Undermining media plurality undermines democracy

January 29, 2016

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Budapest Beacon senior correspondent Benjamin Novak delivered the following remarks on the relationship between media and democracy in Katowice, Poland earlier this week:

As part of my work, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to the United States to interview experts, academics and policymakers about the situation in Hungary. I was in the US last week to conduct interviews about pressing issues both Hungary and the European Union are facing right now. Not only do I write about what is happening in Hungary, I also write about its broader impact regionally and internationally.

The interviews I conducted in the United States last week addressed Hungary and the European Union, but not a single discussion passed without mention of what is happening Poland. It is important to know that what is happening right now in our two countries, Hungary and Poland, is being closely followed by many outside our countries.

My reference to the current situation in Hungary and Poland is meant to raise awareness about attacks on press freedom and media plurality by populist governments.

Both democracy and the markets work best when people have access to timely and accurate information. Investors, executives, managers, and shareholders can only make good decisions when they have access to timely and accurate information.

As members of democratic countries, we, too, are stakeholders in something much larger than ourselves. In a democracy, as in the marketplace, we can only make good decisions if we have access to timely and accurate information. A free press facilitates this. It allows for a wide range of information to be made available to the public — information that helps voters make prudent decisions.

Without timely and accurate information, members of democratic societies are fed lies and propaganda, and they will vote based on what their gut tells them instead of what their head tells them. Diligence and prudence succumb to hysterical decision making, and the rest is history.

Imagine the plight of a journalist whose work becomes stifled by the “chilling-effect” of an all-powerful state. How terrible it must be to practice self-censorship!

Unfortunately,not only are the governments of Hungary and Poland dismantling the rule of law, they are actively undermining the free press and media plurality. If the media sector falls under the control and influence of the state, only information that is favorable to the government is released to the public.

This inevitably leads to an uneven playing field and fair competition is lost. Elections are no longer fair because a balanced playing field is no longer guaranteed. Unfortunately, the situation in Hungary has taught us that where there is no fair competition in politics, there is no fair competition in the marketplace.

Thanks to great advancements in technology, people are now able to access and share information like never before. Getting a story out no longer requires meeting with a publisher or pitching an idea to an editor. You no longer need access to a studio to record an interview. All you need is access to the internet, a smartphone and the desire to tell a story.

We are all journalists in our own right. But should we choose to undertake the task of telling a story, we owe it to our audience to share the facts in manner that reflects that we are all empowered to be positive forces for change. This responsibility demands that we work closely with civil society, experts and other stakeholders because they are simply not given space in a restrictive media environment.