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Media, Democracy and the Market in Central and Eastern Europe

Speakers
Professor Jan Zielonka, Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony’s College

 Date
25 Apr 2011

 Venue
Level 4 Conference room (#04-48), Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, 31 Nanyang Link, Singapore 637718

 Time
3.00pm – 4.30pm

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The countries of Eastern Europe were at the forefront of democratisation when the Soviet Union collapsed, and that culminated in their accession to the European Union in 2004. Why then, in the ten countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have joined the EU since 2004, has the media – frequently theorised to be an important ingredient for democracy – led citizens and observers to express dissatisfaction?  In his lecture, Prof Jan Zielonka tried to find the reasons and factors that explain the current media landscape in Central and Eastern Europe.

Firstly the former Soviet bloc, which many of these countries were in during the Cold War, was ‘anything but a bloc’. Some were constituent republics of the Soviet Union (such as the three Baltic states), while others conformed more to a Central European identity (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland). There are still many differences between these countries and within them – for instance, Poland is ethnically homogenous while sizeable minorities exist in Latvia. Their economic performance also varies.  One should therefore be careful with generalisations, Prof Zielonka cautioned.    

Nonetheless these countries share some similarities which are critical to their predicament.  Many  are small countries, and . Their small media markets lay them vulnerable to the manipulation of media tycoons and political entrepreneurs. 

The issue of fuzzy ownership accentuates these concerns. Many from the old communist nomenklatura manipulate the media from behind the scenes, taking advantage of weak legal and tax systems. While these countries have adopted the EU’s acquis communautaire – the body of community law – when they joined the European Union, the overly quick adoption of the acquis have actually resulted in disharmonies between national and EU law that have been discovered later.

Prof Zielonka listed some factors which could explain the state of the media in Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps the boards running the media are not truly independent. Perhaps it is due to weak legislation and regulation of the media. Perhaps the media industry does not attract the best journalists due to low pay and inadequate training.  However, he then posited that these explanations were not useful, as they could be applied to many cases around the world.

Instead he said that some preliminary results from his research (please list the research project in which he is the principal investigator)  indicated that  the problems with the media in the countries in question may be due to culture – the culture of patrimonialism, favouritism and cronyism. Much of it has been a legacy, from the communist era and before, that is somewhat entrenched. Prof Zielonka acknowledged that political scientists disdain cultural explanations for such phenomena, since they are hard to quantify and substantiate. Therefore he called for greater inter-disciplinarity in exploring the media issue. 

The ensuing discussion with the audience brought in the debate on the ‘European public sphere’, so crucial if the EU wants to further consolidate its supranational project. Prof Zielonka observed that the EU’s internal borders have been removed, but cultural borders remain. The electorate is still national, even in the way the elections for the European Parliament are conducted. At the end of the day, power still matters in this world – not so much military power, but the ability to set the norms. The traditional media still matters for Europe and for the quality of its democracy.