Post-socialist self-censorship: Russia, Hungary and Latvia

This article argues that today in Central and Eastern Europe self-censorship, journalistic freedom and autonomy are just as severely affected by economic constraints, oligarchic influences and new authoritarianism as they are by their Communist pasts.

Co-author: Ilya Yabolkov, European Journal of Communication 35(1) 29–45
Published 10 February 2020

Analysing self-censorship in post-socialist states, this article proposes a new conceptual tool with which to investigate journalistic practices against the background of media oligarchisation and tightened control. We argue that – rather than being a historical legacy of state-led censorship – the specific type of self-censorship we see today in the region has been generated by media markets in crisis, paired with illiberal state interference. Liberalisation of media markets and oligarchic control over the media have become inseparable in many post-socialist countries (Balčytienė et al., 2015; Dragomir, 2019; Štětka, 2015). As a result, self-censorship practices emanating from the state have merged with those typical for free markets.

After a post-2008-financial-crisis exodus of foreign investors from media markets in many post-communist countries, regime-loyal domestic tycoons filled the void (see Štětka, 2015). Heightened economic difficulties and strengthened state-led control have given rise to precarious working conditions, a tight job market as well as time and budget constraints on newsrooms and editorials (Metykova and Cisarova, 2009; Štětka, 2016). Wherever populists have come to power, freedom of speech has been attacked and restrictive media laws have been enacted (Bajomi-Lázár, 2014). Such settings form the ideal breeding ground for a type of self-censorship we term adekvatnost’, which can be understood as a ‘feel for the game’ (in a Bourdieusian sense) – manoeuvring skills that open up space for journalistic creativity and negotiated freedom of expression.

After introducing adekvatnost’ in more detail, we test the concept on the cases of Hungary and Latvia. Journalists searching for alternative channels that allow them to express their creativity and professionalism is a phenomenon not limited to Central and Eastern Europe; their colleagues elsewhere have responded in similar ways to growing control and restraints, including those in countries with long-estabished democratic systems (see Bar-Tal, 2017; Festenstein, 2018). Democracies that have seen similar dynamics are typically home to large privately owned media empires and/or host powerful populist movements (Krämer, 2018; Repucci, 2018). Based on these observations, we conclude that the phenomenon of adekvatnost’ might become relevant for Western Europe and the United States sooner rather than later. Such a scenario would mean that an examination of ‘the East’ will become highly instructive for media scholars and sociologists of journalism to understand what is about to happen in ‘the West’.

Self-censorship and negotiated creativity

Self-censorship is a contested phenomenon, and scholars have so far not arrived at a universally accepted definition, either with regard to its theoretical implications or its empirical investigability (Rantanen, 2013). The most common approach is to perceive self-censorship as a milder form of censorship and as an inevitable side effect of faulty democracies (Bunn, 2015; Kenny and Gross, 2008; Simons and Strovsky, 2006; Tapsell, 2012). Some researchers outright deny the existence of self-censorship in the sense of a distinct category (see, for example, Cook and Heilmann, 2010, 2013). As for Russia, most observers, including Castells (2009), consider self-censorship to be the dominant practice of media control, alongside the state-led production of fake news, the systematic dissimination of misinformation and the continuous clamp down on dissenting media outlets.

With this research, we intend to conceptually advance debates in the sociology of journalism, media control and oligarchisation. Most crucial here is that we contest the idea that self-censorship is necessarily coercively imposed on journalists and a direct result of explicit political pressure, interference or fear (Clark and Grech, 2017; Human Rights House Foundation, 2006; Kenny and Gross, 2008; Vartanova, 2011; for a critique of this assumption, see Lee and Chan, 2009; Litvinenko and Toepfl, 2019). Instead, we argue that the triggers of self-censorship are much broader, and its effects are not just of a restraining and prohibitive character, but potentially even experienced as productive (see also Burt, 1998). Research on journalism in authoritarian states has suggested that self-censorship might, in fact, even serreptitiously foster media freedom. As Tong (2009) claims in relation to China, this is because the art of skilled self-censoring helps journalists bypass minefields and avoid pitfalls. One way to do so and yet still get information across is to smuggle topical material into media products which, outwardly, appear inconspicuous in character and content (p. 594).

