Few aspects of the process of democratization in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are more important than the liberalization of the media. Unless free and independent media can be established on a sound financial footing, the new democratic institutions will be seriously incomplete. This study provides a survey of the experience of the media reform to date, an assessment of the challenges that must still be faced, and conclusions and recommendations on what is needed to bring the process to a successful conclusion in the light of Western experience.
When the Polish anticommunist Lech Walesa said in 1993 that, “the level and state of the mass media determine the development of democracy,” few put much value on his remark. A decade later, however, Walesa’s comment has proven prescient. As we evaluate mass media in Central and Eastern Europe, we see a lack of able managers, low levels of journalistic training, and media outlets on the verge of bankruptcy, with governments and emerging businesses systematically attempting to stifle this young, yet already sickly press. Enlarging the picture, we see former communist systems having difficulty finding the path to democracy.
Despite the enthusiasm and euphoria that accompanied the anticommunist earthquake in Europe in the late 1980s, the much-expected societal and economic change has proven to be a formidable task in the region. The process of democratization in the former communist countries remains far from complete. Facing a backward mentality entrenched in many levels of society and striving to resuscitate ailing economies, Central and Eastern European nations have been slow to complete desperately needed reforms in all spheres – including the media, an important part of the democratic process, as Walesa foretold.
Following several libel suits as a journalist in my native Romania and extensive informal research on the state of mass media in former communist countries, the focal issue in the transformation of media in the region is the legal framework in which the press operates. The newly established media laws in the former Soviet-controlled countries indicate the state of the media there. This legal framework is the real Gordian knot that needs to be cut by the post-communist regimes to accelerate the democratization process.
Understanding the importance of this nascent legal culture in the creation of a democracy-building press in the region, this report offers a comparative analysis of media laws in the former communist countries. It examines the whole former Soviet-controlled region of Europe, as these nations share a common political and cultural history, having experienced the same development path for half a century.