisperer or an informant, to be able to find out who thinks what. They no longer need to collect receipts from cashiers to monitor people’s purchases, or secretly sit near their table in a café to hear whether they are badmouthing the government.

They can find out about everything with the potential help of tech companies. They do not boast about it, nor do they cover up these activities with ideology. That is why control mechanisms are necessary to make sure the state does not abuse its technological means against journalists. Because if it dares to do it to the media, then it will easily dare to do it to an ordinary citizen.

The Pegasus scandal has shown how much of a lure a software originally developed for countering terrorism is for governments. For the government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, among others, which used it to tap into the mobile phones of more than 300 people, including investigative journalists and publishers of independent media.

Does every government tap phones?

In the last 30 years, the Slovak governments followed and wiretapped several journalists.

In the early 1990s, Ivan Lexa led the national intelligence agency, the Slovak Information Service (SIS). Under his lead, the SIS abducted the son of President Michal Kováč. Back then, reasonable people reckoned that the government had all critics of the regime under surveillance. Speaking on landlines, people would greet the undisclosed call participant, imagining them as some rank-and-file state official sitting in a shabby office with his or her headphones on.

With the arrival of mobile phones later on, entrepreneurs would remove batteries from their phones during meetings. Some would go as far as to wrap them in aluminium foil. It was almost like a statement of self-importance, to conspire and to pretend having the phone tapped.

For some, it was more than just a disturbing idea. Under Lexa and the then prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, SIS massively followed and wiretapped journalists.

A change?

Cases of tapping into journalists’ phones appeared also after the fall of Mečiar. For example, the police found in its systems an unauthorised recording of a 2002 conversation between the then economy minister Pavol Rusko and a journalist with daily Sme.

Canadian journalist Tom Nicholson obtained information that the secret services wiretapped his phone calls under the first government of Smer (2006-2010), with Robert Fico as prime minister and Mečiar as one of his two coalition partners. Just because he was a foreigner, the SIS agents wanted to know if Nicholson cooperated with foreign secret services.

The military intelligence service under Ľubomír Galko as defence minister tapped the phones of journalists of the Pravda daily and the head of the private television news channel TA3, with the argument that they wanted to know who leaks classified information to whom.

But the surveillance of journalists only grew into monstrous dimensions with the arrival of the commando that, rather than by the state, was built by Marian Kočner who profited from his relationships with high-ranking public officials and nominees of the then-ruling Smer party.

He had journalists screened through his contacts at the police. Then he hired his friend Peter Tóth to put some of them under illegal surveillance. His commando also followed Ján Kuciak, who later ended up murdered.

What stance will the state eventually take towards such brutal interference with the lives of journalists?

The Pegasus era

There are countries that have leaned away from democracy and that use the “illiberal” label to mask their autocratic traits. They no longer need ideology to justify the surveillance of journalists or opponents.

We are faced with a paradox, when the parliament elected in a relatively free election approves a law for the ruling party to legitimise the use of technology for the surveillance of opponents and government critics. Journalists, too. After all, it has become a routine for government representatives to call journalists the enemies of the nation.

They use technology – mobile phones – that nearly everyone uses in their daily lives.

The existence of critical media and independent institutions plays a crucial role in how such interferences into the lives of journalists or ordinary citizens end. Critical media find out and write about it, while independent institutions then investigate it.

Hungarian government representatives deny the surveillance of journalists. The Hungarian prosecution service announced in July 2021 that they were investigating the use of Pegasus software, but in all likelihood, if Orbán gets re-elected next year, this institution’s investigation will be inconclusive.

If some autocrats manage to grind down the independent institutions in their countries, as is the case in Hungary and in Poland, the effect of the surveillance of journalists and ordinary citizens may be similar as that under communism, but without the state having to build the whole communist-time apparatus anew.

What is worse, traditional tools, like those that the samizdat authors fought by, are not effective in the fight against this new machinery.

This piece is published in collaboration with SME as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

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