For a dynamic of this kind to develop, journalists will have to have initially surrendered to obedience, with the expectation of reciprocity – something Weber (1978 [1922]) referred to as typically occurring under charismatic, patrimonial rule: those who are defiant and rebelling are being punished, whereas those demonstrating devotion and subordination might get rewarded. As for journalists this means that only the obedient ones will be able to retain a position that allows them to speak to large audiences. The routinisation of their self-censorship resembles a process described by Elias (1982): most of what we perceive as voluntary compliance was once exposed to external coercion and constraints (Fremdzwänge), before becoming internalised and seemingly self-imposed normative behaviour (Selbstzwänge). After a while, journalists will perceive certain restrain as self-imposed and practice their circumvention subconciously.

Russian journalists have a name for such expressions of self-censorship; they call it adekvatnost’, a noun deriving from the adjective adekvatnyi, which translates into English as appropriate or reasonable and in our context as ‘a feel for the game’ or ‘a sense of proportion’. We first encountered adekvatnost’ in 2013 when interviewing Russian federal television reporters at various levels, from journalists at the bottom end of the hierarchy to famous media celebrities (Schimpfössl and Yablokov, 2014). Nobody at that time could have anticipated the turbulent events of 2014: the annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine and the rouble crisis of December 2014, all of which had dramatic repercussions for Russia’s media (Kiriya, 2017; Lipman, 2014; Malyutina, 2017). The timing of our first research happened to be serendipitous: 2013 was the last year when journalists were likely to reflect upon and proactively talk about adekvatnost’ rather than be fully occupied with the political events of the day and the immediate impact they had on their work.1

Most of our respondents saw adekvatnost’ as a mandatory quality of anybody who aspires to become a top journalist. That is, journalists might be highly professional in their craft, but adekvatnost’ distinguished the ‘best’ of them (Schimpfössl and Yablokov, 2017b). As with Boyer’s (2003) observations regarding East Germany (p. 529), this is partly due to the expectation that top journalists quickly understand, ‘in the best spirit of professional ethics’, which questions are not to be asked and which sentences not to be written, without requiring any detailed instructions (see also Lee and Chan, 2009: 127).

This ‘sense for the game’ is not unlike what Pierre Bourdieu called the ‘right’ habitus – the physical embodiment of habits and skills, grounded in an individual’s life experience and dispositions (Bourdieu, 1984; for post-Soviet specifics of habitus see Eyal et al., 1998). It is difficult to teach oneself an ‘appropriate’ habitus; the best ones have it internalised, seemingly ‘instinctively’, like a ‘second nature’. At the lower end of the adekvatnost’ ranking sit those who toe the line too rigidly and are overly anxious about getting things right. Too stringent self-censorship stifles creativity and makes media products lame and boring.2 In other words, an outstanding journalist might be daring, flamboyant and quirky, but, in best traditions of Weberian patrimonial reciprocity, clearly knows how far to go, as overdoing such things or getting them wrong would be highly risky in the ever-changing political climate.

Case studies: Hungary and Latvia

By and large, we can observe two slightly diverging developments within Central and Eastern Europe. In one set of countries (among them, Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Russia), once populist leaders secured power, usually with the support of loyal oligarchs, they also secured their control over the media. Another group of countries (among them, the Baltic states and to a certain extent the Czech Republic and Slovakia) have so far proven to be less vulnerable to populism. In these countries, publicly controlled media organisations remain intact and allow for reasonably healthy political competition. The cases we have chosen – Hungary for the first group and Latvia for the second – are characteristic of these two diverging developments. Historically, however, they share a number of similarities. Both countries experienced Soviet occupation during and after the Second World War. Subsequently, Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union and Hungary into the USSR-controlled Eastern Bloc.

