Karl Marx decried religion as "opium for the masses". Yet no divine worship has attained the intensity of the fatuous obsession of the denizens of central and east Europe with the diet of inane conspiracy theories, gaudy soap operas and televised gambling they are fed daily by their local media. There is little else on offer except the interminable babble of self-important politicians. It is the rule of the abysmally lowest common denominator.
In Macedonia, it is impossible to avoid a certain entertainer, a graceless Neanderthal hulk with a stentorian voice, deafeningly employed in a doomed attempt to appear suavely quaint and uproariously waggish. The natives love him. Private, commercial, TV in the Czech Republic - notably "Nova" - has surpassed its American role models. It has long been reduced to a concoction of soft porn, soundbite tabloid journalism and Latin American "telenovelas". Jan Culik, publisher of the influential Czech Internet daily, Britske listy, once described its programming as "sex, violence and voyeurism ... a tabloid approach".
The situation is no different - or much improved - elsewhere, from Russia to Slovenia. As Andrew Stroehlein, former editor in chief of Central Europe Review, so aptly put it - "Garbage in, money out". This sad state of affairs was brought on by a confluence of economic fads (such as privatization, commercialization and foreign ownership) and technologies of narrowcasting - satellites, video cassette recorders, cable TV, regional and local "stealth" TV stations and, in the not so distant future, Internet broadband and HDTV.
Writing in Central Europe Review about the Romanian scene, Catherine Lovatt observed that "television was one medium through which Romanians could vicariously experience the 'Western' dream. The popularity of programmes such as Melrose Place indicates a preference for certain lifestyles - lifestyles that are as glamorous as they are out of reach. The seemingly unabating craving for commercial TV has been fuelled by the need to escape the Communist past and the stresses of today's reality."
Grasping its importance as a tool of all-pervasive indoctrination, television was introduced early on by the communist masters of the region. Still, tortuous stretches of personality cult and blatant, laughable, propaganda aside - monopolistic, state-owned communist TV, not encumbered by the need to compete, offered an admirable menu of educational, cultural and horizon expanding programming.
It is all gone now. The region is drowning in cheaply produced mock talk shows, hundreds of episodes of Latin American serials, hours on end of live bingo and lottery drawings, tattered B movies, pirated new releases and sitcoms and compulsively repeated newscasts.
From Ukraine to Bulgaria, commercial channels are prone to featuring occultists, conspiracy theorists, anti-Semitic "historians", hate speech proponents, racists, rabid nationalists and other unadulterated whackos and have taken to vigorously promoting their pet peeves and outlandish conjectures.
The intrigue-inclined postulate that this visual effluence is intended to numb its hapless recipients and render them oblivious to the insufferable drudgery of their dreary, crime-infested, corruption-laden and, in general, rather doomed, lives. It is instigated by unscrupulous politicians, they whisper, eyes darting nervously. It is a form of state-sponsored drug, also known as escapism.
How to reconcile this paranoid depiction of a predatory state with the fact that most private television stations throughout the region are owned by hard-nosed, often foreign, businessmen?
The suspicious point to the fact that "local content" and "cultural minimum" license requirements are rarely imposed by regulators. National broadcasting permits were granted to cronies and insiders and withheld from potential "troublemakers" and dissidents.
It is also true that, as Stroehlein puts it, there is a massive "repatriation of profits generated from newly private stations to Western firms." As a result, "local production companies are losing out, and the loss of funds damages the domestic entertainment and arts industry and the economy as a whole."
And the collusion-minded have a point. The dumbing-down of audiences is as dangerous to newfound political and economic freedoms as are more explicit forms of repression. Both democracy and the free market will not survive long in the absence of an informed, alert, intellectually agile public. It is hard to retain one's critical faculties under the onslaught of televised conspicuous consumption and the unmitigated folly of mass entertainers.
Many scholars and media observers believe that the battle has already been lost.
