Sándor Orbán remembers when the biggest problem faced by
Eastern Europe’s media organizations was not being able to burn through dollars
fast enough to please donors. Now, twenty years after the fall of the Wall, the
funding is drying up just as truly serious challenges are emerging.

“In those days – it’s difficult to believe now – there was a
shortage of journalists,” recalls Orbán, speaking at the Budapest office of the
South East European Network for the
Professionalization of Media
(SEENPM).

With a grant from the American Foundation for Independent
Journalism, Hungary’s Center
for Independent Journalism
was set up in 1995. Radio and television
training was the focus, and American and EU donor agencies were eager to jump
on board.

But as the flood of trained journalists began to
settle into newsrooms throughout the country, it became clear that good
journalism needs a good environment to thrive.

(Sandor Orban. P. Elliott photo).


Sándor Orbán remembers when the biggest problem faced by
Eastern Europe’s media organizations was not being able to burn through dollars
fast enough to please donors. Now, twenty years after the fall of the Wall, the
funding is drying up just as truly serious challenges are emerging.

“In those days – it’s difficult to believe now – there was a
shortage of journalists,” recalls Orbán, speaking at the Budapest office of the
South East European Network for the
Professionalization of Media
(SEENPM). 

With a grant from the American Foundation for Independent
Journalism, Hungary’s Center
for Independent Journalism
was set up in 1995. Radio and television
training was the focus, and American and EU donor agencies were eager to jump
on board.

But as the flood of trained journalists began to settle into
newsrooms throughout the country, it became clear that good journalism needs a
good environment to thrive.

“Sensationalism prevails over indepth reporting most of the
time,” notes Orbán, who worked as an international news reporter for Hungarian
television before becoming director of the Center and, later, executive
director of SEENPM.

In recent years, Orbán and his colleagues have shifted their
concerns from training to big-picture issues, like how to promote investigative
journalism and newsroom ethics.

Orbán believes if media outlets don’t move forward on issues
of quality and self-regulation, they will reap the consequences. “We’ve had bad
past experience with state regulation,” he notes. SEENPM is working with the
Association of Content Providers to set up systems to handle complaints, and to
coordinate individual newsroom codes of ethics.

“Donors are phasing out in this region.”

This is where the importance of media NGOs comes to the
forefront, Orbán says. In a highly competitive environment, some news directors
and editors won’t set foot in the same room as the competition. It helps to
have a neutral third party as a go-between.

But SEENPM is struggling to carry the weight of its new
media policy and research role. Donors appreciate training programs – they’re
simple, with quick results. Now that training is no longer the primary focus, the prevailing
attitude is that Eastern Europe is a finished product. “The traditional donors
are phasing out in this region,” says Orbán.

Orbán and his colleagues don’t see the work as done, though.
In fact, it’s just beginning.

Public broadcasting is “extremely weak,” and private
broadcasting is also on shaky ground. While funding support has retreated,
commercial sponsorship is not yet developed enough to fill the breach, and the
recent economic crisis has left the industry even more vulnerable. Hungary
recently lost several quality newspapers, Orbán notes.

The arrival of online journalism is cause for some hope. But
Orbán worries that hate speech is taking over the Internet, including a rise in
extremist right-wing blogs.

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“This is especially disturbing these days, when the Internet
is becoming the most important source of information for the younger
generation,” says Orbán.

“Hate speech a very delicate issue…”

Roma citizens are among the main targets of racism.  Since 1998 the Center has trained 104 Roma
journalists, who previously were nowhere to be seen in newsrooms although they
make up some eight per cent of the population. Orbán believes the impact the
new journalists have made has been significant, not only in society but also within
media outlets.

“(Editors) faced questions that had never been asked in a
newsroom before,” Orbán says, including questions about photo choices and story
assignments from a Roma perspective. Orbán hopes that challenging stereotypes
in the mainstream media will help lessen discrimination.

Ethical guidelines are another part of the picture. “Hate speech is a very
delicate issue and a very delicate balance. That’s why we’re working with
editors on the matter of ethical editorial choices.”

The work is neither simple and nor quick. A first draft has
already been rejected by media companies as too restrictive. Now the drafters
are back at the drawing board, trying to develop a more “constitutional” style
of document that is short and broadly stated.

Talking with Orbán, you might walk away with the impression
that this is just another NGO citing dire consequences and crying out for more
funds. But one must juxtapose this with the scene in a local park the next day,
where a full force of police officers and riot vans circle to protect a small
anti-racist festival. The potential for a violent, conflicted future is in the
air.

There is also potential for a return to government media
control, as journalists struggle to grapple with tough social issues in an
economic environment that feeds sensationalism instead of quality journalism.
Clearly a strong, independent media remains an unfinished product in post-1989
Eastern Europe, no matter what the donors may think.

Canadian Connection

Some J-Source readers may have met Sándor Orbán. He first
came to Canada in 1994, to take part in the East/West Enterprise Exchange
Program at York. In 2000 he returned as a University of Toronto visiting
scholar at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, where he taught a
graduate course on media in Central and Eastern Europe. Orbán also used his
time to conduct research into reporting on diversity in Canada.

(Photos. Sandor Orban. Anti-Nazi sign hanging on a tree in a public park. Photos by P. Elliott)

Patricia W. Elliott is a magazine journalist and assistant professor at the School of Journalism, University of Regina. You can visit her at patriciaelliott.ca.