After 1989, both countries, but particularly Hungary, were initially celebrated as showcases of democratisation (Magyar, 2016). Hungary held the first ‘proper’ elections in 1990 and in the early 1990s Budapest became the home of the European offices of several international organisations. Latvia also transformed its political institutions immediately after it proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In those years of rapid change, state-led censorship became a thing of the past. Journalists proactively shaped the new media landscapes, some working for the newly created independent outlets, others for the modernised successors of the previously state-run media giants (Rožukalne, 2013). Despite these similarities, there were also clear differences in how their media sectors developed (see Jakubowicz and Sükösd, 2008; Metykova and Cisarova, 2009; Mungiu-Pippidi, 2013; Štětka, 2012). Soon after Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union, it began to absorb many elements of the Scandinavian media model. In Hungary, however, after a brief period of media freedom in the 1990s and early 2000s, the state imposed stricter control over the sector.

The two countries’ trajectories clearly diverged with the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, which hit both economies heavily and drove out advertisers and foreign investors. This opened up opportunities for regional and local business people to buy up struggling media outlets at bargain prices (Urban, 2015). Many previously dynamic outlets gave in not only to political pressure, but also to commercially dubious ventures, such as clickbait (Balčytienė et al., 2015; Lauk and Harro-Loit, 2016). Nevertheless, in Latvia, a reasonable number of independent media organisations have survived, and the country’s public broadcaster has preserved high standards (Rožukalne, 2013). In Hungary, meanwhile, the media landscape has acquired oligarchic traits, and the relationships between owners and employees have become patrimonial (Bajomi-Lázár, 2017b).

The authoritarian tendencies which emerged in Hungary in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis resemble those which took place in Russia a little less than a decade earlier (Agh, 2016; Krastev, 2018; Oates, 2013; Schimpfössl and Yablokov, 2017b; Vendil Pallin, 2017). Media control was crucial for Vladimir Putin to cement his power (see his attacks on the largest commercial television channel, NTV. Mickievicz, 2005: 242–264). Hungary’s journalistic community, however, responded very differently to the new censorship and pressure to self-censure than did their Russian colleagues, who, as a previous research into Russia has shown, exhibited great flexibility and creativity in elaborating coping stategies (Schimpfössl and Yablokov, 2014, 2017b).

Journalist interviews

An empirical investigation of individual practices and day-to-day dynamics required a journalist-focused approach; however, not necessarily one relying on qualitative interviews. When researching a potentially sensitive and, in some respects, intangible topic, and given the stigma attached to self-censored journalism, a mixed range of methods would have been the preferred route to collect material. It would have increased the chances of catching things that are likely to remain unsaid in the setting of an interview (Ho, 2008; Kohut, 2000). Interviews can nevertheless generate rich material. It was through interviews that we initially discovered adekvatnost’ – by pure chance, in the context of a project concerned with television content, rather than journalism (Hutchings and Tolz, 2015). Similarly, in our latest interviews with Hungarian and Latvian journalists, the richest accounts we received were in response to questions which were not directly related to self-censorship.

Besides self-censorship, we asked our respondents about the current political and social climate and how they thought this affected the media in general. This included working conditions and unionisation; how economic troubles impact journalists and their work; and how editorial boards interact with their owners. We conducted semi-structured interviews, 15 in Hungary (in December 2017) and 14 in Latvia (in April 2018). When sampling, we recruited journalists from different outlets; state and non-state, public and private, conservative and liberal as well as print, TV, radio and online media.3

In the analysis, we categorised our data into several themes. First, we identified statements indicating how, when and why journalists might censor themselves, according to their own narratives. Those statements appeared most frequently in answers relating to newsroom hierarchies, political influence on the daily work of journalists, and financial pressures. Next, we explored the origins and causes of the dynamics we observed, as experienced by our interviewees.

