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Journalism – an uncertain future. E Europe’s Davos

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Journalism – new tasks, new threats

Karpacz, Poland, September 16, 2023

by Otmar Lahodynsky, Hon. AEJ President 

Karpacz is our Davos in Central and Eastern Europe, the biggest event for debates on politics, economy, culture and media, with more than 5,000 participants and 500 panels.

For the 32nd session I was invited to take part for a third time, speaking inter alia at the panel on:

A Journalist for Our Times. New Face of the Profession

with moderator, Igor Borkowski, Vice-Dean in the Law and Social Communication Department, SWPS University, Wroclaw, Poland.

Journalism seems to be in a state of crisis caused by radical changes in the media such as the development of digital media and its socio-cultural side-effects. Digitalisation and new media have changed roles. Print media in particular have to adapt, putting more resources into investigative work. Most quality papers have introduced paywalls but younger readers resist paying for information they can get for free elsewhere, inclduing free newspapers.

The economic pressures are becoming stronger, with a decline in print advertising (competition from online media and platforms) and a reduction in the number of salaried editors during the pandemic.

But journalists now have more on their plates. They are expected to produce videos or inform about their work online (daily newsletters etc). And there us constant competition from bloggers and “hobby-journalists” on platforms pretending to be real journalists.

The Austrian daily Kurier now bans reporters attending events during office hours that do not lead to immediate reports. Relationships with politicians have also changed. Politicians want to bring their issues to the public and increasingly turn to media friendly to them. Politicians also choose who is going to interview them, or even what the questions are to be, and where possible replace editors-in-chief.

The fourth power in society exercising a control function is in decline. 

In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has practically 80% of the media under his control, or under Orbán-friendly entrepreneurs.

Polish tv goes global – Styczynski, Director, TVP World

In Poland there is still media pluralism (TVN, Gazeta Wyborcza and others), but the situation is becoming more difficult for media critical of the rigtist PiS government. How the Polish elections in mid-October will be decisive.

In Austria, Sebastian Kurz won the presidency of his party (ÖVP) by placing advertisements and falsified polls in free newspapers which made him Federal Chancellor in the end. Now out of office, there are court proceedings against him.

The changed role of journalism was detected as early as 2006 by the Hamburg professor Siegfried Weischenberg in his groundbreaking 2006 study  Die Souffleure der Mediengesellschaft. 

In the 1990s, 63 % of German journalists still wanted to uncover wrongdoings. By 2006 it had fallen to 58%. The media as controllers saw a more drastic decline, from 37% to 24%. And whereas 43% agreed with the idea of advocating for the disadvantaged in 1993, just 29% saw their work like that in 2006. Presenting one’s own views loses significantly as a motice in the 2000s, with only 19% approval compared to 27% in 1993. The professional motivation of German journalists has thus developed towards a neutral information provider.

Criticism and control remains more firmly anchored among their American colleagues: 71% of US journalists agree that they want to control politics, the economy, and society. Only about half of them consider being a mediator and provider of information is their key professional motive.

SLAPP lawsuits against investigative journalists are on the rise. The aim is to silence media and NGOs which expose wrongdoing and abuses.

Thanks to the AEJ’s initiative, EU Commissioner Věra Jourová  introduced a new regulation against SLAPP lawsuits which came into force this year.

But it’s only effective for cross-border cases. National cases still need to be regulated and are the ones increasing the most.

2nd Panel: News vs. Disinformation

(Moderated by Financial Times Warsaw Correspondent Raphael Minder) was dedicated to the fight against fake news, in which I also participated.

Karolina Zbytniewska

Others on the panel were: Karolina Zbytniewska, Editor-in-Chief, EurActiv.pl, Poland,  Filip Styczynski, Director, Polish TV’s TVP World ;  Oleg Medvedev, Ukrainian Expert on Strategic Communications; Aleksander Kobecki, Partner, KRL Consultants, Poland

I reported on the early AEJ activities of our Special Representative Irina Nedeva, which led to the excellent platform Factcheck.bg in Bulgaria.

In Austria there are now several platforms dedicated to fact-checking such as Mimikama, which recently  uncovered a fake video used in the main public TV channel ORF news. This did not show the arrest of a conscientious objector, but that of a Russian spy in Ukraine.

The magazine profil has a weekly Fact-Check column in which selected claims made by politicians are examined. Here the paper exposed five recent lies by populist-right FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl.

Conclusion: Fake news is on the rise – no doubt helped by AI – especially on online platforms, but the possibilities for checking have also increased. Journalists have the vital task  of exposing and denouncing fake news for what it is.

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