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Features Posted May 06, 1998
Censorship in Central Europe
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Sidebar:
Central Europe Sidebar

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It would be reasonable to expect countries that were totalitarian just nine years ago to have, at the least, a fairly illiberal approach toward domestically produced Internet content and news.
 
But in the case of the Visegrad Four countries of Central Europe -- the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland -- that assumption would be dead wrong.
 
"Censorship? Ha! What a non-topic that is here," said Steven Carlson, Chief Strategist of the Web design company iSYS Hungary (http://isys.hu) and occasional columnist on new media. "The only censorship here is the dearth of bandwidth."
 
To a large extent the lack of state interference in these countries' new media mirrors the mostly hands-off approach to old media, and reflects their status as the most sophisticated and reformed of the ex-Soviet satellites. Only Slovakia, which has less than five years of statehood under its belt (and which has dropped behind the other three in the races to join NATO and the European Union), is occasionally criticized for government meddling into media -- and even there you can find a thriving opposition press and a private television station.
 
"The censorship in Eastern Europe thing really betrays a total ignorance of the situation out here, at least in the Visegrad Group countries."
-- Douglas Arellanes, Director, Inicia WebStudio
"The censorship in Eastern Europe thing really betrays a total ignorance of the situation out here, at least in the Visegrad Group countries," said Douglas Arellanes, Director of the Prague-based Web design company Inicia WebStudio (http://www.ini.cz/offshore). "Even in Slovakia, the Net hasn't come under any controls whatsoever, which is why you see so many good software piracy sites springing up out this way."
 
If Vladimir Meciar, the thuggish and populist prime minister and acting president of Slovakia, really wanted to stamp out cyber dissent in the runup to this fall's parliamentary elections, he'd pull the plug on 19-year-old Miro Sedivy.
 
Sedivy, a high school student who was recently accepted to Utrecht University College in the Netherlands, runs a handsomely designed English-language daily news site called the Geocitizen's Unofficial Guide to Slovak Politics (http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/7502/index.html, where you can read cheeky stories about Meciar dumping his mistress, transcripts of Meciar's rambling stump speeches (with the crazy bits italicized) and click on links to other articles about the country.
 
"I used to communicate with several people from different countries in English, and they often asked me to explain some information they received in their media," Sedivy said. "And when I wrote the same thing three or four times, I decided to put it on [my home page]. And then it just evolved, expanded..."
 
Sedivy's original reporting and rewrites of newspapers and broadcast news are used by Lithuanian's main TV station for its Slovak coverage, and the site attracts a readership divided between anti-government citizens and Meciar-appointed state. Daily readership is only around 60-80 visits, though, which points to a main complaint of Central European Web publishers -- lack of access.
 
"There isn't anybody out here making scads of money on this stuff," Arellanes said. "Like most of their U.S. counterparts, they're gritting their teeth, trying to ride out the hemorrhaging before they get venture capital or at least a paying customer. They all whine about not being able to attract banner advertising, and how even if they do get a banner ad, it doesn't bring in any money really."
Hungary has led the four countries in privatizing their inefficient state phone companies and adding new digital lines, but even there, local calls are expensive. "This amounts to maybe $3 an hour, which comes on top of your ISP charges, which are roughly $20 a month. These are countries in which the average monthly income is roughly $200 a month after taxes," said Henry Copeland, editor and publisher of CEEBIZ.COM (http://www.ceebiz.com/), which posts excerpts from parent company New World Publishing's business journals and daily fax services from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
 
"The Internet is a medium only for people who can log on from work, or school, or for people who are well-off by local standards. So even with its veneer of sophistication, Central Europe is just breeding a technocracy and leaving 95% of the population unplugged."
 
But sites like CEEBIZ and Central Europe Online (http://www.centraleurope.com) are happy to fatten up on foreign readers. CEO, published by the Prague-based European Internet Network (which also produces Russia Today <http://www.russiatoday.com/> and Inside China Today <http://www.insidechina.com/>), is a sprawling site featuring mostly Reuters news, original travel pieces, links to local English-language newspapers dozens of other Central Europe-related addresses.
 
"Our audience is almost exclusively in the West (roughly 60 percent U.S.). The local authorities don't seem to know we are here," said CEO Editorial Director Eric Woodman. "We like it that way, too."
 
