#Guest Contribution: Flight into the Web

How are whistleblowers perceived in different countries? Does digitisation lead to surveillance capitalism? Are blogs and social media a catalyst for democratic change in authoritarian states? What does Europe have to say about how cyber conflicts should be tackled? In the lead-up to the re:publica conference and under our Finding Europe heading, we will put out a bi-weekly review of key debates on these and other issues in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics, with voices from the press and websites of Europe. Our third contrubtion deals with the (in)dependence of online journalism.

"Revolution will not be televised – it will be tweeted": the graffiti that appeared in the streets of Istanbul in the wake of the Gezi protests heralds a development in European countries where press freedom is in danger: criticism of the government is increasingly shifting to the Internet because TV channels and newspapers are in the hands of pro-government media moguls – who don’t baulk at using them to exert power. Can social media, blogs and independent web portals foster an open public debate?

Criticising austerity is treacherous terrain for Greek journalists, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. In its report presented in December, the Federation showed how Athens has become increasingly authoritarian in dealing with public criticism and – strengthened by the closure of the public broadcaster ERT in the summer of 2013 – created a climate in which independent journalism is hardly even possible. Blogger Pitsirikos, who until 2010 had his own satirical programme on the radio station Skai, describes how he experienced the change: “There was no censorship but there was self-censorship. As soon as the microphone was turned on, journalists changed their tune. One very famous colleague of mine once said to me: ‘Hey, Pitsirikos, I hope you’ll tell people about the disgraceful things the politicians have done, because I can’t say a thing.’ Freedom of opinion is guaranteed by the constitution, but people still aren’t free to say what they think.”

Online Alone isn’t Enough

In the Czech Republic the billionaire Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš acquired the media group MAFRA – which owns the conservative newspaper Lidové noviny among others – in the spring of 2014. At the time editors left the paper in protest and founded the web portal Echo24. Editor-in-chief Dalibor Balšínek takes stock on the paper’s first anniversary, explaining why reporting exclusively online is an uphill battle: “The user figures that run into the millions look fantastic from a lay perspective; for advertisers they’re anything but. The Internet scourge according to which quality journalism has to be free is devastating. To survive we’ve started putting out a weekly as well, accessible only for a fee and now also in a print edition. That’s the only way we can ensure our independence. The weekly is an organic component of Echo24: the one wouldn’t function without the other. The second year will be decisive for our existence. It all rides on readers who appreciate the fact that we weren’t afraid to take a walk on the wild side and were the first to resist the wholesale sell-out of journalism to the oligarchs.”

Social Media as a Springboard

Turkish media, for the most part, belong to conglomerates that depend on public contracts and are consequently susceptible to government intervention. Here too, pressure leads to self-censorship, the full extent of which was shown in the summer of 2013 when Turkish media curtailed reporting on the protests in Gezi Park. In response, the number of Turkish Twitter and Facebook accounts exploded, and information on the protests was spread through these channels. Critical reporting then shifted increasingly to the web, as sociologist Erdem Yörük comments in the liberal Internet paper Radikal: “You can call it a dialectic of struggle. The second reaction saw the development of Internet journalism, which is independent of the mainstream. New portals – which have financial advantages because they publish exclusively online and their content can spread quickly over the social media – made big strides, positioning themselves as alternative media. And it all happened with the participation of journalists whose critical attitudes had got them fired from their previous jobs.” 

At the same time few countries have more lawsuits against users of social networks than Turkey, the left-liberal daily Der Standard criticises, detecting a hypocritical campaign: “Erdoğan himself has revealed the objective of these police state tactics with admirable clarity: the goal is the 'extermination' of Twitter and all other online social networks. Because what the Turkish government can't control is harmful. The hypocrisy is considerable. Smear campaigns against journalists and the defamation of citizens who voice criticism are bread and butter for the tweeting AKP functionaries and their trolls. The terrorist army 'Islamic State' (IS), on the other hand, needn't worry at all about its Internet propaganda in the otherwise so sensitive Turkey.”

Copy, Paste and Publish

The social media have benefited hugely in Bulgaria as well, where the people also took to the streets in protest in the summer of 2013 – and even toppled the prime minister. However there was no sign here of the second reaction observed in Turkey: online journalism in Bulgaria takes place above all on the portals of big media players, which look out for their economic interests and are sparing in their criticism of government. Journalist Bistra Velitchkova paints a bleak picture from her own experience in the online portal E-Vestnik: “Writing is done with left and right mouse clicks. Copy, paste, and publish. Online everyone copies from everyone else, and at the end of the day the winner is the one who’s published the most news. Content, sources, authors: none of that counts, just the sheer volume of news on the page. And while some publishers are delighted that they can keep the till ticking over in this way, they forget that they’re part of society and that their lazy methods are dragging us all downwards, themselves included.”


Twenty-six foreign correspondents follow the key debates in Europe and comb through the commentary pages of influential media for the euro|topics international online press review. All the selected opinion pieces are available in German, English and French. The eurotopics press review has been contributing to the formation of a European public sphere since 2005, and has a constantly growing archive of more than 30,000 commentaries. An index of roughly 500 newspapers, online portals and blogs provides broad access to Europe’s media landscape. The journalists’ network n-ost has been producing the daily press review on behalf of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education since 2008.

For more information see www.eurotopics.net