The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the ongoing war have displaced more than 10 million Ukrainians and have European countries within the region concerned for their safety and their future. The use of extensive propaganda has highlighted the need for a free press throughout Europe. However, many nations are actively limiting the activities of the free press with increasing severity.
The Current State of the Free Press in Russia
Russia itself is among the most ardent suppressors of independent media. Russian state media exercises a practical monopoly on information. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia swiftly passed a new law allegedly intended to stop the spread of fake news. However, journalists around the world clearly understand that the true intention of the law is to stifle any opposition in the media.
The new law carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, and the severity of this threat has led to many international news outlets suspending reporting in Russia. The law is specifically targeting unauthorized reporting on topics like the number of Russian casualties, a number that is disputed between Russian and Ukrainian official sources. Without the effective presence of independent media, Russian citizens have limited access to any outside information on the state of the war.
Government Interference in Georgian Independent Media
Former Soviet states are commonly among the most restrictive against independent media. Georgia has shown itself to be no exception in the past several years. There, the free press faces constant rhetoric from state-backed media, which has even culminated in violence. Events have seen journalists attacked by violent groups that have been spurred on by the demonization of the free press.
Several incidents in 2021 involving journalists and private media in Georgia confirmed that the safety of journalists can not be guaranteed. Davit Kezerashvili, the owner of one of Georgia’s private television channels, was involved in one episode that gained international attention. Davit Kezerashvili, who held significant roles in the Georgian government before 2008, became the object of personal legal pressure in response to the stations broadcasting election forecasts that did not favor the ruling party. The channel’s owner and CEO have pledged to continue airing and provide the Georgian people with objective and impartial political analysis.
These efforts against FormulaTV are far from isolated, with further examples highlighting the apparent intention of the Georgian government to use court cases against independent media. The ownership battle for independent TV channel Rustavi 2 saw the station change hands to a known supporter of the ruling party. There were numerous protests against the action.
Issues surrounding the free press in Georgia were of particular note in the 2020 Georgian parliamentary election, which saw the ruling Georgian Dream party remain in power. Many criticized the incumbent party for suppressing any media seen as supporting the opposition through a number of regulatory changes around radio and television just ahead of the election.
Increased Punishments for Journalists in Belarus
Belarus is notable for being the sole ally of Russia in its ongoing war against Ukraine. It comes as no surprise that this nation also engages in suppression of independent media. The crackdown on journalists since the 2020 election has been particularly harsh. Many in the international community believe the election was fraudulent. Since that time, arrests and imprisonment of journalists have risen sharply.
Anti-media efforts in Belarus have gone so far as to declare some independent media outlets as extremist organizations. The law there allows for imprisonment for up to 10 years for conducting or participating in extremist activities. Two journalists from one of the outlets identified as extremists have been sentenced to two years in prison under this scheme and are currently serving their sentences.
Press Suppression Spreads to Central Europe
Much of the international concern over these activities in Eastern Europe stems from the fear that such practices can spread to Central and Western Europe. The parts of Europe that consider the free press to be free from intense suppression. Recent events in Hungary show that this fear could have a solid foundation in reality. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been increasing crackdowns on independent media and journalists.
Much of the current censorship stems from a law passed in 2020. The new law’s stated purpose is reducing the spread of false information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and government measures related to it. With a punishment of up to 5 years in prison, the law has led to the mass silencing of many experts whose opinions don’t align with those of the government. Measures have only intensified since then, with independent media stations being forcefully shut down by the Hungarian Media Council.
A Free Press Is Needed to Ensure Europe’s Future
Recent events in Eastern Europe have demonstrated the necessity of independent media in combating propaganda and maintaining freedom. Even before the war in Ukraine, governments have been using the suppression of independent media as a political tool.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has now highlighted just how dangerous the absence of a free press can be, leaving citizens with no source of information other than state propaganda. Eastern Europe is now at a critical moment for journalistic freedom that could lead to widespread consequences throughout Europe.