[T]he lack of state interference in these countries' new media mirrors the mostly hands-off approach to old media, and reflects their status as the most sophisticated and reformed of the ex-Soviet satellites.
With few of their readers hooked up on the Internet, and few people outside their countries speaking their languages, the existing media of Central Europe have limited readership to their online sites. An exception is HVG, Hungary's Economist-inspired business weekly, which produces a site in Hungarian and English (http://www.hvg.hu/english/menu.htm).
 
HVG Online Editor Zsolt Katoma said that even with the English version, a full 80 percent of his 2,000-3,000 daily visitors are Hungarian. "[The Internet] is definitely not being ignored," he said."Especially now, with the elections drawing near (May 10), the Web is being discovered or recognized as an indispensable source of info."
 
With its telecoms lead and technologically savvy cheap labor, Hungary is becoming the regional center for software-related companies. European giants such as Ericsson and Lufthansa have established programming centers, and there are a growing number of smaller Western-owned firms such as E-Pub, an Internet games developer, which produce Internet-related services cheaply Hungary and sell them in the richer West.
 
"[E]ven with its veneer of sophistication, Central Europe is just breeding a technocracy and leaving 95% of the population unplugged."
Henry Copeland, CEEBIZ.COM
"There's a great enthusiasm to outdo the rest of Europe in acquiring and manipulating all the sophisticated techno-trappings of late 20th century capitalism," Copeland said. "Hungarians have more cellular phones per capita than the French, and a higher proportion of digital lines than a number of supposedly sophisticated Western countries."
 
Prague, in turn, can claim a population of literate and hip urban youth, drawn to the coolness of new media the same way they embrace the latest drum-and- bass (if you read Slavic languages, check out the Internet-only newspaper Neviditelny Pes, or "Invisible Dog" (http://pes.eunet.cz/).
 
But the vast majority of Central European sites suffer from a familiar problem -- a lack of funds.
 
With its telecoms lead and technologically savvy cheap labor, Hungary is becoming the regional center for software-related companies.
"There isn't anybody out here making scads of money on this stuff," Arellanes said. "Like most of their U.S. counterparts, they're gritting their teeth, trying to ride out the hemorrhaging before they get venture capital or at least a paying customer. They all whine about not being able to attract banner advertising, and how even if they do get a banner ad, it doesn't bring in any money really."
 
CEO, which is free, is on target to become profitable in 2000, Workman said. "Most of our revenue comes from Web design. We have not sold many ads so far, but our revenue stream has grown from nearly zero to more than $30,000 a month since the first of the year."
 
CEEBIZ.COM intends to charge subscriptions between $245-2,500 a year. HVG Online has no plans to charge for subscriptions. "'Touch wood,' we are among the lucky ones," Katoma said. "We generate revenue from advertising, and it is growing too."
 
So far, there have not been any landmark legal cases in Central Europe regarding news content on the Internet. However, the standing press and media laws in each country, while not much different than those of Europe, would make a First Amendment loyalist scream.
 
So far, there have not been any landmark legal cases in Central Europe regarding news content on the Internet.
In Hungary, journalists are obliged to fax over a copy of any subject's quotes pre-publication "for review", and photographers are supposed to get permission from "private" citizens before printing their photographs. In Poland, public figures have won lawsuits against magazines for printing photos of them in private moments. And in Prague, the loveable President Vaclav Havel has even contemplated using a communist-era provision that allows him to prosecute anyone who defames him. In Slovakia, Meciar and other Cabinet members have filed more than a dozen lawsuits against newspapers.
 
On the whole, however, state suppression is the least of the Visegrad Four's media worries. Almost every newspaper is now private, but as in the rest of Europe, the owners often have close ties to individual political parties. Directors of state-owned TV news change jobs with dizzying regularity, but more Central Europeans now get their nightly dose from private stations that aren't nearly as cozy with the government.
 
The older problems of cronyism, and the ability to buy off journalists and newspapers, have been the subject of recent hand-wringing among the media and public relations associations of Hungary and the Czech Republic in particular.
 
But governments who consider taking revenge on uppity journalists need only to look in Slovakia, where Meciar's bullying tactics have given him an international reputation as suffering from a "democracy deficit," pushing the country back from the front of the line.
 
"The Czechs, Hungarians and Poles are in an incredibly ticklish situation here, trying not to do anything that would mess up their NATO and EU talks," Arellanes said. "And that includes anything that looks like censorship."

... to Net Censors: The New Control Freaks

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Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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