Swedish Public Service Broadcasting Under Fire
Politicians are demanding funding cuts, a narrower mission and personal penalties for journalists. Online abuse has increased and a new financing model has drawn criticism.
In many parts of Europe, public service broadcasting is already under severe pressure. Is Sweden next in line?
Over the past decade, the debate about Sweden’s public service broadcasters has become a battlefield.
Some politicians have proposed that the country’s three publicly funded radio and television companies – SVT (television), SR (radio) and UR (educational content) – should be completely abolished. Others have demanded tougher political control or that journalists who are deemed to be lacking in impartiality should be penalized or fired.
The criticism of Swedish public service media is multipronged. One line of criticism, according to Lars Anders Johansson, former editor-in-chief of the free market think tank Timbro’s magazine Smedjan, is about distortion of the media market.
Digitization has led to reduced advertising revenue for private media. Therefore, public service broadcasters shouldn’t use tax funds to compete in the online news market or to produce mainstream entertainment programs, according to the free market argument.
Another line of criticism is that public service media only permits some voices to be heard.
”We have seen a form of backlash from conservatives, market liberals, populists and nationalists, who react to what is perceived as a progressive dominance,” says Lars Anders Johansson.
Or, put another way: Public service media is perceived as left-wing.
When poet Athena Farrokhzad spoke on an iconic radio show in the summer of 2014, she called for, among other things, sham marriages to help undocumented immigrants gain legal residence in Sweden. An MP from the conservative Moderate Party, Gunnar Axén, was so outraged that he drove his TV to the dump in protest.
At the time, a public service broadcasting fee was paid by all Swedish households that owned a television set. But since January 1, 2019, the fee has been replaced by an individual public service tax, which is paid by all adults with a taxable income.
It is no longer possible to opt out of the public service payment, as Gunnar Axén did by disposing of his TV. One avenue for the expression of dissatisfaction has thereby been closed.
The maximum annual public service media fee per person in 2020.
A narrower mission
Historically, there has been strong parliamentary support for the idea that the public service companies should broadcast a wide range of programs. But, changing their stance, the Moderate Party and their conservative allies the Christian Democrats are now advocating a narrower focus. They argue that tax money should not be spent on sports and entertainment, and that the focus of public broadcasting therefore should be on expensive, socially important content that private media can’t, or does not want to, offer.
At the Moderate Party’s conference last year’s, the local chapter from the capital Stockholm motioned to completely abolish public service media, but this was not supported by the rest of the party. Instead, a working group was set up to carve out the party’s new media policy by 2021.
The objective reads: “A significantly reduced amount” of tax revenue should be allocated to public service media, while the impartiality and objectivity requirements must be strengthened and tougher penalties applied for violations.
The Christian Democrats’ party board also decided last year to pursue suggestions for a narrower public service media in the future. “Public broadcasting is important, and its credibility is not being served by broadcasting nonsense,” the party’s cultural policy spokesperson Roland Utbult responded when surveyed by SR.
A broad or narrow mission – a bit of everything or just what’s good for us? “Healthy options” dished up by the public broadcasters include news, in-depth current affairs programs, regional coverage, a broad range of cultural programming, programs in Swedish and minority languages – in short, television and radio to serve the general public.
However, some argue that if there are no “treats” in the mix – such as the popular Melodifestivalen, where Swedes choose their Eurovision contender – the audience will leave. That would mean fewer “healthy options” are consumed and, in the long run, public broadcasting would lose its legitimacy.
Between 2008 and 2016, SVT accounted for about 30 per cent of the television viewership share, writes media researcher and Professor Kent Asp. SVT has thus succeeded in “balancing the public interest (fulfilling its public service mission) with an audience interest (still a relatively strong position with the television audience)”, his conclusion reads.
The number of hours of radio and television in minority languages in public service terrestrial broadcasting in 2019.