Péter Bajomi-Lázár, associate professor at the Communication Department of Kodolanyi University College, Budapest-Szekesfehervar in Hungary, wrote in January 2002 in a comparative study titled "Public Service Television in East Central Europe":
"The transformation of public service television from a tool of agitation and propaganda into an agent of democratic control has been but a partial success in East Central Europe. Public service television channels have failed to find their identities and audiences in a market dominated by commercial broadcasters. Some of them are underfunded and their journalists encounter political pressure."
But even where public broadcasters enjoy the proceeds of a BBC-like television tax - like in Macedonia - they fail to attract spectators. The stark reality is that when people are faced with a choice between intellectually demanding and challenging programs and easily digestible variety shows they always plump for the latter. It is easy to condition people to complacent passivity and inordinately tough to snap out of it once exposed. The inhabitants of central and east Europe are mentally intoxicated. The hangover may never happen.
Aleksandr Plotnikov died last month in his dacha. He was murdered. He has just lost a bid to restore his control of a local paper in Tyumen Oblast in Russia. Media ownership is frequently a lethal business in eastern Europe. The same week, Ukrainian National Television deputy chief, Andryi Feshchenko, was found dead in a jeep in a deserted street of Kyiv. Prosecutors suspect that he was forced to take his life at gunpoint.
In an interesting variation on this familiar theme, a Moldovan parliamentarian accused the editor of the government-run newspaper, "Moldova Suverana", of collusion in his kidnapping.
Governments throughout the region make it a point to rein in free journalism. Restrictive media statutes are being introduced from Russia to Poland. Romania's Senate approved, on June 6, a law granting persons offended by a print article the right to have their response published in the same media outlet and to seek monetary compensation all the same.
The Romanian president attacked the media and said that he is "amazed" at their "talent to distort" his statements. He attributed this to a "lack of information, lack of culture, or malevolence." In Belarus, journalists are standing trial for defaming the president. They face 5 years incarceration if convicted.
Russia has just introduced a decree regulating the licensing of audio and video production duplication rights. According to abc.ru, a license from the Media Ministry will be required to make copies of any multimedia work. The Culture Ministry will henceforth license such oeuvres for mass audiences.
The frequency of A1+, Armenia's most vocal independent TV station, was auctioned off to politically-sponsored business fronts, forcing the hard-hitting station off the air on April 3 - just in time for next year's elections. The new owners - "Sharm" - promised to concentrate on "optimistic news".
The station appealed the tender procedure to the Armenian Economic Court and opposition groups took to the streets. AFP carried a statement by the self-appointed watchdog, Raporteurs Sans Frontieres, that called the tender "the muzzling of the country's main news voice ... the most serious violation of pluralism in Armenia in years".
Even the US Embassy in Yerevan stirred:
"A1+ performed a valuable public service in offering substantial media access to a broad spectrum of opinion makers, political leaders, and those holding differing views."
The Azerbaijani prime minister promised to allocate $3.5 million in credits to media outlets - but, tellingly, made this announcement exclusively on the state-owned channel. The bulk of the television tax in Macedonia ends up in the coffers of the somnolent and bloated state channel which caters to a mere one quarter of the viewers. The independent media - both print and electronic - face unfair competition in attracting scarce advertising revenues.
The managers of six Latvian private television and radio stations published an open letter to President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Andris Berzins, the Competition Council, the National Radio and Television Council (NRTC), the State Support Monitoring Commission, and political parties.
They deplored the commercialization of the public media. State support - fumed the signatories - allows these outlets to undercut the prices of advertising airtime. They urged a major revision and modernization of the law. Latvia is considering the introduction of a monthly mandatory "subscription fee" to finance its state-owned media.
Media properties are awarded to loyal cronies and oligarchs - having been expropriated from tycoons and managers who fell from official grace. Such assets are often "parked" with safe corporate hands ad interim. Russian energy behemoth Gazprom, for instance, acquired a media empire overnight by looking after such orphan holdings. It is now dismantling these non-core operations.