Hungary

When international investors retreated from Hungary in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, businessmen close to Viktor Orbán purchased struggling media outlets (Urban, 2016), a process Bajomi-Lázár (2014) calls ‘media colonisation’. The subsequent oligarch-state dominance provided Orbán with a powerful base for self-promotion, something that was hugely decisive for his party’s election victory in 2010 (Magyar, 2016). In addition, Orbán’s government passed changes to the media law which now allows for even more state pressure on the independent media (Polyak and Nagy, 2015).

Not unlike in Russia a decade earlier, also in Hungary the journalistic community became sharply polarised, along the lines of journalists employed by outlets supporting the Orbán regime versus those working for oppositional media. After Orbán’s election victory in 2014 self-censorship became prevalent. According to a study by Urban et al. (2017: 147), by 2015, a third of Hungarian journalists stated that they had concealed or distorted information to protect their jobs. Cautionary measures included holding back any information that mightbe at odds with one’s outlet’s editorial line so as to avoid any risk of it becoming munition in the hands of competitors and politically adverse media. Such a dynamic in Hungary’s journalism has brought it close to what we see in Turkey where self-censorship is well-rehearsed but is nevertheless painfully coupled with coercion and the fear of punishment (see Yesil, 2014). In both countries – and unlike Russia – self-censorship is exercised in response to what Elias called Fremdzwänge, i.e. journalists perceive the pressure to do so as externally imposed.

Even under circumstances such as evident in Hungary, where journalists perceive self-censorship as inflicted upon them, innovative practices have appeared. A number of respondents told us that they occasionally pass on important material, which they cannot publish themselves, to colleagues from other outlets, both competitive and hostile ones. One of them was Viktor, who works for a liberal online medium: ‘When I have a story I really care about and I know for sure I can’t get it out through my outlet, I’d rather have it published by a colleague elsewhere’. László, another liberal journalist, hinted at an additional motivation for such strategies:

If you have a very valuable and exclusive source that you don’t want to lose but you really want to get out there what they’ve told you, the safest option is to pass on the story to someone in another outlet. That way you get it out into the world, but don’t upset your source, which you might want to go back to in the future.

Patrimonial relationships

Patrimonialism in media management – in a Weberian sense –not only affects journalists but also the relationships between editors-in-chief and owners (Andersson and Wiik, 2013; Roudakova, 2017; Waisbord, 2013). Several of our interviewees mentioned Gergely Dudás, the former editor-in-chief of Index.hu, a high-profile media owned by the oligarch Zoltán Spéder. Spéder was a close friend and confident of Viktor Orbán, from whom he regularly received highly lucrative state contracts, until the two fell out in 2015. Until then, Hungary’s media did neither touch Spéder nor scrutinise his business empire; nor did Dudás in his role as the editor-in-chief of one of the media outlets owned by Spéder. Then a scandal ensued, and Dudás was taken to task over why he had never looked into Spéder’s businesses. Dudás defended himself in several op-eds, referring to his duty to maintain impartiality. Had he not done so, he argued, this would have put his staff at risk. In addition, he had felt obliged to show loyalty to Spéder (Dudás, 2016).

Some of our respondents defended Dudás. Tiberiu, a former senior editor of an oligarch-owned media outlet, made it clear that he dislikes restricting both his own and his journalists’ freedom of speech (‘it’s really disgusting, but that’s just what it is’), but he sees his prime responsibility in protecting his staff and maintaining his outlet’s viability. Tiberiu said that censorship and self-censorship are straightforward: ‘It comes from the top, the owner, and then is passed down – first by myself’. Tiberiu defends such measures as principled: ‘If you have moral problems with the owner, then you should never start working for them’(for similar attitudes see Tapsell, 2012: 299, and his analysis of journalists in Malaysia and Indonesia). It had taken Tiberiu some time, however, to develop such pragmatism. At first, he felt very uneasy when he received an interfering phone call from ‘above’:

I used to simply say ‘no’ when they called. But then I went back to the material, looked at it again and, more often than not, changed one thing or another, replaced a photo, changed the title, things like that.