When the Public Service Tax Act was passed by the Swedish Parliament in 2018, it was supported by all parliamentary parties except the Sweden Democrats. The right-wing party justified its rejection by stating that the funding reform had not been preceded by reforms to strengthen impartiality.
Public service must be impartial and factual – this is a requirement set by the broadcasting permit. But its impartiality is increasingly being questioned – both by politicians and by “alternative media”, which now form a larger part of the media landscape and have made criticism of traditional media and public service one of its main messages.
During the Sweden Democrats’ 2017 national conference, one of the party’s chapters presented a motion stating that the public service broadcasters were biased and distorted public debate. As this bias could not be rectified by political means, the chapter argued, the only solution was to scrap SR and SVT altogether.
The motion was eventually rejected. The Sweden Democrats’ party program states that public service is important, but that “reforms are needed to ensure the objectivity and impartiality of the broadcasters’ program offerings”.
In February 2020, Sweden Democrat Linus Bylund, a member of the public broadcasters’ ownership foundation, floated the idea that public service journalists should be held personally accountable for the content they produce – under the current system, legal liability is assumed by the publisher – and be subject to salary deductions or dismissal if found to be partial.
When the new broadcasting permits for SVT, SR and UR for 2020–2025 were approved by the Swedish Parliament in October of 2019, the Sweden Democrats, the Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats wrote a joint reservation that demanded a new regulatory system for media ethics.
“It is obvious that the impartiality and objectivity requirement has been the subject of great debate – a debate that deserves to be taken seriously,” the three parties wrote.
Tax funding for Swedish public service media in 2020. The lion share, roughly €500 million, is allocated to television broadcaster SVT.
A line is crossed
In February of 2020, many Swedish publishers got a fright when the Sweden Democrats demanded that the Parliamentary Committee on Culture call up the heads of SVT and SR to discuss two published segments that the party considered lacking in impartiality and objectivity.
Dissatisfied listeners and viewers can report programs to the Swedish Broadcasting Commission, the independent regulatory authority in charge of supervising the implementation of Swedish broadcasting legislation, which then investigates the matter. But parliamentarians discussing individual segments was something entirely new, raising concerns about political interference.
The request was rejected by the committee and subsequently criticized by all other parties in parliament. SVT’s chief executive Hanna Stjärne was among those who reacted strongly.
“One of the main tasks of journalism, perhaps the most important one, is to hold power accountable. Therefore, it is very important that there is a clear gap between journalism and politics, that there is no reason to think that politicians are trying to influence journalists,” she says.
But elected officials trying to control the news media, does that really happen in Sweden?
According to Nils Funcke, freedom of speech expert and media law teacher, there are recent examples of Swedish political censorship of individual publications.
“In 2006, the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs intervened and actually stopped a publication that was considered to be detrimental to Swedes or Swedish interests abroad. It was a publication in the Sweden Democrats’ online newspaper of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad,” he says.
The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten had previously published Mohammed caricatures, which triggered strong reactions in the Muslim world. When the Sweden Democrats’ magazine SD-Kuriren followed, Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds of the Social Democratic Party, via her closest political official, turned to the web host, which closed down the site of the online publication.
After Nils Funck disclosed the Foreign Minister’s involvement, Freivald was strongly criticized in the Constitutional Committee of the Swedish Parliament and ultimately resigned.
What happened then could happen again, says Funcke. And to other media.
“If there is a sensitive situation, the regulations governing public service media provide far reaching possibilities to call the shots as to what should be broadcast,” says Funcke.
The number of permanent employees at SVT (television) in 2019.
The number of permanent employees at SR (radio) in 2019.
In Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index, Sweden has slipped from third place in 2019 to fourth place in 2020 following online harassment against journalists, including from the Chinese state.
In Europe as a whole, the trend is also negative: Between 2013 and 2020, freedom of the press has only increased in four EU countries, while it has declined in 23.
Independent public service media is a litmus test of the freedom of the press in a country. And freedom of the press is linked to the degree of democracy, according to Pavol Szalai, who is head of the EU and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders’ headquarters in Paris.