In Russia, the tendered broadcasting rights of TV6 were allocated to Media-Sotsium, a consortium led by regime stalwarts such as Yevgeni Primakov, a former prime minister and the current chief of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Arkadi Volski, head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. The group included leading managers and active political figures. The consortium's general director is none else than Yevgeni Kiselev, the erstwhile general manager of TV6.
TV6 was taken off the air by the Kremlin last year - as was Russia's most popular independent station, NTV. Quoted by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, the Editor in Chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station commented that this "completes the redistribution of television property in Russia from one oligarch who was not loyal to the authorities to others that are".
Gorbachev, whose group bid for the station, concurred wholeheartedly. In a rare show of consonance, so did the communist Zyuganov. Muscovites polled in April said they hoped TV6 would become a sports-only channel.
In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington on April 9, Russian Media Minister, Mikhail Lesin, admitted that "developments surrounding the NTV and TV-6 companies certainly had a political background, and there is no denying it". He promised to substantially cut funding to "politically oriented mass media".
Russian media, insisted the Minister, is having "growing pains". Referring to the older and more mature media in America, he asked: "Let us remember how this 100-year-old gentleman looked when he was 10 years old. He did not have any problems at that time?"
State interference rarely stops at the ownership level. Subtle self-censorship by obsequious or terrorized journalists is often coupled with governmental micromanagement. The license of NTV, the eponymous successor of the shuttered independent Russian TV station, was renewed only recently for another five years - after many delays and public statements casting doubts on the outcome. This form of subtle pressure to self-discipline is common.
The Russian business daily Kommersant commented:
"(The delays were intended to) stimulate Gazprom to more quickly sell its shares in the company and to frighten (NTV's General Director) Jordan into being a bit more attentive to what NTV puts on the air."
Belarusian president, Alaksandr Lukashenka, instructed the chief of the Belarusian Television and Radio Company to "work around the clock" to improve programming. "The Belarusian Television and Radio Company works in the same information field with powerful foreign broadcasters: ORT, RTR, NTV, Radio Rossiya, Radio Mayak, Radio Liberty, Radio Racja, and others. It is in a state of ideological competition with them and, speaking straightforwardly, sometimes in confrontation."
"Belarusian Television, as before, remains an information supplement to foreign television companies." - he was quoted as saying by REF/RL. How would such a turnaround be achieved with a shoestring budget was left unarticulated. Belarus couldn't pay Kirch Media the $500,000 it demanded for the World Cup rights.
The Belarusian Language Society appealed to UNESCO and the EU to help launch a Belarusian heritage and culture satellite broadcast on the Discovery Channel. Russian-language broadcasts, they noted ruefully, account for a crippling 97 percent of airtime.
Lukashenka finished his diatribe with a practical advice: "Beginning from tomorrow, every manager in the Belarusian Radio and Television Company has to sleep with a television set." In a country where disagreeing with the president can be the last thing one does, his wish is a command.
The situation is especially egregious in the fiefdoms of Central Asia.
In Georgia, the politically-pliant tax police, often an instrument of intimidation of opponents, raided Rustavi-2, an independent thorn in the irate government's side. In Kazakhstan, last November, all the media properties of Alma-Media - including its prized Kazakh Commercial TV - were suspended. Malicious rumors were spread by the police against the editor of the outspoken newspaper, "Karavan". The rumors were promptly denied by the Kazakh Minister of Internal Affairs.
If all else fails, crime does the trick. the independent Kazakh paper, "Delovoe-Obozrenie-Respublika", was first firebombed and then - five days later - closed by the court because it failed to provide a publication schedule. OSCE slammed Kazakhstan for its new Administrative Offenses Code which is replete with 40 media-related transgressions.
RFE/RL quoted a statement by Rozlana Taukina, head of the Independent Media Association of Almaty, in a press conference in Moscow. She complained that 22 independent media outlets have been closed in Kazakhstan over the past month.
Another instrument of suppression are libel suits which invariably result in exorbitant and destructive penalties.
