(This post appeared April 9 on The Mantle.)
BRATISLAVA – It’s always nice to hear what a colleague’s up to nowadays.
However, I was both pleased and troubled to recently find one featured in The New York Times, as the “curtain-raising” anecdote of an unhealthy trend emanating from Brussels.
Ina Strazdina is the Last of the Latvian Mohicans – her country’s only remaining correspondent in Brussels, covering the European Union. Heck, fellow Baltic state Lithuania has no journalist left to watch-dog the European body, which both of the ex-Soviet republics enthusiastically joined in 2004.
Times have grown so tough for much of Eastern Europe’s media, dramatic cutbacks almost forced Ina herself to walk the plank in 2008. I’d met her in Prague in January 2007, when she participated in a foreign-correspondence training course that I help lead every six months.
The next year, with Ina stationed in pricey Brussels, Latvian Radio cut her salary by two-thirds, from 2,000 to 700 euros per month – barely enough to pay her rent. So she dug into her nest egg and plugged along, landing freelance gigs with Latvian Television and a leading daily newspaper.
“I had to make a decision,” Ina, 34, told The Times. “I decided that it is easy to destroy things but very difficult to build them up again. Maybe it was an altruistic decision, but I decided I can stay here for another year and try to work.” Her efforts were appreciated: Latvia last year named her its “European Person of the Year.”
Now, I’ve reported from this part of the world for 16 years, so I grasp the financial constraints that hamper media outlets region-wide. Also, how the meager monthly wages of most journalists tempt them to cut corners, accept “freebies” with implicit strings attached, or moonlight on the side in PR.
But the steady exodus from Brussels is more than economic, and more than simply part of the broader trend affecting foreign-news coverage around the world. Just as troubling is how the EU machinery has responded to – and further fuels – this departure.
Then there are the consequences for Eastern Europe itself.
First off, EU communications have gone heavily multi-media. Brussels correspondents tell me of all the press material churned out, like information DVDs stacked at press conferences and press briefings broadcast online. You can’t blame Brussels for trying to win hearts and minds.
One prominent colleague, though, says the PR offensive also crosses the line.
To promote their activities, various EU agencies and institutions often turn to private production companies to generate pre-packaged news releases. Rather than provide the media raw footage and interviews, the product is “nicely lit, nicely filmed,” edited as broadcast-ready, with a transcript to boot, says The Economist’s David Rennie, who writes the “Charlemagne” column about European affairs.
“It’s cut in such a way, if the journalists are lazy, or cynical, or have no money, they can stick it straight onto television – and that’s exactly what [the agencies] know will happen in many cases,” says Rennie, based in Brussels five years. “And you can bet your bottom dollar all those interviews will say this or that is a jolly good idea. Then that’s not news reporting. That’s pretty close to propaganda.”
Such convenience leads some cash-strapped editors back home to view their correspondents as superfluous: no rush to be on the scene, to get the news “first,” if the newsroom can click a mouse and rewrite the press release.
In Eastern Europe, this has ramifications for democracy.
For decades, these countries were pelted with Communist propaganda, with no alternate voices. In 1989-90, they rejoiced in newfound freedoms – including the democratic right to a free press – and stampeded to enter as many Western institutions as they could. Joining Latvia and Lithuania in the EU club are Estonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania.
That these countries today have so few correspondents to explain the complexities of Brussels – in their own language, in terms they can understand – contributes to an ill-informed electorate. When a dispute arises between your government and the EU, how to know who’s right, who’s wrong, or if your representatives are best representing national interests, if no one is reporting from the other side?
Correspondents not only “hold Brussels to account, but also to hold your own leaders to account” in their relations with Europe, says Rennie.
Confirming this is another of my former Prague trainees.
Irina Novakova is a Bulgarian correspondent for the country’s leading daily, Dnevnik, and its top weekly, Kapital. Irina, now 27, arrived in Brussels in 2006, months before her country joined the union. With Bulgarian media also facing financial crisis, she says she “may not be around for much longer.”
The Bulgarian audience, she says, doesn’t yet recognize when journalists are merely recycling press releases, or presenting just one side of the story. Bulgarians, though, happen to hold EU institutions in higher regard than their own, which are mostly infected by corruption.
This, she says, actually leads some editors to not demand that their correspondents thoroughly investigate an EU story, or ask lots of tough questions: what Brussels says can be good enough.
The flip side, though, is that Irina plays a critical role in reporting for readers what European officials really think of Bulgaria, which I’ve recently written about for remaining under fire as the EU’s most corrupt member.
“Of course, I write about that a lot – not only in terms of corruption, but also our overall image, and the performance of Bulgarian politicians,” she says. “Also, being here I can compare what the Bulgarians are doing with what, say, the Poles or the Romanians are doing.”
While EU officials “can chat to you for hours in the corner of the press bar, they would not take your call at all if you are sitting in the newsroom in Sofia, trying to figure out what is really going on.”
What would happen if as in Lithuania, Irina and her colleagues were recalled, but not replaced?
“Free media was one of the promises of democracy,” she says. “And I think we are failing it.”