Independent, public broadcasters are important in democracies because they are meant to provide unbiased information to the public and to keep the government in check. When Slovenia gave Radio Television of Slovenia (RTV-SLO) its independence in 1991 after years of being under governmental and communist control, Radio Television of Slovenia was able to provide independent news and was able to perform its duty of keeping the government in check; however, after 30 years of independence from the government, Slovenia’s current prime minister Janez Jansa now believes that Radio Television of Slovenia has become too independent. Nicknamed “Marshal Twito ”, a reference to former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito, Jansa has recently been attacking Radio Television of Slovenia’s journalists on social media. A recent The Economist article discusses Jansa’s desire to pass a new law that will give the government more control over the news.
Having an independent, public broadcaster has become the standard in Europe. European public broadcasters, many of them modelled after the BBC, are meant to provide objective information to the citizens of their respective countries. According to Robert Dahl, an essential characteristic for a healthy democracy is the existence of alternative sources of information other than the government that are protected by law. In the case of Radio Television of Slovenia, they served as a mouthpiece for the government until they were made independent in 1991. The decision to make Radio Television of Slovenia independent in 1991 helped make Slovenia more democratic. The Netherland’s national public news broadcaster, the NOS, was created for the same reason, as it was created in order to combat authoritarian propaganda from their Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. However, recently, reporters for the NOS have been threatened and physically attacked, causing many of the reporters to be more fearful when reporting the news. The independent, public broadcasters of Europe need to provide objective information to the public, but they can’t do that when they are under threat.
Government efforts to control the media hasn’t been a new phenomenon. In the early 2000’s, with Vladmir Putin’s election in 1999, many Russian news networks became under control by the Russian government, and the news agendas began to be set by government meetings. Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg wrote that one of the ways that populist leaders take over the government is through controlling the media, or more specifically, shrinking the public sphere. Huq and Ginsburg believed that if you shrink the public sphere by controlling the news, then the only information available for the public would be in support of whatever the populist leader or government is doing. Eastern European governments, many which still look up to Russia, have been following Putin’s lead by taking over their own public broadcasting networks. In 2010, Viktor Orban of Hungary turned the state media agency MTVA into a propaganda spreader. In 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party turned Poland’s public network TVP into the party’s mouthpiece. Eastern Europe’s governments have slowly been taking over their news networks, eliminating any news that speaks against the Eastern European governments.
Over in Western Europe, threats to public media aren’t coming from the government; rather, the populist opposition has been attacking the media. During Germany’s migrant crisis in 2016, anti-immigrant protesters began attacking the big public broadcasters, ZDF and ARD, calling them Lügenpresse, or lying press, a term that hadn’t been used since the Nazi-era. Fortunately, the open hostility has diminished in Germany, but German broadcasters are now under threat of being defunded. The ZDF and ARD and funded by a dedicated tax that has to be renewed every four years, but a rate rise for this tax has been blocked by the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. Critics in Saxony-Anhalt have said that they dislike how the German public broadcasters focused on big cities and themes such as gay rights and gender in order to appeal to more educated urbanites; thus, they refuse to give them a raise. In other European countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands, populist parties have been calling to add cuts to the public news networks in their own countries as well. Populist parties want Western European news networks to be defunded, knowing that those networks would be most likely to speak against them.
One of the signs of democratic erosion is a loss in faith of the public media. With many of Europe’s public broadcasting networks either being under fire or being controlled by the government, faith in those networks have gradually been diminishing. Additionally, in an era of increasing party polarization, many people have begun to distrust news networks that do not support their own political views, and governments whose new networks do not support them now want those news networks gone. Slovenia’s attempted bill is evidence of that. In Slovenia, Jansa was unable to pass his law due to a defection of some of his own party members. Although Radio Television of Slovenia is safe for now, the future appears grim for them, especially if the trend of increasing governmental control of news networks continues in Eastern Europe.