Liberal journalists tend to regard those who work for media which are owned by pro-government oligarchs as little more than propaganda soldiers. The latter are almost as critical of their liberal colleagues. ‘What is the point of being unbiased if they are all selling themselves out to some kind of Soros, or the European Union?’ asked Gábor rhetorically. Before switching to the state-owned newspaper Magyar Idők, this senior journalist held a high position in a liberal media outlet. ‘Everyone is bad’, he said. ‘He who owns the media will play the music; there cannot be any independent journalism’. Fatalist attitudes of this sort are not far off conspiratorial thinking, an important feature of authoritarian regimes (see Yablokov, 2018). Neither were they confined to Gábor. Many other interviewees voiced the suspicion that there must be someone secretly pulling the strings in the background and pursuing a hidden agenda, especially when it came to scandalous revelations.

Attila’s strategy: Dulling down

Attila started his career in a conservative newspaper in 1990, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and has been there ever since. He assured us that back then, in the 1990s, nobody would have changed a single word in a text, certainly not without having first discussed it with the author:

Today they do this all the time, without consulting you. Of course, when you experience such things day in day out, you start adapting to it and censoring yourself. I’ve come to understand that they don’t mean it personally; it’s just what they have to do. It is also implicit that, if I want to keep my job, I’d better play along. That doesn’t mean that they gag you completely. In theory, I can say what I think, but we all know that it’s pointless.

For Attila, things are particularly awkward because he has a passion for Russia which is not shared by the owner of his outlet. Attila would love to write more stories about Russia, but the owner’s dislike of the country is so strong that he would never allow anything to be published which did not paint Russia in a very grim light. This is obviously not what Attila wants.

Attila’s solution is curious: when he writes about Russia, he produces texts that are utterly boring. He gives them the most uninspiring titles. This seems somewhat ironic if we compare the situation with that of journalists in the West, and what they give as the major reason for censorship and self-censorship: they often do not follow up on a story they actually deem newsworthy because they think their editors will find it too boring or complicated and hence, not commercially viable (Kohut, 2000; Pew Research Center, 2000). For Attila, producing seemingly boring texts is his main chance to get a story he really cares about passed through unnoticed. ‘It is a lame compromise, but at least the text will be published. But it is probably better than trying to be a revolutionary – and as a result not be published at all’.

Anticipatory obedience

Like their Russian colleagues, Hungary’s journalists have been exposed to numerous rapid changes in ownership and editorial instructions. Every time a previously regime-loyal oligarch falls out with Orbán, as did Lajos Simicska in 2015, their outlets’ staff has to swiftly adapt to a modified agenda. As long as the oligarch Simicska was friends with Orbán, his newspaper Magyar Nemzet was completely accepted by the government. ‘We used to read every word from Orbán’s lips and like autopilots attacked the opposition’, remembered Máté, one of the papers’ junior writers: ‘Once Simicska and Orbán didn’t get along anymore, everything was turned upside-down. Now Simicska is in love with [the far-right party] Jobbik and starting from page 2 we only cover news about them’.

A consequence of having to keep pace with permanent changes is anticipatory obedience, which is the key for developing adekvatnost’. Anticipatory obedience can be easily overdone, however. The freelance journalist Ferenc socialises with journalists from both opposition and state-aligned media. He thinks that many journalists from both sides greatly exaggerate the level of risk they could potentially face if they fell a little out of line. Almost the only topic Hungary’s establishment is seriously bothered about, Ferenc said, are their shady financial deals. (‘True, if you touch upon anything like that, this could really backfire and destroy not only you, but your whole outlet’.) Otherwise, he thinks journalists could be much more daring, especially state-aligned journalists: ‘They would get away with a lot. Our government has a strong authoritarian touch, but they have never crossed a certain line. They rarely fire someone’.

