Media culture grows up in Eastern Europe

BERLIN — Marius Hagger is no stranger to intimidation or threats. Hagger, general manager of Ringier media group in Romania, said his staff has often faced verbal and physical attacks for articles appearing in one of their newspapers or magazines in the country.

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«The journalists and the company come under pressure, especially if they do investigative reporting,» said Hagger, who took over the Romanian operations of Ringier, which is based in Zurich, two years ago. «We had some cases of ad cancellations and also personal and physical threats to our investigative journalists.»

But, he added, «the company supports and protects its journalists in those cases and will for sure not yield to such pressure.»

With its approach, Ringier, which has been in Romania since it introduced the business weekly Capital in 1992, and other foreign-owned media companies have won praise for working to raise the credibility of the news media in a region ranging from Eastern Europe to the Balkans.

Slowly, the foreign owners, which include Axel Springer and WAZ Group of Germany in addition to Ringier, have moved the media culture away from the model that prevailed in the 1990s — that of the local business tycoon or political entity snapping up a property to promote its interests with little regard for the facts.

«There is a real effort by foreign owners to improve the quality of journalism,» said Oliver Vujovic, director of the South-East Europe Media Organization, a regional, nonprofit network of editors, media executives and journalists working to promote professional journalist practices. «They are also prepared to protect their journalists and unwilling to bow so easily to political pressure or threats from the advertisers.»

Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, also credited the foreign-owned media with playing an active role in raising reporting standards.

«It has taken a long time to take root,» he said. «Of course, each country in the region is different, but there is a growing awareness by foreign media owners to promote decent standards of journalism. The training schemes have also improved.»

The WAZ Group, which is one of the largest European media groups, began establishing a strong foothold in the Balkans during the 1990s, buying stakes in newspapers and magazines across the region. including Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Russia. It has recently ventured for the first time into the television market by snapping up a minority stake in Albania’s national TV stations, Vizion, last year.

«Some companies say they are going to withdraw their advertising without explaining why,» said Srgjan Kerim, general manager of the WAZ-owned Mediaprint in Macedonia. «But we know what their problem is. Some of them don’t like what we write. But when we say, fine, we don’t need your advertising, they change their minds. Once they know we will not cave in to pressure, they retreat. They need us because of our circulation.»

The trend may even have had a healthy effect on some domestic-owned media. In Poland, locally owned papers have managed to remain competitive against papers owned by Axel Springer and Mecom.

Perhaps, too, this is because Poland had a thriving underground media and a strong independent Catholic publishing house that had provided an alternative view during the communist era.

Some of Poland’s prominent activists and underground editors during the communist period, including Helena Luczwyo and Adam Michnik, are now editors of Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily since 1989.

Axel Springer has a strong presence in Polish, where it publishes Fakt, another leading daily, and where its reporting is regarded by media experts as often sensational, with a strong nationalist, anti-German bias, even though it is German owned.

But perhaps the biggest test facing the independence of Poland’s newspapers comes from a foreign owner — Mecom, which owns Media Regionalne, the second-largest regional daily newspaper publisher in Poland, and holds a 51 percent stake in Presspublica, whose flagship newspaper is the respected daily Rzeczpospolita.

Mecom, which has a reputation for cutting costs, has so far been profitable in Poland, where it is expanding its online services.

«Poland is a very dynamic market,» said Truls Velgaard, chief executive office of Mecom’s Polish operations since 2006. Velgaard insisted that the company would «not compromise the quality of print journalism.»

Regardless, the media culture has advanced since the 1990s, when West European newspaper publishers first moved east in search of quick profit. Then, with few local entrepreneurs wealthy enough to buy old titles or start new ones, the field was wide open.

But as the region became more prosperous, WAZ, Ringier and others found themselves competing with local business moguls or politicians who snapped up newspapers to promote their own interests.

In some regions, the practice continues. «These local owners did, and still do not, care about real journalism,» said Nidzara Ahmetasevic from the Bosnia-Herzegovina branch of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, editors and trainers that enable journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism.

«It is truly depressing to work as a journalist in Bosnia-Herzegovina,» said Ahmetasevic. «We don’t have foreign media owners as such. Instead, we have small local business people. So if you do an investigative article you are either asked who paid you to write this or to which political party do you belong. The media are so weak here because the international community has never had a unified approach over how to establish an independent media here and because there are no foreign owners as such.»

Hagger, of Ringier, acknowledged the problems but remained optimistic. The company has introduced a new magazine in Romania in each of the past four years, according to its Web site, including last year’s introduction of Diva, a weekly magazine targeting urban young women.

«As long as we believe in quality journalism and especially investigative and critical journalism — sort of a watchdog of democracy — and as long as Romanians buy our newspapers, we do believe that this can have a positive influence on society,» he said.

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DEL