Reviving News Media in an Embattled Europe
For over a decade, a series of crises have undermined the media’s ability to support democracy. Traditional business models have collapsed with the rise of the internet and social media platforms. Hyperpartisan news sites and disinformation have damaged readers’ trust in online content. At the same time, illiberal leaders in several democracies have developed sophisticated methods for silencing and co-opting the media.
These serious challenges have sparked new and ambitious approaches for sustaining journalism. Driven by necessity, a dynamic group of European media organizations are developing alternative business models, strengthening the craft of journalism, engaging younger and more diverse audiences, and building networks to defend against legal attacks. While their stories are distinct, lessons learned from their successes can inform future policy approaches to reviving independent media amid the twin forces of democratic backsliding and digital disruption.
Freedom House conducted in-depth research and interviews with nearly 40 media professionals and experts in six countries: Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. The countries vary by market size and by the health of their democracy, but all are part of the European Union (EU), where members are debating important regulatory measures to protect media independence and pluralism under a proposed European Media Freedom Act. Freedom House examined four conditions affecting the playing field for independent news media and their role in democracy: their ability to sustain themselves financially, reach and engage diverse audiences, earn public trust, and play a watchdog role.
The report found several areas of promise. In the face of economic coercion, Hungarian outlets such as Telex, Klubrádió, Átlátszó, Partizán, and Direkt36 have turned to crowdfunding, microdonations, and membership schemes, or formed nonprofit foundations to collect taxpayer donations. These efforts consciously use financial transparency to earn donors’ (and readers’) trust. Digital outlets like Mediapart and Les Jours in France and Il Post in Italy have also focused heavily on cultivating audience revenue, earning trust and credibility by embracing transparency and adhering to strong ethical standards.
Public service media have also reached out to new audiences. Estonia’s public broadcaster invested in a dedicated Russian-language channel to counter Moscow’s propaganda and deliver independent news to the country’s Russian-speaking population. In Germany, public broadcasters ARD and ZDF founded an online-only network that engages younger audiences, while some reputed outlets have garnered large followings on TikTok.
And, in environments where journalists face increasing legal and political threats, outlets have joined networks to defend themselves in solidarity rather than in isolation. For investigative projects in Poland, Hungary, and Italy, legal aid, cross-border investigations, and international advocacy efforts have provided safety nets against a deluge of frivolous lawsuits.
While these bright spots hold promise, the challenges journalists and media managers face are broad and systemic. It will take holistic solutions to ensure environments where independent media can continue to flourish. The report concludes with a series of recommendations to European institutions, governments, funders, and civil society organizations. The learnings from this research have global implications for how democracies can revive media’s ability to play a constructive role in democracy.
Hungary has become the only EU country rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World, and has joined the grey zone of “hybrid regimes” in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report. The government’s hostility toward critical media has played a significant role in this deterioration. Since taking power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) has implemented a series of constitutional and legal changes that have undermined the rule of law and consolidated control over state institutions. While privately owned independent media outlets still exist, the cards are heavily stacked against them in a landscape dominated by progovernment outlets that frequently smear the party’s political opponents and perceived critics. State advertising favors outlets that toe the party line, public service media is controlled by the government, and government allies have taken control over large segments of private media.
Poland’s media remains more vibrant than Hungary’s. Since 2015, however, Jarosław Kaczyński’s populist and socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has exerted economic, legal, regulatory, and political pressure to destabilize outlets considered adversarial and recalibrate the landscape in its favor. The party has purged dissenting voices from public broadcasters, and has used state-owned companies to take over press distribution networks and regional media and to channel public advertising to outlets that support the PiS government. In its efforts to “repolonize” the media landscape, PiS has taken aim at foreign media ownership, and has redoubled pressures on the US-owned private television station TVN and its news channel TVN24, which is often critical of the government.
Countries that score higher on Freedom in the World’s indicator for media freedom include Estonia, Germany, and France. But even robust democracies that benefit from well-grounded journalistic protections, regulatory frameworks, and independent judiciaries are not without their own difficulties in sustaining vibrant news sectors that can engage audiences in the digital era and provide a diversity of high-quality content.