Paradoxically, self-censorship is indispensable for the survival of opposition media outlets. The reason for this is not political, but market-related. While state-loyal media receive government support, opposition media outlets depend on the loyalty of their audiences, and these are by definition limited in numbers: First, Hungary’s population is merely10 million. Second, the complexity of the Hungarian language leaves little hope of expanding to a non-native readership. Accordingly, as noted by Bajomi-Lázár (2017a: 57), private media organisations in Hungary are prisoners of their their audiences’ preferences. Audiences with oppositional views expect a distinct political line and are unlikely to forgive deviations. This is not unlike how Lee and Lin (2006) describe press journalism in Hong Kong, where readers expect journalists to monitor those in power. The print media market in Hong Kong is highly competitive, and so media outlets must meet readers’ demands. For similar reasons, Hungary’s opposition journalists and editors, especially those of small outlets, are anxious to tailor their content in a way that does not risk upsetting their core readers and viewers.

Latvia

After 1991, Scandinavia sought to establish influence in the Baltics. To bring the region’s media infrastructure up-to-date, Scandinavian media businesses and NGOs provided know how, learning technologies, media training and investments (Balčytienė, 2009). A few of our respondents were critical of this interference and saw the Scandinavians’ main agenda as profit-making rather than investing (Balčytienė and Lauk, 2005; Štětka, 2012). Most, however, assessed their northern neighbours’ activities rather positively. Marta used to work for the daily newspaper Diena, then owned by the Swedish Bonnier group. Until 2008, Diena was Latvia’s flagship media outlet in the market of commercial quality journalism. Marta appreciated the training courses Diena ran and the high ethical standards they introduced. Emilija, a journalist now working for the finance newspaper Ir, remarked that ‘we had Nordic media trainers before we got Nordic banks. They taught us everything: from basic ethics to storytelling and specific examples of business writing’.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Latvian journalists found themselves in a similar situation to their Hungarian colleagues: domestic oligarchs purchased outlets abandoned by international investors (see, for example, Rožukalne, 2012, 2013). The most drastic development came in 2009 when Bonnier sold Diena to an unnamed company registered offshore. Later, it was revealed that the buyers were Latvian business tycoons with a highly dubious reputation (Baltic News Network, 2011). The new owners used their media outlets for their economic and political gains, with little consideration for how this affected journalism. Before long, certain practices re-appeared which had been thought to be features of the past. Most shocking for many was the spread of hidden advertising [dzhinsa], something strongly associated with the shady and unprincipled 1990s.

The Russian question

Almost all of our respondents mentioned the difficulties they experienced when covering Russia-related topics and trying not to alienate the large Russian-speaking minority who make up one-third of Latvia’s population. For centuries there has been a small minority of ethnic Russians in Latvia, mostly consisting of political and religious exiles. The number more than tripled during the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1948, and many stayed on after the war. Unlike in Lithuania, where the large Russian community has been successfully integrated, the Latvian authorities are still worried about the loyalty of ethnic Russians to Moscow and their potential to stir up domestic conflict.

This situation requires great sensitivity from those engaged in agenda-setting, particularly in public media (Petrova, 2017; on Eastern Europe in general, see Voltmer, 2013). During the time of our fieldwork in Latvia, the public media’s advisory board criticised a team of reporters for allegedly exerting ‘Russian propaganda’. The contentious issue was a photograph illustrating a report on the MH17 plane which was hit by a rocket over the Donbass region in July 2014. The reporters searched for a photograph depicting the plane’s black box. The best image they could find and eventually picked was from the Russian state-aligned news agency Sputnik. The advisory board was outraged as they deemed it unacceptable to use such a source. The incident left all sides disgruntled.

Conflict lines between Russians and Latvians are particularly stark when media products touch upon Latvia’s traumatic 20th century history. A particularly emotional date in the calendar of the Russian-speaking population is 9 May, the day on which Russians commemorate Soviet victory in the Second World War. Every year, crowds of Russian speakers gather around the Soviet-built liberator statue (a memorial which actually pre-dates not only May 1945 but also the 1944 occupation of Latvia by Soviet forces). Many of those commemorating the event share Russia’s nationalist attitudes. Elvita described some of the many challenging issues she encounters year after year when covering the commemoration:

I have to carefully weigh every word and have to think hard about how to approach the coverage without offending anybody’s feelings. After all, some of the people who gather around the memorial might even have experienced those times. Then again, we mustn’t forget that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union, so for many 9 May triggers very traumatic memories. All this leaves public TV (and me as the senior editor) with the tricky task of doing justice to all these emotions. Along the way I might easily censor myself.

