How Putin’s war overshadowed a week of crucial elections in Europe

Last week, in the run-up to key elections in Hungary, a group of activists toured villages south of Budapest to hand out makeshift newspapers, printed on a single sheet of A4, explaining to residents that public TV is lying to them and that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, is close to Vladimir Putin. “We take articles from the independent press and reformulate them in simpler language so that everybody can understand them, including in the small villages,” Erika Orban (no relation, presumably) told Le Monde. The project behind the newspapers—called “Nyomtass Te Is!” or “Print It Yourself!”—published more than a million copies for delivery nationwide, leaning on funding from donors including the liberal Hungarian billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. It drew inspiration from samizdat—the tradition of clandestinely distributing banned literature in the former Eastern Bloc.

If this seems extreme for a country that is now a member of the European Union, then Hungary’s institutional media climate makes it seem much less so. Since taking office for a second time, in 2010, Orbán has overseen the erosion of press freedom in the country, with his allies buying up many independent news outlets and turning them into propaganda vehicles, and his government squeezing others out of business. Two years ago last week, Orbán used the cover of the pandemic to force through a power grab that harshly criminalized the spread of so-called “false” information, among other things, and that observers variously characterized as the death of Hungary’s democracy and the birth of “a full-blown information police state.” The power grab was formally rolled back, but critics warned that deleterious effects on the rule of law and press freedom would persist; since then, Orbán allies have squeezed the influential independent news site Index, officials have forced the independent station Klubrádió off the airwaves, and the government has apparently used the potent Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists. As the election approached, Orbán’s words blanketed state TV. His principal opponent got five minutes of airtime in the entire campaign.

ICYMI: New images from Ukraine horrify the world, as Russia kills two more visual journalists

On Sunday, the votes were counted, and Orbán’s party quickly declared a crushing victory. International observers, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have since raised concerns that the election was not fought on a level playing field, not least due to Hungary’s slanted media environment, but Orbán had already moved to dispel such criticism, and in a speech on election night, he further bashed “the left at home, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Soros empire with all its money, the international mainstream media, and in the end, even the Ukrainian president.” Orbán, who is indeed close to Putin, has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also tried to distance Hungary from the broader Western response, leading Ukraine’s President Zelensky to brand him a Russian stooge. Much top-line international coverage of Orbán’s win has cast it as a win for Putin, too.

The same has been said of another election that took place in Europe on Sunday, just across Hungary’s southern border in Serbia, where Aleksandar Vučić, the Putin-aligned president, also won a comfortable victory. Vučić, too, has overseen the erosion of press freedom in his country while accumulating influence over swaths of the media and TV in particular; in January, one local observer told the New York Times that media control is “the skeleton of his whole system,” and in some ways greater than that ever enjoyed by Slobodan Milošević, whom Vučić once served as minister of information. In 2019, Vučić appeared on a press-freedom panel at Davos and pledged, in a sheepish tone, to do better; since then, the Serbian government has used the cover of the pandemic to crack down on independent reporting and apparently surveilled journalists’ emails. Late last year, with the election approaching, Vučić scored forty-four hours of (largely favorable) TV coverage, compared to three hours of (largely negative) coverage for the main opposition party. International observers, including from the OSCE, have now raised concerns that the election was not fought on a level playing field.

This coming Sunday will see another election in Europe, this time in France. (The first round of an election, at any rate; the top two presidential candidates will advance to a runoff scheduled for the end of the month.) At first glance, France—with its entrenched democracy, thriving media ecosystem, and decidedly Western president (even if Zelensky has criticized him, too)—would seem not to be comparable to Hungary and Serbia on such terms. Even there, though, the stakes of this election have occasionally been sharp from a press-freedom standpoint, with Eric Zemmour, a journalist turned far-right journalist-basher, and his supporters channeling violent anti-media rhetoric (as well as actual violence). Zemmour sucked up inordinate media oxygen in the early stages of the campaign, but has since faded; by contrast, Marine Le Pen, the more established far-right candidate, has quietly gained ground in the polls, profiting, as I’ve argued elsewhere, from the explicit normalization of her agenda across parts of the French media, as well as her implicit normalization in the shadow of the Zemmour panic. Le Pen’s anti-media rhetoric (perhaps correspondingly) is not as extreme as Zemmour’s, but she is no stranger to bashing the press and excluding reporters she doesn’t like from events. And, as Jean-Yves Camus, a prominent expert on far-right radicalism, told me last year, many of the people in Le Pen’s orbit “are not the kind of ‘democrats’ I would really like to see in the Élysée Palace.” She remains unlikely to win, but that was never a good reason not to take the prospect seriously.