The political debate in Sweden, as well as developments in the rest of Europe, shows that independence can no longer be taken for granted.
In June 2018, Justice Minister Morgan Johansson of the Social Democratic Party appointed a parliamentary committee to evaluate, among other things, whether public service media should be protected in the Constitution. With such protection, changes to the editorial independence of public service media would require two parliamentary decisions with a general election in between them.
Hanna Stjärne would welcome that the threshold for making fundamental changes be raised.
“It would be a signal that one wants to strengthen independence,” she says.
The percentage of Swedes aged 12–79 who listen to SR an average week.
Critics often refer to a 2012 study by media professor Kent Asp that showed that Swedish journalists sympathize with left-of-center parties to a greater extent than the population at large, which many have interpreted as evidence of left-leaning media coverage.
Answering the question “Which party do you currently prefer?”, more than 80 per cent of the surveyed SVT and SR employees responded the Social Democratic Party, the Left Party or the Green Party .
But relatively few employees – only about 100 from each broadcaster – were included in the survey. In addition, the surveyed group included everyone from children’s programmes managers to audio technicians – not necessarily news reporters.
Also, the results varied across the parties. Support for the Left Party was just over 12 percentage points higher among the public broadcaster employees than among the general public. However, support for the Social Democratic Party was 16 percentage points lower. The biggest difference was in support for the Green Party, which 53 per cent of public service media employees preferred compared to 12 per cent of the general public.
But with a response rate over 60 per cent, the scientifically accurate study did show that in 2012 Swedish public service media employees were more left-leaning than the general public. But can it be concluded from this that public service journalism itself is leaning left?
Research shows that journalists’ personal views have a limited impact on journalism itself, since the editorial process is professional, collective and the principles governing newsworthiness carry great weight. Journalists as a group also identify emotionally with political parties to a lesser extent than average citizens do.
That personal opinions is of minor importance is also supported in studies of Swedish electoral coverage: During every Swedish election campaign, from 1979 until today, Swedish media favours one party or government alternative above the others. But SVT and SR favour and disadvantage parties less than other news media do.
And – and this is the main point – there is no systematic support for particular parties. Different parties are favored in different election campaigns, determined by media dramaturgy and which political narrative gains the most traction at the time.
The number of local SVT offices in Sweden.
Who gets a spot on the quiz show?
But if public service journalism is not party political, then what about “culture war issues” such as gender issues and integration?
In Sweden and in large parts of the western world, political conflicts these day are more about identity and values and less about economic distribution. One way of describing the new line of conflict is the so-called GAL-TAN scale, which distinguishes between the value clusters green, alternative, libertarian (GAL), and traditional, authoritarian, nationalist (TAN).
Lars Anders Johansson, himself a former news journalist at SVT, believes that there is a left-liberal bias within public service media.
“At the same time, I have high confidence in the professionalism and for SVT as a news channel.”
The problem is not the news but the broad entertainment programs, he says.
“Who gets to speak? Who is selected for a spot on a popular quiz show? How come left-wing activists get to participate, but very few from other political spheres?”
Johansson believes that the Swedish public service broadcasters should examine themselves and points to a survey that British BBC did in 2007. At that time, the company examined its impartiality in a broad sense, through interviews, seminars and role-playing for employees. The process resulted in new recommendations.
The number of hours of television broadcasted by SVT in 2019.
Judging by the aggressive debate of recent years, one would be forgiven for thinking that Swedish public service media enjoyed low public confidence. But that’s not the case.
Last year, 74 per cent of respondents in an annual survey by the SOM Institute of the University of Gothenburg, stated that they had a high degree of confidence in SVT, while 72 per cent said the same for SR.
The high level of confidence has been stable over time. But if you scratch the surface, the question has been politicised. Between 2010 and 2019, high trust for public service media has increased with those who like parties on the left and in the center and decreased in those on the center-right to right.