Commercial pressure

Self-censoring practices were most clearly manifest in interviews with journalists who work in the commercial sector. Areas that generate solid profits for local businessmen as well as benefits for politicians are particularly affected by such pressures (Šulmane, 2011). Dzintara, previously a television reporter at a private channel, told us about her experience when producing a programme about scandalously low sanitary standards in a large supermarket chain. Dzintara knew perfectly well that the chain was one of the channel’s main advertisers, but that did not hold her back. The management responded sharply and without delay. They first froze Dzintara’s and her colleagues’ salaries for a couple of weeks. Eventually, they shut down the programme. Dzintara was dismissed and, for a couple of years, was a persona non-grata on Latvia’s media job market.

Repressive measures of the sort Dzintara experienced are rare, partly because journalists do not often take such risks, but act in the spirit of adekvatnost’. Subsequently, owners do not usually feel they need to resort to active coercion and repression. Such attitudes perpetuate patrimonial relationships as laid out by Max Weber. Paula is the editor-in-chief of a specialist magazine in a highly lucrative business field. The board of trustees who sponsor the magazine have never intervened in her work. This has not been necessary, she said. Paula did not need an explanation of what we mean by adekvatnost’. She knows it inside out. For example, she would never write positively about her board members’ competitors. Her staff have internalised all of the major informal rules as well as she has, without ever having required any briefing. ‘Nobody needs to be told twice’, Paula said, summarising the unspoken codes of practice around self-regulation and self-censorship. Such informal rules were not unlike those observed by Tapsell (2012) in Indonesian where, similarly, journalists knew what to do and never had to be reprimanded (p. 240). In both contexts, self-censoring practices have been so routinised and internalised that they have long become a Selbstzwang, as Elias put it, something journalists no longer perceived as externally imposed.

Latvia’s business structure determines certain informal hierarchies. The country is in a key position to play an important and lucrative role in commercial transportation across the Baltic Sea and so the cargo business is high up in the hierarchy. Sofija, a journalist in her early 30s, told us: ‘You have to be very careful what you say about transit-related issues. Trade cargo is a huge market and all oligarchs have stakes in this business’. Sofija was brought up as a Latvian speaker. Her English is fluent, thanks to her school and university education. Given her youth, the Russian language has never played a role in her life, nor has learning it ever appealed to her. Towards the end of our interview, we mentioned how we initially became aware of adekvatnost’. Despite her very limited knowledge of Russian, Sofija got very excited when she heard the term. She instantly understood all the nuances of the word. More importantly, she could very much relate to it. This did not mean that she had ever used adekvatnost’ actively herself; rather, she felt that the term expressed so much of what she had experienced in her practice as a journalist, but what she never knew was what to call it.

Sofija then told us of her own experience with adekvatnost’. At the beginning of her career, she worked in a private media, a period in her life which she recalled as being both useful and painful (on the commercialisation of Latvian media, see, for example, Rožukalne, 2012). In a country as small as Latvia, a journalist must know which politician has stakes in what business, she explained, ‘With regards to them, you might make a mistake once, maybe twice, but after that never again’. After a dreadful experience when she was repeatedly intimidated so that she would refrain from reporting on a commercial scandal, Sofija left private media for a high-status job as presenter in public media. Although her work life became less frightening, she said that adekvatnost’– ‘knowing the rules of the game’ – had helped her ever since to avoid trouble, starting with such matters as libel cases. As if she had acquired the most suitable habitus in a Bourdieusian sense, she knows perfectly well how to choose her topics pragmatically, what to say and what to discuss. The most important thing, she said, is to not become too confident and get carried away with, for example, the temptation to experiment. Never take risks when inviting guests; make sure they are ‘appropriate’ and ‘reasonable’ [adekvatnyi]. Sofija is professional [adekvatnyi] enough herself to be able to fully rely on her ‘gut feeling’.