Aleksandr Chernov, a Krasnodar judge, won in February $1 million in compensation from "Novaya Gazeta", a paper owned by the disgraced and self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Senior Russian public figures issued a passionate plea to reduce the fine and prevent the paper's bankruptcy.
In an unrelated lawsuit, Mezhprombank, alleged by "The Moscow Times" to be a money laundering venue, won c. $500,000 in damages from the aforementioned besieged "Novaya Gazeta". Court bailiffs seem determined to force the closure of the paper despite a pending appeal.
The largest circulation Slovak paper, "Novy cas", was ordered to pay a whopping $100,000 in compensation to Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) Chairman Jan Slota. The paper reported that he had been seen drunk.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, encapsulated the philosophy of state interventionism neatly in an interview he granted to ITAR-TASS and other Russian news agencies:
"If freedom of the press is understood as the freedom of a handful of so-called oligarchs to buy journalists, to dictate their will in the interests of their groups, and to protect the way of Russia's oligarchic development that was thrust on the country over the past decade, then yes, it is in danger ... (The authorities should not) allow individuals to shape the country's strategy the way they like, (while) filling their pockets with illegally earned money ... (Freedom of the press) implies the ability of journalists and their groups to freely, openly, and fearlessly define their position on key problems of the development of the country and society, to criticize actions of the authorities (and to make sure that the authorities react properly)."
Putin harked back to the nanny state, calling Russian media immature and still in the development stage. They need assistance in developing ways to secure their future economic independence. The state will create the necessary conditions for the "economic freedom of the press".
The president's aide, Aleksei Volin, was quoted by REF/RL as having told radio Ekho Moskvy that state-ownership of the media is rendered meaningless in an age of multiple channels. The state, said the aide, should concentrate on programming and thus "ensure its role in television media".
Russia's Media Minister, Lesin, hastened to make clear that the state has no intention of privatizing its television media holdings, ORT, the second channel (RTR), and Kultura, an educational cum entertainment network. The government - a minority shareholder in ORT - denies meddling in the editorial affairs and policies of either of these federally-funded channels. ORT and RTR just paid c. $40 million for the Russia World Cup rights.
A bill, introduced in the Duma by independents, failed to pass last week. It would have reduced state ownership of mass media outlets to 25 percent within 6 months. Anti-government deputies claimed that the state controls 90 percent of all the media in the vast country. Their colleagues from the coalition cited a figure of 10 percent.
In Moldova, a committee of lawyers, journalists, and deputies of parliament issued a report on May 3, advocating against privatization of the media. Both radio and television, they intoned, must remain in the safe hands of the state, though in the form of an "autonomous" public broadcasting authority. This flew in the face of recommendation issued earlier by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
In response, incensed journalists, intellectuals, and lawyers established Public Television Company. Modeled after the BBC, it will be sponsored by private sector donations and advertising revenues - they told Infotag, the news agency. The head of an EU visiting delegation went as far as warning the Moldovan government that ignoring PACE's advice "will have catastrophic consequences both for the current government and the citizens".
The new Hungarian government is considering to shut down one or more of the state-owned TV channels and to reform the media law. But, EU-orientated statements to the contrary - Hungary's state media is still under the collective thumb of its politicians. According to the May 15 issue of "Nepszabadsag", the Socialist party media spokesman publicly "suggested" that the President of Hungarian Television should resign due to his bias during the elections.
Journalists on all levels readily collaborate with political masters. The staff of Hungarian Pannon Radio took over the previous location of the station and are broadcasting virulent nationalistic propaganda with the financial and political backing of the extremist MIEP - the Hungarian Justice and Life Party.
The ownership of electronic media is the electoral trump card in most countries in transition. Papers are little read. According to Emil Danielyan in RFE/RL:
"There are several newspapers that are highly critical of the authorities but their impact on public opinion is limited, as their combined daily print run does not exceed 10,000 copies (Armenia's population is just over 3 million)."