However, confidence is still high in almost all groups. Among Left Party and Social Democratic Party sympathizers, more than 80 per cent exhibit high trust in public service media. In Christian Democrats and Moderates voters, the figure is about 75 per cent.
But the Sweden Democrats stand out – less than half state that they have high confidence in public service broadcasting.
As the total confidence is more or less even, it is likely that people who have low confidence in public service media and who were previously scattered in different political parties have now gathered in one party, says Ulrika Andersson, associate professor of journalism and Deputy Director of the SOM Institute.
“Since 2010, they have found a common gathering place in the Sweden Democrats.”
The percentage of Swedes who have high trust for SVT. The corresponding share for SR is 72 per cent.
Attacks on journalists
How does the current climate of suspicions and accusations affect journalism and journalists? As a former US correspondent and current climate correspondent at SVT, Erika Bjerström has covered several of the topics that stir the most emotions.
“The big change is the tone, how terribly aggressively people express themselves now,” she says.
Attacks have increased and intensified. The contempt for journalists is something new, according to Erika Bjerström.
“We have this polarization where people are encouraged to think in terms of the elite versus the people. Journalists have to accept that we are suddenly considered part of that elite, even though many of us became journalists due to a strong desire to hold those in power accountable.”
With polarization comes an uncertainty about what words and expressions can be used in news reporting, says Erika Bjerström.
In December of 2019, she analysed a speech Greta Thunberg held in Madrid, where the young climate activist strongly criticised a lack of commitment from politics and business.
“Talking about the people against those in power, she sounds rather like a populist left-wing politician,” Erika Bjerström wrote.
The reactions were harsh and numerous. Bjerström, who was used to being called a crypto-environmentalist and communist, was now accused of being neo-liberal and affiliated with the oil industry. Eventually, she chose to leave Twitter.
She says she does not shy away from any topics or angles out of fear of being attacked. But it does affect job satisfaction.
The number of foreign correspondents employed by SR.
Has covid-19 changed everything?
The massive criticism of public service media culminated during the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, following a couple of years of political debate connected to the introduction of the public service media tax and the new broadcasting permits.
But then came the coronavirus crisis – and changed the deal.
Not able to carry out planned reporting trips, climate correspondent Erika Bjerström has instead filled in as general news editor, and is experiencing a boost for public service media.
“Now we receive a lot of praise, because we are fact-based, question the authorities, and don’t take politicians’ statements for granted,” she says.
In times of crisis, when the thirst for news is great, people mainly turn to traditional media outlets. SVT’s news program Aktuellt had a top listing on March 22, with almost two million viewers.
Television viewing has increased in general as more people stay at home. But it has increased more for SVT’s channels SVT 1 and SVT 2 than for commercial competitor TV4 – by 36, 48 and 14 per cent respectively during April, compared to the same month in 2019.
“In this situation, it is obvious what a central role journalism plays in society,” says SVT Chief Executive Hanna Stjärne.
As a result, Swedish public service media is currently experiencing something of a honeymoon. It provides a chance to think about how to build on that trust – because on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, polarization and political demands remain.
It remains to be seen whether the favorable conditions for public service media continue after the crisis, or if this is just the calm before the storm.
Increased viewing of public service channel SVT 2 during April of 2020, compared to the same month in 2019.
Reporters Without Borders Sweden recommends:
- Maintain the distance between the political sphere and public service media – give editorial independence constitutional protection.
- Protect journalists from legal threats – preserve the system of publisher’s liability.
- Strengthen protections against threats and harassment – investigate and prosecute attacks against journalist.
