Saturday, July 4, 2015

Seminar 3 Position statement: Lada Trifonova Price, Journalism, Sheffield Univ.

Former communist Secret Services

The role of the former communist secret agencies in the media sphere before and after the collapse of the totalitarian regimes throughout Eastern Europe has been insufficiently explored or understood. Several scholars (e.g. Hellman 1998, Letki 2002, Horne 2009, Andreev 2009, Ibroscheva 2011) have suggested that a number of oligarchs and powerful media owners in the region owe in part their vast political and economic fortunes to the remaining networks of former members of the nomenklatura and the secret services. Both were instrumental in the governing and functioning of the communist state. More importantly, however, scholars claim that secret agencies were instrumental in establishing the new political and business elites post communism.

With regard to the former Soviet Union, Kryshtanovskaya and White (1996: 723), for example, compare the newly established Russian elite (by the mid-1990s) to a “three-layered pie”. Politicians and their circles of allies were at the top, continuously competing for power; in the middle sat the businessmen who provided essential funds for electoral campaigns, lobbying, newspapers and TV. The bottom, but very important, layer consisted of the former security services whose role was to “maintain order but also act as a means of influence and contract enforcement” (ibid.). Similarly, the Bulgarian former secret services ensured that the revolution of 1989 posed no threat to the former nomenklatura and especially not to those who had served as spies and agents. Unlike in other East-Central European countries, in Romania and Bulgaria the political transition has been marked by the active role of the former secret services and their foray into the ruling and opposition parties. In Bulgaria, semi-mafia structures were endorsed by the secret services and the state has not been able to deal with this problem. The privatization processes were in both countries manipulated in favour of powerful local actors while foreign investors were kept at bay (Andreev 2009). In the media sphere this was particularly visible: foreign investors did not arrive until the mid-1990s and a number of them have exited the market in recent years.

Bulgarian journalists also believe that the existence of informal yet powerful networks and their alleged clandestine activities have shaped Bulgaria’s post-communist political and economic development as well as the development of its media system. (Trifonova Price 2015)

Impact on media and democracy

Despite 25 years of transition and several years of European Union (EU) membership, the media and journalists in several Central and Eastern European countries have seen their freedom of opinion and expression gradually deteriorate. In Hungary, the government attempts to silence independent media by imposing draconian laws placing a heavy tax burden on the advertising income of the country’s embattled media. (RWB 2014). Bulgaria is sliding further down the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, cementing its status as the EU’s lowest-ranking member: 106th .(RWB 2015) As in other former communist countries, Bulgarian media ownership is strongly concentrated in the hands of powerful local media barons who see the media outlets they own as a convenient and relatively cheap tool for putting pressure on politicians and rivals with smear campaigns (kompromat) and blackmail. The effect on media outlets and investigative news journalism has been nothing less than catastrophic.

Need for transparency

Horne (2009: 349) argues that throughout Eastern Europe “informal understandings and unwritten agreements between current political elites and former elites in positions of economic power have created widespread perceptions that the transitions were unfair and incomplete”. In Romania, for example, those perceptions are “fuelled by the pervasive belief that the people who contributed to the previous totalitarian regime continue to obtain legal and business advantages, with 80% of Romanians polled thinking that corruption levels grew or stagnated even after joining EU [in 2007]” (Horne 2009: 363). Most of the research and literature discussing the transition and the influence of former nomenklatura networks and the secret services on post-communist societies focuses on transitional justice (e.g. Welsh 1996, Letki 2002, Szczerbiak 2002, Williams 2003, David 2004, Williams et al 2005; Horne 2009, Zake 2010). The role of the former party elite and secret services collaborators/agents in the post-communist media landscape needs to be investigated and understood urgently in order for societies across Eastern Europe to fully close the page on their communist past.

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