Conclusion

An explanation of why Sofija responded so strongly to the term adekvatnost’ can be found in her country’s history. After the Soviet occupation of Latvia at the end of the Second World War, a large Russian population stayed on. This meant that Latvians had dealings with Russians on a daily basis (and still have), something of which Hungarians, who enjoyed more freedom in the Cold war period, had less experience. Given these circumstances, Sofija could have had substantial exposure to the Russian language, even though she never learned it. What contradicts this explanation, however, is that adekvatnost’ became Sofija’s second nature – or habitus, to use Bourdieu’s term – long after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in the 2000s while whilst she was working for a private media holding which traded almost exclusively with Europe. Sofija is in her early 30s, while the Hungarian journalists we interviewed are around a decade older. They were professionally socialised in the liberal climate of the 1990s. For them Orbán came as a massive shock, the consequences of which they still cannot quite deal with. Hungarian opposition journalism is intertwined with political activism (see Rantanen, 2013: 264). When these journalists ‘play along’, this has nothing in common with the ‘habitus’ embodied by Sofija (see Philpotts, 2012: 60), who experiences adekvatnost’ in the same way as her Russian colleagues do: a ‘sense for the game’ which, when played correctly, allows for great freedom in one’s day-to-day life as a journalist.

Sofija’s familiarity with adekvatnost’ challenges the commonly held idea that, in countries with a legacy of communism and post-communism, the reappearance of self-censorship is anchored in their history of state-led censorship and illiberal oppression (Becker, 2004; Lipman, 2005, 2014; McNair, 1994; Pasti, 2005; Simons and Strovsky, 2006). Instead, we argue that the emergence of the distinct self-censorship practices we see today are much more tightly connected to the liberalisation of the economy paired with media oligarchisation. These two developments have become inseparable not only in Hungary, Latvia and Russia, but also, for example, in several highly developed, semi-authoritarian Asian economies (Tapsell, 2012: 229).

This pairing of state-led control and a media landscape dominated by media tycoons destroys two myths: first, that high marketisation and aggressive state interference are opposites, and second, that censorship is a binary phenomenon, either being generated through state repression or through commercial demands. Today, instead of suffering from the staggering transformation to liberal democracy, many post-socialist countries are dominated by government-loyal media tycoons and their crony media market. In Russia, this process started in the aftermath of the 1998 collapse of the rouble; in Hungary and Latvia it took place a decade later, with the onset of the 2008 economic crisis.

The dynamic of adekvatnostisation might have important implications for the study of media and press freedom well beyond Eastern Europe. Economic troubles loom large over the media markets in Western Europe and, politically, their liberal democracies are increasingly challenged by populism (Grattan, 2008). As a result, the study of censorship and self-censorship in (semi-)authoritarian countries with strong populist features (such as Hungary, Poland and Russia) and distinctive post-2008-crisis, oligarchic dominance over the media market (such as The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia) could provide insights into where journalism in many Western European countries, if not globally, may be heading. One feature to be studied could be the appearance of something similar to adekvatnost’ and dynamics of adekvatnostisation: that is, self-censoring practices among journalists which, with the allowances they make for individual creativity, are particularly difficult to break. Such a ‘reversed’ perspective on things – looking at ‘the East’ to understand what might be happening in ‘the West’ – would in many respects be a game changer for media studies, politics, sociology, area studies and beyond.

Funding

The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: We are grateful to the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust to have enabled our research through the award of a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.

Notes

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Elisabeth Schimpfössl

About Elisabeth Schimpfössl

My research focuses on elites, philanthropy and social inequality as well as questions around post-Socialist media and self-censorship. I did my PhD at the University of Manchester and taught at Liverpool University, Brunel and UCL before taking up my current post as Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. I live in London.