Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Shoals of Freedom

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Shoals of Freedom

Article excerpt

In central Europe 1989 marked the end of the state-controlled media. But after the first flush of excitement, the press is now having to come to terms with market realities while avoiding compromises and maintaining standards.

Contrary to what some observers have suggested, the process of transition from communism in Eastern Europe involves more than the introduction of free market mechanisms and democratic elections. The transition to a modern society is first and foremost a cultural process which presupposes the reconstruction of areas of social communication. The way in which the media landscape in these countries is gradually taking shape has a vital bearing on their future.

For five years, these countries have been experiencing unprecedented economic, social and political upheaval. The information sector has witnessed spectacular changes, especially in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where radical reforms were adopted from the outset. Only a few years ago, the media in these countries were directed, controlled and manipulated by the authorities, which enjoyed a total monopoly, further consolidated by censorship. They were able to fabricate a reality which accorded with their interest's of the moment and to prohibit, discredit or sideline any presentation of the situation that differed from their own. Far from reflecting currents of opinion and the wide diversity of social needs, the media landscape did no more than reproduce, at best, internal dissensions within the party apparatus.

Today this scene is changing fast, but uncertainty still surrounds the audiovisual media. Governments are reluctant to carry out the heralded privatizations because they are afraid of depriving themselves of a powerful lever to influence public opinion. In Hungary, as in Poland and Slovakia, the fight for control of television has been mobilizing the entire political class for several months now. And the successes of a few new private radio stations barely scratches the surface of the hold on national audiences enjoyed by public radio stations.

On the other hand, privatization of the written press (which has traditionally been important in these countries) is now almost complete. The governments which controlled most of the titles until 1989 found themselves so lacking in support after only a few months that some have since been trying (without notable success) to create new organs that are more favourably disposed towards them.

New markets

The emergence of the new press markets has been marked by three main phases. At first, a flood of pent-up words was released in an atmosphere of fascination with freedom regained. The fall of the communist regimes and the end of censorship and cumbersome bureaucracy sparked off a veritable explosion of new publications. At this stage the creation of new titles often reflected a quest for identity and a need for social expression that had long been held in check. The very fact of envisaging the publication of a magazine (many projects never reached fruition or were soon abandoned) was a way of defining a new area of freedom to be occupied by the writers concerned.

In the 1990s, the press has therefore played a major role in the restructuring of the political scene. By giving the different currents of opinion a platform for expression, it eventually encouraged the formation of new political parties - even though, with the passage of time, relations between the press and the rising political elites have become increasingly conflictual.

This first phase of euphoria with "speech regained" only lasted for a few months. New problems made their appearance, associated with the discovery of the realities of the market economy. With the end of public subsidies, rising paper and production costs, and the appearance of competition, sometimes cutthroat, many publications folded, while others abandoned their original aims and were obliged to adapt rapidly to the new demands of the public. …

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