French media operate freely, and the landscape continues to boast a plurality of voices and political opinions at the national and local levels, yet public policies related to the media have struggled to keep pace with new digital realities. The state maintains one of the oldest press subsidy systems in Europe, but it has faced criticism for an outdated approach that favors established print outlets over newer digital entrants. Moreover, the rise of major media owners who also retain stakes in separate industries has fed growing public skepticism about the media’s independence. Public antagonism has been reflected in verbal and physical attacks against journalists during protests in recent years. This phenomenon has been most acute during coverage of the Yellow Vests protests, which began in 2018 and brought to light frustrations with the deepening gulf between ordinary people and the political establishment, including the journalistic elite.
Influenced by its totalitarian past, Germany has established strong safeguards to shield its media system from authoritarian power grabs. This includes a decentralized model for public service media that helps protect editorial independence and pluralism. While press freedom in Germany remains robust and self-regulation through the press council and press codes generally works well in practice, financial pressures have impacted media pluralism, especially local news production. Though traditional media still garner high levels of public trust, hostility amongst a more disengaged segment of the population has coincided with the rise of far-right populism. Protests have also increasingly become flashpoints for violence against journalists.
Estonia’s media sector has radically changed since the country’s formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. With just over 1.3 million inhabitants, Estonia’s smaller size limits its ability to diversify news production amid cost pressures and competition with international players. This has resulted in high levels of concentration among three main media groups: Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR), and two owners in the private sector: Ekspress Grupp and Postimees Grupp. Moreover, the media market is characterized by long-standing “information bubbles” between the country’s Estonian and Russian speakers. Major channels of the Russian Federation attracted significant viewership among Estonia’s Russian speakers. Authorities have sought to address this gap in recent years through more investments in local Russian-speaking media initiatives. They also moved to block channels linked to the Russian state in an effort to curtail propaganda related to its full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.
Italy’s media environment boasts a diversity of viewpoints. However, newsrooms covering sensitive stories operate in a precarious environment, and reporting on organized crime and similar issues can elicit serious threats. Historically high levels of media partisanship, the lack of a strong self-regulatory system, and low levels of professionalism have also undermined trust in Italian media. Powerful players in the television market have used their media platforms to pursue political interests, including media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who was able to leverage media assets during his various bids for public office.
As media organizations continue to navigate transformations rocking the industry, defending independent media—a crucial cornerstone of democracy—calls for creative solutions. The stakes are particularly high in Hungary and Poland, where political interference through media capture and other legal and institutional maneuvers have become a sign of democratic decline. Under these conditions, powerful actors are successfully exploiting resources, attention, and trust to their advantage, while undermining critical coverage that holds them to account.
"Concentration is not new. But what is new in France is the fact that a main shareholder tried to influence political content."
Case Study: Hungary’s Independent News Outlets Build New Revenue Models
A small but determined sector of independent news organizations in Hungary are pioneering new ways to adapt and survive.
"We feel this responsibility [that] if we put the content behind a paywall, then not everybody will afford to consume fact-based journalism."
On the other hand, older generations continue to rely on traditional sources of news: a 2022 Eurobarometer survey of participants in EU countries found that 85 percent of respondents over age 54 primarily get their news from television.1 In some cases, well-established consumption habits can entrench “information bubbles” that limit exposure to a multiplicity of perspectives. Estonia, for example, has a significant Russian-speaking minority, and generations that grew up under the Soviet Union have long watched Russian state television. The Russian regime’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 heightened concerns about the prevalence of propaganda disseminated by Russian media. The Estonian government acted quickly to ban the retransmission of Russia’s state-backed channels, although people can still access these channels near the border, via antenna.2 In turn, the Estonian government has also increased investments in Russian-speaking media to promote alternative viewpoints among this segment of the population.
The following case study examines how public service media are addressing information gaps in Estonia and Germany.
- 1Flash Eurobarometer, “Media & News Survey 2022,” European Parliament, July 2022, https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2832.
- 2“Survey: Kremlin channels lose significance with Russian-speakers in Estonia,” ERR, April 12, 2022, https://news.err.ee/1608562720/survey-kremlin-channels-lose-significanc….
Case Study: Public Service Media Bridge Info Gaps in Estonia, Germany
Some European public service media organizations are reaching key audiences with trustworthy information across different segments of society.
"They want to attack our credibility...it means that polarization is getting worse."
Case Study: Digital Media Start-ups Build Credibility in Italy, France
Emerging digital outlets in these two countries are championing editorial standards and transparent structures with a community of loyal readers.