Video: Swedish Public Service Media Under Fire
Persons interviewed for this report:
Hanna Stjärne, CEO Sveriges television
Lars Anders Johansson, Culture writer
Pavol Szalai, Head of EU and Balkans desk, Reporters Without Borders
Jesper Strömbäck, Professor of Journalism and Political Communication, University of Gothenburg
Ulrika Andersson, Deputy director of the SOM Institute, University of Gothenburg
Erika Bjerström, Climate correspondent, Sveriges television
Nils Funcke, Free speech expert and media law teacher
Christian Christensen, Professor of Journalism, Stockholm University
Sources in English:
- 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders
- 2020 RSF Index: Europe’s journalists face growing dangers, Reporters Without Borders
- Greek public broadcaster censors reports from islands about new migrant camps, Reporters Without Borders
- Grave threat to public media independence in Bulgaria, Reporters Without Borders
- Montenegro’s ruling party takes control of public TV broadcaster, Reporters Without Borders
- Montenegro: Public broadcaster threatens journalists for speaking out, European Federation of Journalists
- Czech Republic: Follow Up to Request to Preserve Freedom and Independence of Public Service TV, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom
- The Politicisation of the Media over Catalonia, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom
- From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel – Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st century, BBC
- Italian state TV board renews push for ’fake news’ journalist to be president, The Guardian
- Soros Comments to Haaretz Get Italy’s State Media Chief Sued in Political Storm, Haaretz
- Salini nominated RAI CEO, Foa to be president, ANSA
- Hands off Press Freedom: Attacks on Media in Europa Must Not Become a New Normal, Council of Europe
- Democracy at Risk: Threats and Attacks Against Media Freedom in Europe, Council of Europe
Sources in Swedish:
- Linus Bylund (SD) i intervju med Fokus: Straffa journalister som är partiska, Fokus
- Intern motion till SDs landsdagar angående public service, Sweden Democrats Sollentuna
- Public service, Sweden Democrats
- Villkor och riktlinjer för radio och tv i allmänhetens tjänst 2020–2025, Swedish Parliament
- M-stämman: Mindre pengar och bantat utbud i public service, SVT Nyheter
- Så svarade politikerna i Kulturnytts enkät, SR P1, Kulturnytt
- Public service-TV – vårt offentliga rum, Kent Asp
- Ny avgift ersätter radio- och tv-avgiften, Government of Sweden
- Långsiktig finansiering och stärkt oberoende för public service, Swedish Parliament
- Journalistkårens partisympatier, Kent Asp
- Kampen om mediebilden – nyhetsjournalistik i valrörelsen 2018, Bengt Johansson and Jesper Strömbäck
- SOM-survey 2019, unpublished, SOM-institutet
- Sjunkande förtroende för svenska medier?, Jesper Strömbäck and Michael Karlsson
- Rekord i nyhetstittande under Coronakrisen, Mediemätning i Skandinavien
- Budgetpropositionen för 2020, Regeringen
- Årsredovisning för räkenskapsåret 2018, UR
- Sveriges televisions public service-redovisning 2019, SVT
- Public service-redovisning 2019, SR
Public service media at risk
In today’s Europe, public service media is threatened by a lack of funding, attacks on reporters and increasing political pressure.
Pavol Szalai, head of the EU and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders, sees three worrying trends for public service media in Europe.
First of all, funding is decreasing in several countries, such as Denmark and Belgium.
Secondly, political pressure on public service journalists – especially from politicians on the far right – is becoming increasingly common. This has been the case in Austria, for example.
The third, and most serious, trend is direct political interference in the activities of public service media that have become widespread in Eastern and Central Europe.
“We see this trend in Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and, of course, most seriously in Poland and Hungary,” says Szalai.
Radio journalist and author Dariusz Rosiak summarizes the situation in Poland with the words “propaganda” and “demoralization”.
Like many other experienced reporters, he was fired from Radio Troika, where he previously led an in-depth international news program. He still produces pretty much the same program, but as a personal podcast. Listeners are only a tenth of his previous audience, but he makes more money, through crowdfunding.
“Radio Troika is being disbanded. The radio station was legendary in Poland; it was a whole community that many have grown up with, including my children and I,” he says.