In Macedonia, the circulation of "Dnevnik", the country's leading paper, is thought to be c. 20,000 copies on a weekday - compared to more than 500,000 regular viewers of A1, the dominant independent TV station, owned by business interests. No weekly sells more than 3000 copies in this country of 2 million people.
Foreign ownership of media is still a rarity. Xenophobia and crookedness combine to drive away potential investors. Central European Media Enterprise (CME), an American holding company for central European media properties, endured the most grueling experiences in the late 1990's in the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
Tele5, a new Polish television channel, is owned by Fincast, a Polish subsidiary of Italian Eurocast Italia and more than 70 percent of Poland's regional media are in the hands on two Western companies. The second largest paper, Rzeczpospolia, is owned by a Norwegian firm. But these are the Polish exceptions that only highlight the regional rule.
Poland is atypical on other fronts as well. Poles are avid devourers of broadsheets. More than 20 percent of them feast on the Gazeta Wyborcza every day. Proposed amendments to the existing law will prevent the formation of media monopolies by restricting media ownership to one nationwide broadcasting license or one nationwide daily. The Wyborcza would thus be prevented from taking possession of the private Polish TV station, Polsat, one of many.
"Of course (prime minister) Miler (a former senior communist) should know how evil a monopoly can be ... (The government wants to render Wyborcza) cowardly, toothless, and servile. Authoritarian states like such papers, but Polish democracy does not need one."
Admittedly, Poland is not above harassment and intimidation. The managers of Rzeczpospolita - 49 percent owned by the government - were hounded by tax inspectors and their passports were confiscated. "An action usually reserved for big-time criminals" - notes "The Economist" dryly.
The board of the state-owned television is packed with sycophants and cronies. Now, the widely-held theory goes, Miller has his sights on the print media. He wants to force the Norwegians to sell to Trybuna, the little-read mouthpiece of the ex-Communists.
But the media in the post-Communist territories may be simply reaping what they sowed.
In an article published by "Central Europe Review", I summed up the state of the media in Central and Eastern Europe thus:
"What sets the media in the countries in transition apart from its brethren in the West is its lack of (even feigned) professionalism, its venality and its tainted and ulterior motives. In these nether regions, journalism amounts to influence peddling. Journalists are easily bought and sold and their price is ever decreasing. They work in mouthpieces of business interests masquerading as media. They receive their instructions - to lie, to falsify, to ignore, to emphasize, to suppress, to extort, to inform, to collaborate with the authorities - from their Editor in Chief. They trade news for advertising.
The commercial media - the likes of 'Nova' TV in the Czech Republic - are poor people's imitations of the more derided aspects of American mass culture. Overflowing with lowbrow talk shows, freaks on display, malicious gossip which passes for 'news' and glitzy promos and quizzes - these TV stations and print magazines derive the bulk of their income from advertising. Then there is the mercenary media. These are groups of hired pens and keyboards - so called journalists - who offer their services to the highest bidder. Their price is often pathetic: a lunch a month, one hundred euros, a trip abroad and a dingy hotel room. They collaborate with their editors and share the spoils with them.
The mercenaries often work in 'business-sponsored media outlets'. These are TV stations, daily papers and periodicals owned by the oligarchs of malignant capitalism and used by them to rubbish their opponents and flagrantly and unabashedly further their business interests. This phenomenon used to be most pronounced in Russia, where virtually all the media was once identified with mafia-like interests - before it was taken over by the newly authoritarian state."
According to a poll conducted last month by a few Russian Web sites in collaboration with radio Ekho Moskvy, more than 57 percent of all respondents in all age groups supported state censorship. The main concerns were overt and excessive violence and pornography.
Aware of this popular mandate, Putin's alma mater, the FSB (formerly known as the KGB) moved to further its hijacking of the media. ITAR-TASS reported that FSB Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zdanovich, former chief spokesman and head of the public relations center of the spy organization, was appointed deputy director of the VGTRK, the state broadcasting company.