These are rather difficult times for public service media (PSM) in Central and Eastern Europe. A broad discussion on their state and functioning is needed as the PSM in the CEE countries face numerous challenges: a continuous struggle for financial stability, reliance on state funding and therefore questionable independence, a political turmoil in recent years and last but not least, foreign capital is ubiquitous, which may help these countries grow, but on the other hand, it is often said to have an influence on policy makers. Fortunately not all public broadcasters in CEE deal with so many problems – we can assume that out of all CEE countries, the best situation of PSM is now probably in the Visegrad Group (V4).
As PSM are said to serve the public interests, represent civil society and provide a forum for public debate, their main source of funding is a licence fee or an audiovisual tax. But in many CEE countries it is only in theory. Although every family household is obliged to pay a licence fee, few do. Thus, financial situation of public broadcasters in many CEE countries is very unstable and they depend to a large extent on state subsidies. This is the second most widespread source of revenue; yet licence fee is said to be the most reliable method of funding, allowing public broadcasters to be free from political interference. And putting funding for PSM in the hands of the government causes a serious threat to the principles of an independent public broadcaster and threatens its ability to fulfill its remit to society.
PSM IN TROUBLE
Such is now the case of Romania where the Parliament, in October 2016, voted in favour of abolishing licence fee for Romanian public broadcasters – TVR (4,7% of market share) and Radio Romania (30,2% of market share) – making them rely on state funds. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) fears that this move seriously undermines the foundations of Romanian PSM which are now easily exposed to political interference. In a letter to the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, EBU Director General Ingrid Deltenre stated that canceling a licence fee “will remove all semblance of an effective PSM that can contribute effectively to a cohesive and democratic society.”
A similar situation has been developing for some time now also in Croatia which is right now in the middle of a political turmoil. And the Croatian public broadcaster, HRT has become a bargaining chip in negotiations on forming a new government. In June the HDZ-Most coalition government collapsed after only five months in power. The September 2016 elections were won by the Croatia’s conservative HDZ. But as the party fell short of majority, it was leading coalition talks with its former government partner, the Most party, which said that introducing a 19% cut in licence fee is its condition for entering a coalition. The reduction of 19% would mean severe cuts in the budget of HRT, hitting programming and reducing investments. And underfunding of PSM undermines its proper functioning and dashes a chance for staying independent and providing impartial news. It is worth reminding here that HRT TV reaches nearly 75% of the Croatian population each week with a TV market share of 28,4%, which is the highest in the Balkans. But constantly running short of money, HRT will fail to truly fulfill its public mission and statutory duties.
Another country in Europe where public service media have been struggling for funding is Bosnia and Herzegovina. In June 2016 due to its long-standing financial difficulties, BHRT (Bosnia and Herzegovina Radio and Television) was planning to cease to produce and broadcast, which would make Bosnia and Herzegovina the first and the only European country without national public service media. The situation seems more critical if we take into account the market share of BHRT which amounts to 38%. The financial hardship that BHRT has been experiencing for many years is caused by insufficient and unstable funding. A poor licence fee collection system and significant payment arrears from regional partners, namely Radio-Televizije Federacije BiH and Radio-Televizije Republike Srpske led to outstanding debts of over 12 million euros. For years the Bosnia Herzegovinian government has failed to implement the necessary reforms of the licence fee collection. At the end of June, the previous funding model expired and so far no new system was approved regardless of several possibilities mentioned by the three broadcasters: collecting fees as media taxes or through electricity bills or cable operators. And a compromise is nowhere in sight in a foreseeable future.
EUROPEAN BROADCASTING UNION – PLATFORM OF COMMUNICATION
What needs to be underlined is that public service media in Europe are not left alone to face their problems. The EBU provides media expertise and strategic consultancy. However, it is the only international organization bringing together public service media – radio and television companies – from Europe and the Mediterranean rim. Within the EBU there are unofficial regional groups which unite public broadcasters from a given region with the goal of campaigning for their common interests. The CEE Group in the EBU unites countries from the Central and Eastern Europe, post-Soviet space and South Caucasus. But it should be emphasized that the CEE Group does not work together on any joint project, it is rather a platform of communication to work out joint strategies which would promote and defend their interests inside the EBU. As a side note, the coordinator of the CEE group in the EBU is Adam Burakowski, long-serving employee of Polskie Radio and currently Director of International Relations Department.
The EBU supports its members under the Partnership Programme (EPP). It aims at assisting the EBU members in transition which encounter difficulties and have limited financial resources or face political pressure. The EPP is the only transregional form of cooperation among the EBU members. And even though the EBU’s principal aim is to facilitate and promote dialogue and cooperation between its Members, there is no other project or program on the EBU level that would involve regional cooperation. Naturally, the EBU broadcasters do cooperate with each other, but these are individual bilateral projects on a small scale.
SITUATION IN THE VISEGRAD COUNTRIES – POSSIBLE PROJECTS
However, recently we could have seen some attempts of closer cooperation between individual members of the EBU from the CEE countries. The most active group of countries is the Visegrad Group which have put forward some ideas of cooperation. It is probably the effect of the strengthened cooperation between these countries on the government level, especially between Poland and Hungary. One of the signs of the growing cooperation are regular meetings of PSM directors general of the V4 countries since 2015.
This year the President of the Board of Polskie Radio, Barbara Stanisławczyk initiated a joint radio project involving public radio broadcasters from the V4 countries. Ms. Stanisławczyk presented her idea on bilateral meetings with Director General of Czech Radio, Mr. René Zavoral and acting Director General of Hungarian MTVA, Mr. Miklós Vaszily. Both DGs are said to have expressed interest in further cooperation. The Visegrad radio program would target national audiences of the V4 countries, producing and broadcasting in their national languages through their national radios. The idea behind the project is to provide greater radio coverage of V4 countries affairs in order to ensure better awareness among their citizens.
Also the President of the Polish public television station TVP, Jacek Kurski wants to strengthen the cooperation between the V4 countries. He has proposed the creation of a joint Polish-Czech-Slovak-Hungarian television channel, broadcasting in English and designed to present common interests of Visegrad Group countries. Mr. Kurski said that Hungarian public broadcaster responded very positively and they were only waiting for the green light from Czech and Slovak televisions. According to Mr. Kurski, the channel might be launched on the 100th anniversary of Poland’s Independence Day, or the 11th November 2018.
The regional cooperation among public broadcasters from the CEE countries is developing slowly. There is the EBU which provides a platform for a dialogue, there is the CEE group which strengthens communication among PSM from the region, but it seems that right now the most promising cooperation is developing among public broadcasters from the V4 countries. However, at the moment the V4 Group cannot be extended for other countries as firstly, they show little or none interest and secondly, they are struggling with their own problems which they need to solve first.
The history and the examples of other countries have shown that cooperation between PSM increases if there is a strong similarity of interests and common values between the parties. There is thus hope that the cooperation may intensify, especially within the V4 Group, in the face of growing competition from strong international media groups.
Sources: EBU Media Intelligence Service, polskieradio.pl, wirtualnemedia.pl
Ewa Stankiewicz, MA in International Economics at Warsaw School of Economics, BA in Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw; Specialist of International Relations in Polskie Radio – works with the European Broadcasting Union and Euranet Plus (EU-funded international radio network).
This article does not reflect an official opinion of Polskie Radio.