In Poland, public service media has been treated as war spoils for the winning team since 1989, says Rosiak. That was the case even before the national-conservative party Law and Justice’s election victory in 2015. But since then, and especially in the past two years, the scope of political pressure has increased immensly.
“Until 2017–2018 it was still possible to work, you could maneuver, do your own thing. But now it’s no longer possible. Public service media has become a pure propaganda channel, part of the party machinery,” says Rosiak.
Since 2015, the public service media board has been appointed by the government. Three out of five members come from the ruling party.
“These three people decide everything that happens on the radio,” says Rosiak.
The influence is both pronounced and unspoken. Sometimes there will be straight orders about the topics to be covered. It is implied which guests must be invited and which are prohibited.
Dariusz Rosiak doesn’t believe Polish public service radio and television will be able to recover from today’s situation.
“When the Law and Justice party loses power at some point, it will just continue. I hear it from my friends and colleagues waiting to take over: ‘Then, we’ll show you.’”
Private, government-critical media also contribute to polarization, and journalists have ended up in two camps – for or against the government.
“In the early 2000s you could go to parties with people who worked for different media outlets, it didn’t matter where you worked. Now that is impossible. Everyone accuses each other of treason.”
Since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, the Hungarian media landscape has changed radically, in a way that is unparalleled in the rest of the EU. The government today controls large parts of the media market; both private and public service media.
In Hungary, public service media has essentially been transformed into state media, subordinate to the incumbent government, which is consistently favored by the news programs.
During the coronavirus crisis, Polish radio censored a government-critical song. The radio listeners voted the song to the top of the chart, but then it was removed from the site. The host has resigned in protest.
The song Twój ból jest lepszy niż mój (loosely translated to “Your pain is better than mine”) by artist Kazik alludes to Jaroslaw Kaczynski, party leader of the ruling Law and Justice, visiting a cemetery in violation of the country’s coronavirus restrictions.
It’s just one of many examples of political involvement in public service media.
Since 2016, the government has appointed the public service media board and practically controls the content. Independent organizations show that news reporting systematically favors the governing party Law and Justice.
The BBC will celebrate its centennial in 2022, but the institution is increasingly being questioned by political leaders.
Politicians from both the right and the left criticize the BBC for bias when it comes to the choice of interviewees, questions and angles. Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Boris Johnson boycotted some debates and interviews, citing alleged bias.
During the election campaign, Johnson considered scrapping the radio and television fee in the future. The current system is guaranteed until 2027, but funding is being reviewed mid-way, in 2022. The government is also considering decriminalizing failure to pay the license.
Public service broadcaster Danmarks radio will reduce its expenditure by 20 per cent by 2023, after the conservative government, supported by right-wing Dansk Folkeparti, pushed through a reduction in funding and a transition from license fee to media tax in 2018. The decision has meant that several programs, radio and TV channels have closed down and that about 400 out of 2 700 employees will be laid off.
Last year, Ukraine’s parliament cut the public broadcasters’ budget by just over 40 per cent. The slimmed-down budget has impacted the programming.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a revised state budget has been proposed for 2020, where public service allocations are reduced by another 10 per cent.
Individual journalists at public service company ORF have been threatened by politicians from populist right-wing party FPÖ. In an interview last year, FPÖ politician Harald Vilimsky said there would be “consequences” for political journalist Armin Wolf. Since then, the party has campaigned against Wolf.
FPÖ sat in a coalition government with conservative ÖVP until the “Ibiza scandal” last year, when a hidden recording from a couple of years earlier was published showing how FPÖ’s then-party leader Heinz-Christian Strache conspired with a woman he thought was a relative of a Russian oligarch. Among other things, Strache said that if FPÖ was helped to power, the party would restructure the ORF.
In Bulgaria, public service media is subject to political pressure. Last September, long-time radio profile Silvia Velikova was removed from the news program she led, after she critically investigated the appointment of Bulgaria’s new national prosecutor.
The next day, the radio had a five-hour break from broadcasting as radio journalists refused to replace Velikova. The delay was excused as “technical problems”.
