The majority of media in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union are largely owned by organized crime, political interests or are not transparent with their ownership structure hidden behind proxies or offshore companies, a 3 year analysis by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project has found. OCCRP looked at media in eleven countries as part of its analysis. It found:
In eleven countries, OCCRP and its local partners looked at 530 media outlets. Of those, 216 were not transparent, 144 had political connections and 54 of them were connected to organized crime. In Ukraine alone, 80 percent of the media was not transparent and offshore companies figured in the ownership structure of 72 percent. In Moldova, 60 percent were not transparent.
Major Romanian media is controlled by a small group of men who have in common service to the former Communist security apparatus and criminal indictments for various crimes including tax evasion, corruption and organized crime activities. A stunning 44 percent of all media had criminal links in Romania. In Bulgaria, 40 percent had ties to crime groups.
Media in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is in a crisis of ownership which has led to poor coverage, unwarranted slander and erosion of confidence for readers who do not see it as reliable. Over the past decade, the media landscape has significantly changed.
Media in the region has become increasingly consolidated with fewer companies owned by a smaller group of people. The largest media and media conglomerates are controlled by offshore companies, members of the political elite or oligarchs. Smaller, independent media has tended to disappear. In many countries, it is not even possible to figure out who owns major media as the true owners are shielded behind proxies and offshore companies.
These are the results of an analysis of media ownership by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project which, for the first time, has examined ownership in a number of regional countries. The project found many instances of media not only owned by politicians or politically involved persons, but in dozens of cases throughout the region, owned by organized crime figures.
The result has been not the growth of professional journalism aspiring to international standards but rather a concentration of media owners willing to use their properties to slander or assassinate the reputations of critics or enemies, settle political scores, create misinformation, propagandize the electorate and lobby for self-interest.
This includes well-funded state media which continues to favor leading political parties and, in some cases, has become the attack dog of ruling party officials.
“Media’s role, the old saying goes, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But in Eastern Europe, our analysis shows that media’s role is to comfort the comfortable and afflict the people,” said Drew Sullivan, OCCRP editor.
OCCRP found some common trends:
- Politically connected businessmen have increasingly become controllers of the media. Journalist-owned organizations, once common, have decreased significantly.
- In some countries like Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria, former members of the security establishment have interests in prominent media.
- Persons with criminal records and even outright organized crime figures show up regularly, particularly in Romania.
- Media ownership structures can be quite complex, sometimes reaching six or seven levels of shell companies. Often, offshore companies feature in these structures with their true owners obscured. The trend to control media though offshore entities is growing.
- Media is often owned by proxies or persons who stand in for the real owners. Sometimes, the proxy owner is the wife of a politician; in other cases it not clear who the proxy represents.
- Media ownership structures are quite different depending on the country. Some favor offshore registration, while others are more transparent, with politicians and crime figures openly owning the media.
- Media ownership changes rapidly, with some companies changing ownership five or six times per year.
- Media coverage often reflects the interests of the owners.
But ownership is not the only way media is controlled. Throughout the region, advertising at large and that of state companies is channeled to preferred media. Independent media have long complained that when politicians do not like coverage in their publications or stations, politicians call their advertisers who pressure the media not to be too aggressive.
Some media have multiple problems. The largest daily newspaper in Sarajevo is officially owned by the wife of a man who allegedly sat down with a drug kingpin to plan the murder of a competing organized crime figure, according to an indictment from neighboring Kosovo. That owner, Fahrudin Radoncic, runs a major political party, served as minister of security and has enjoyed a seat at times in various ruling coalitions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
Increasingly, media is getting grants from regional governments as a means of rewarding friendly media. In BiH’s Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska, media friendly to Prime Minister Milorad Dodik have been beneficiaries of state grants.
At the heart of the problem are the strong historical ties between media, members of the political elite, and oligarchs who have benefitted from political connections. More and more politicians and oligarchs have learned the value of owning a media organization. Rather than creating a fair and independent media, they often use them as in-house public relations departments at best and propaganda tools at worst.
While a small group of independent media, non-profit centers and citizen journalists continues to produce quality journalism, seldom are these organizations dominant in the countries of the region with some notable exceptions.
“The danger is that many of these states might end up where Russia is, with the state controlling half the media and friends of the state controlling the other half. When you have that kind of control over information, the country starts to delude itself,” said Sullivan.
The data was collected as part of a regional project but also for ongoing stories on media. Since media ownership changes on an almost weekly basis, the data for any particular media house may not be current although OCCRP regularly updates the data. Additional countries are being added.