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In the international press, in particular, the elections in Hungary, Serbia, and France have all been overshadowed, to a greater or lesser extent, by the war in Ukraine. Given that war’s escalating human cost and geopolitical ramifications, it’s understandable that our focus might be elsewhere. But the war has also dominated much—if by no means all—of the discussion that we have seen around these elections, and that’s a more fraught proposition. While the war has of course factored into the campaigns, myriad domestic issues have made these elections important in their own right; Le Pen’s focus on cost-of-living issues, which are war-related but not exclusively, has been offered as a key reason for her recent poll rise. Each election has also been internationally consequential in its own right—in Hungary, in particular, nothing less than the democratic model is at stake, and with it press freedom. In recent months, many on the US right and in its media have promoted Orbán as a model for what they’d like to do to the US. This angle has been much covered, including around Sunday’s election. Without the war, though, Orbán’s victory would surely have been a much bigger story in mainstream US media.

It’s vital, of course, to cover what the results of these elections might mean for the short-term course of the war; a change of leadership in France would be particularly seismic, not least given Le Pen’s past closeness to Putin (though she has condemned the invasion). Zoom out, though, and the rise of illiberalism and far-right values in all three countries is itself a story about Russia and its war, or at least one that is strongly adjacent: a story about the democratic world order, and those who would erode it. Democracy breathes through elections, and the conditions under which they are fought always demand close media scrutiny. Diluting our focus might not be Putin’s top aim. It certainly isn’t his foulest sin. But it is, ultimately, another win for him.

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • France: Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent president and favorite for reelection, has only belatedly entered campaign mode and is even now skipping out on certain pre-election rituals; he already refused to debate the other candidates prior to the first round of the election, and has now opted not to take part in a program tonight on France 2, a public TV channel, that will feature all his rivals. (Bound by French laws around candidate airtime, France 2 will instead broadcast excerpts of a speech that Macron gave on Saturday.) Macron’s entourage has denied that he has anything against France 2, in particular, but according to Le Monde, insiders at the channel fear that’s not the case. In an open letter, journalists at France 2 asked Macron why he’s avoiding them.
  • Serbia: Last month, Miljko Stojanovic, a reporter in the eastern Serbian town of Zaječar, profiled a Ukrainian refugee who had fled to Serbia; subsequently, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, his Facebook page lit up with dozens of messages supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and insulting Stojanovic and the refugee, with some threatening violence. “Stojanovic regularly shares reporting and commentary on his personal Facebook account, where he has about 250 followers. He told CPJ that he has lived ‘in fear’ over the threats, and was prescribed medication for stress.”
  • Cape Verde: In recent months, authorities in Cape Verde, a West African island nation with a traditionally good press-freedom climate, have interrogated three reporters over their coverage of a murder investigation implicating a government minister. The reporters “can’t continue to use the classified information they had access to in any successive reporting,” Al Jazeera’s Nick Roll reports, and must also notify officials if they leave their homes for more than five days or change their phone numbers. A hundred reporters recently protested outside the attorney general’s office in solidarity with their colleagues.
  • Canada: CPJ’s Katherine Jacobsen spoke with Mohsin Abbas, a journalist who was forced to flee Pakistan for Canada twenty years ago and has now stepped in to revive the Tilbury Times, an Ontario newspaper that shuttered in 2020 due to the financial headwinds of the pandemic, as well as two other publications. “I felt a [kindred spirit] with the people in the community who wanted their stories to be told,” Abbas said. “It reminded me of when I was a child in Pakistan and didn’t see my own community reflected in stories from larger publications. Local stories were being lost.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: WNYC removes dozens of articles over attribution issues

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, right, shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, July 8, 2021. Orban is on a one-day official visit to Serbia. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)