The Slovenian government is trying to tighten control of public service media. It has replaced three members of the board tasked with guaranteeing the independence of public service media companies, and tried to replace two more, which was blocked in Parliament because it violated the rules.
Prime Minister Janez Janša, who took office for the third time in March of 2020, has accused the public service media company RTV of spreading lies and has threatened to cut state funding. Hate campaigns are regularly conducted against critical journalists.
The Flemish public service media company VRT must save 12 million euros over the next five years. Since 2007, some 600 employees have been laid off in major cuts. The latest funding cuts caused public service media employees to protest in December of 2019.
In Croatia, politicians, public figures and business leaders use defamation cases as a means of controlling critical journalists. Last year, journalists in Zagreb protested after the public service media company HRT reported its own journalists for defamation in more than 30 cases.
Critics believe HRT is acting under pressure from the government.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
The public service media company BHRT in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been underfunded and in debt for several years, and is at risk of being shut down. Since 2016, the company has broadcast very limited programming, only sports and reruns.
Shortly after liberal-conservative New Democracy came to power in July 2019, a presidential decree was issued that placed public service media company ERT directly under the supervision of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. During the election campaign, New Democracy boycotted ERT’s debates, on the grounds that the ERT was favoring the incumbent government.
When New Democracy reigned in 2013, the party closed the ERT with reference to savings. The subsequent left-wing government restarted ERT two years later but was accused of using the public service company as a propaganda megaphone.
In 2020, ERT introduced stronger management control of its correspondents’ reporting on refugee issues.
Montenegro’s public service media company RTCG is increasingly controlled by the ruling party DPS.
In 2017, Parliament replaced an independent member of the Public Service Media Board with a government loyalist.
The following year, the RTCG board fired the company’s CEO, which the Montenegrin trade union for media employees, SMCG, interpreted as an attempt by DPS to control the editorial content. Following the dismissal, the European External Action Service said that Montenegro – a so-called candidate country for the EU – “violates freedom of expression and media freedom, which are fundamental values in the EU”.
In the spring of 2020, RTCG initiated disciplinary proceedings against two of its journalists, after they published information about irregularities at the company on social media.
Public service broadcasters have been accused of bias in their coverage of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. National broadcaster TVE ran only sparse coverage of the referendum and showed no images of police violence against Catalan protestors. The journalist trade union at TVE has accused management of bias censorship and manipulation.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government has accused Catalan public service broadcaster TV3 of spreading independence propaganda, including through kid’s shows.
RTVE (Spanish radio and television) have appointed board members with links to the Spanish government, while TV3 have appointed board members close to the independence movement.
A major public service media reform is currently underway in France. French public service broadcasters, today spilt into five different companies, are to be governed by a single joint holding company. There is some concern that the independence and character of the broadcasters will diminish with the centralization. The Board of Directors of France Médias, where the state has a minority role, will appoint the company’s CEO.
In March 2020, leaked e-mails showed how the ruling party ANO controlled the appointment of board members for public service television. Before a vote in Parliament, ANO MP’s were encouraged to vote for people close to the party, while experienced, critical publicists were blacklisted.
It’s not uncommon for Italians governments to appoint new managers for the countries politicized public service media sector, but the election of Marcello Foa as new chairman of the board in September 2018 nevertheless aroused concern among employees at public service broadcaster RAI. Foa was previously at il Giornale, a part of former PM Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire. He has on multiple occasions been caught sharing fake news on social media and has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Foa was nominated by the then Deputy Prime Ministers Luigi di Maio, of the populist 5-Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of far right party Lega. According to di Maio, the appointment was the beginning of a “cultural revolution” that would “get rid of the people benefiting from nepotism and the parasites”.
Foa has continued to cause controversy. Shortly after taking office, in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he accused the Social Democratic party PD of receiving money from Hungarian-American businessman George Soros, often the target of right-wing and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.