Case Study: Building Resilience Against Legal Threats
Media outlets in Poland, Hungary, and Italy are battling legal threats from powerful politicians and business people seeking to silence journalists and avoid accountability.
Despite freedom of information (FOI) laws, media professionals also described a variety of barriers to obtaining and using information from public bodies and officials. These ranged from increasing frequency of the “for official use” stamp on state documents in Estonia, to unanswered requests for information in Italy. Barriers for independent outlets in Hungary and Poland have become increasingly impenetrable. “The government is denying us information which actually should be public legally. They are canceling accreditation or blocking entrance to certain events. They are making some events open only to journalists who are friendly to government,” explained Łukasz Lipiński of Polityka magazine in Poland.1
These bureaucratic obstacles have a particularly damaging effect on investigative work that relies on timely data and public records. According to András Pethő, co-founder of the investigative outlet Direkt36 in Hungary, the barriers have increased compared to a decade ago: “You can still file public-information requests with the government or other state organizations. Officially, they are supposed to give you records and data, but that hardly ever happens, because they always come up with excuses. And then you have to go to court, and that takes time, which is a big barrier.”2
Even when information requests are pursued in court, the process can be drawn out and the outcome is often unsatisfying. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, TASZ and the independent outlet Telex launched a lawsuit challenging a government rule that prevented independent media from entering hospitals. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that hospital directors, not the government, could decide whether to grant access to journalists. However, a government decree introduced days later handed that responsibility back to a government office, effectively abrogating the decision.3
- 1Interview with Łukasz Lipiński, deputy editor in chief of Polityka, January 24, 2023.
- 2Interview with András Pethő, co-founder and director of Direkt36, January 13, 2023.
- 3“Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access,” IPI, February 8, 2022, https://ipi.media/hungary-government-bypasses-court-order-on-journalist….
"We have to fight 24/7."
Surveillance tools endanger the confidentiality of journalistic sources
In addition to legal and institutional tactics, there have been revelations in several EU countries about authorities targeting independent journalists with advanced spyware technologies.1 The threat of surveillance can prompt sources to remain silent for fear of being identified. In 2021, a collaborative investigation found that Hungarian journalists were amongst those targeted by Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware tool developed by Israeli company NSO Group.2 A forensic analysis of devices by nongovernmental organizations revealed that targets included journalists at Direkt36 and people close to Zoltán Varga of Central Media Group.
Although investigations could not directly confirm who deployed the tool against identified targets, the case heightened concerns about politically motivated surveillance by Hungarian authorities under permissive national security provisions, and highlighted the difficulties in effectively investigating and remedying these abuses. While the Hungarian government eventually acknowledged purchasing the spyware, authorities maintained that it had used it in accordance with Hungarian law.3 To expose the Hungarian government’s invasive surveillance practices and counter politically motivated abuses, in January 2022 TASZ announced the launch of domestic and international legal procedures against the Hungarian state and NSO Group, in the first case bought by Pegasus victims against an EU state.4 In turn, the EU has come under increased pressure to tighten safeguards around the use, sale and acquisition of spyware, and effectively address abuses within the bloc.5
- 1“Spyware and the surveillance of journalists in the European Union,” IPI, September 16, 2022, https://ipi.media/spyware-and-the-surveillance-of-journalists-in-the-eu….
- 2Phineas Rueckert, “Pegasus: the new global weapon for silencing journalists,” Forbidden Stories, July 18, 2021, https://forbiddenstories.org/pegasus-the-new-global-weapon-for-silencin….
- 3“Data Authority Finds No Problem with Use of Pegasus Spyware in Hungary,” Hungary Today, January 31, 2022, https://hungarytoday.hu/pegasus-hungary-spyware-data-authority-naih-pet….
- 4“The Hungarian Government does everything to cover up the Pegasus affair – the HCLU’s takeaways from the first year of the scandal,” HCLU, July 18, 2022, https://hclu.hu/en/articles/the-hungarian-government-does-everything-to….
- 5Jennifer Rankin, “EU urged to tighten spyware safeguards in wake of Pegasus revelations,” The Guardian, May 9, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/09/eu-parliament-report-call….
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Newsrooms across Europe face significant pressure. Governments, regulators, public institutions, and outlets themselves can confront these challenges and foster environments where independent media flourish as a core component of a democracy.