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Conflicts Between Governments and Media, East and West


After having a picture on the media in Hungary and a short look abroad we can sum up the consequences as follows:

Though the media (in broader sense: infocracy) is not an autonomous branch of power by the constitutional law it can work as a simple tool of the power or in certain historical cases as an autonomous power factor:

1./We can speak about only tool in all cases of monocentric power structure such as in the case of Central-Eastern European - post-Stalinist - societies before changing system.

2./ Media becomes a policy making factor - more than just influencing political decisions - when the political system doesn't work properly; this happened when a political vacuum developed during the period of systemic changes in CEE.

In the developed democracies - like in the United States and Western-Europe - we can not speak about deep political conflicts between media and governments.

a) In the case of United States the 1st paragraph of the Constitution (with the amendment) seems to be a workable guarantee to the freedom of press and media and allows to avoid direct nation-wide crisis because of a conflict between media and government. The whole structure of the society is decentralized and having been such, the conflicts if they turned upon appear not on the level of the central administration. In a political system like this - built up from the bottom to the top (and not the opposite way, like in East-Europe) - there is no need of a special comprehensive law on media as such because the conflict- managing mechanisms work - so to say - almost by themselves.

b) In Western-Europe the situation is basically the same: lacking overall political crises no deep conflict between the governments and media can develop like in Eastern Europe. The society's control of governments is normally working through parliamentary elections and the buffer zone of trustee's bodies of media allow to avoid direct, nationwide, open split between governments and media. (We do not speak about the every day cases of conflicts like smaller violations of freedom of press, restrictions of the budget of the media and so on).

No political crises grew up in the USA or Western Europe because those governments didn't try to use public media as a mere tool of power - like it happened is Central-Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall and in some cases even after that.

In Central-Eastern Europe we can basically speak about two cases during the first years during the transition period (that is after the first free elections).

a) Liberal media preserved independence in spite of political attacks (like it happened in Hungary).

b) Public media became government controlled but preserved relative independence (like in Poland and Czech Republic, where the main staffs of public TV and radio were renewed but the editorial boards preserved their relative independence).

These cases can be called "in-between" - media being neither tools of politics, nor policy making force instead of politicians - and have been working parallel with newly born independent channels. In the former Eastern Germany basically the West German model was introduced without any "media war"; the main public service channels were just taken over by the new government with no political crises and without trying to exert full political control.

In some of the countries we can speak about a dual structure of publicity: in Croatia, Serbia and Romania the public channels have been directly controlled - even censored - by the governments but parallel with those there are real free independent channels covering the main events. The changes in the field of media were also unavoidable after changing political system. In the Czech Republic and Poland the new governments took over the management of the old media by changing the old staffs. In Hungary it was not a historical necessity because the old staffs were liberal-minded - in spite of it the new conservative government launched the war for the media trying to establish a so- called "pure national spirit" in public media. (The government officially denied any responsibility for the "media war").

In Croatia, Serbia and Romania the new governments preserved the old institutions in public broadcasting with old-new staffs which were by all means expected to be loyal to the governments - that is: fully serving the leadership and practically having no freedom of speech.

In what cases can we speak about real conflicts of media and governments?

In a consolidated monocentric society having strong center of power (almost dictatorial type) there were no real conflicts because alternative views were simply suppressed.

In a "soft" monocentric system - like Kadarism used to be during the last decades - a kind of "double publicity" was working. In the sphere of official media there were some conflicts because the liberal minded journalists tried to say something more than the politicians (so to say tried to push the "walls" a bit further) and not in all the cases respected the taboos (like the leading role of the Communist Party, the Soviet alliance and the authority of the leader). But these were not real conflicts because both sides - the journalists and the politicians - respected the rules of the "bailey on the same stage".

The real line of conflicts lied between the semi-legal press called "samizdat" of which had no possibility to broadcast only from abroad, through the Western channels like the "Voice of America" or "Radio Free Europe". In the strong monocentric systems like in GDR and Czechoslovakia these alternative, non-official publications were strictly forbidden and punished, while in the softer Hungarian one they were tolerated. (Of course in a consolidated pluralistic society there is no reason to speak about "double publicity" at all.)

If a crisis develops in a monocentric political system the media - as we stated before - begins to exert political functions and begins to behave like a "branch of power" - and in historical situations like that it seems to be unavoidable.

After changing political system it may take long years - if not decades - until the public service media in Central-Eastern Europe can work on the level as in the sophisticated highly developed democracies.

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