WARSAW, Poland — Two Turkish journalists face possible life sentences on charges they sent “subliminal messages” on television encouraging a government coup. In Hungary, oligarchs loyal to the prime minister have gained control of much of the media after the leading independent newspaper was shut down. And in Poland, a reporter is being threatened with a military trial for writing a book critical of the defense minister.
These are trying and dangerous times for the media in countries that until recently had begun embracing democratic norms of free expression. News organizations are under attack in dramatic ways, as elected governments turn public outlets into their mouthpieces and try to silence critical voices.
Michael Abramowitz, president of democracy watchdog Freedom House, said whether governments imprison journalists or flood the public sphere with misinformation, their goal is the same — “to ensure that negative coverage about the regime is marginalized and positive coverage dominates, especially for the plurality of citizens whose support you need to continue to rule.”
In undermining free expression, some of these governments have portrayed the press not as a pillar of a democratic society but as a threat to it.
It's an issue of growing interest in the U.S., where President Donald Trump condemns unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and brands journalists “enemies of the people.”
Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, said the threat in the U.S. is not that First Amendment press protections will be directly overturned, but that the administration's continued attacks could sow so much distrust that attempts to undermine the media will become accepted. She cited Trump's suggestion earlier this year that the government could challenge NBC's broadcast license, after he was angered by a national security story.
“I think some of what Trump says is just bluster,” Nott said. “But there are some times where it becomes a tangible threat, and that's what I worry about.”
In theory, Turkey, Hungary and Poland also guarantee freedom of speech and of the press. The principles were enshrined in the Polish and Hungarian constitutions following the collapse of communism in 1989, and in Turkey's constitution decades earlier.
Despite those protections, many reporters in Turkey were jailed amid a crackdown following a military coup in 1980. In the 1990s, as Turkish forces clashed with Kurdish fighters, the government barred the media from criticizing its actions or producing stories deemed sympathetic to the Kurds. State security forces also killed several reporters covering the conflict.
Some progress came in the early 2000s when Turkey embraced reforms in the hope of joining the European Union, but matters deteriorated dramatically under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The July 2016 overthrow attempt intensified repression of journalists and was part of a broader purge by Erdogan that has targeted tens of thousands of people. More than 150 media organizations have been closed down.
Erol Onderoglu, a representative of Reporters Without Borders in Turkey, said 122 reporters, writers and other media professionals are behind bars, many held in pretrial detention for more than a year.
“From day one, the government has used the coup attempt to go after its critics, and the spectrum of repression has gone well beyond the real suspects,” said Johann Bihr, also with Reporters Without Borders.
Among those imprisoned are journalists Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet, also an academic. They face possible life sentences if found guilty of terrorism, attempting to overthrow the government and “giving subliminal messages in favor of a coup on television.”
Turkey's government insists none of the journalists are on trial for their work but for aiding terror groups and other crimes.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been in power since 2010, building what he calls an “illiberal state” modeled on Russia and Turkey. The main independent newspaper, Nepszabadsag, closed last year under political pressure, and most surviving media groups are now controlled by Orban allies.
There are apparent attempts to intimidate reporters working for international outlets who have reported on a state-sponsored campaign against Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros.
Orban opposes immigration, particularly by Muslims, and claims that Soros wants to flood Europe with migrants. Soros, a Holocaust survivor, has long promoted what he calls an “open society” and supports controlled migration. He funds a university in Budapest and civic organizations, including some seen as critical of Orban.
A pro-government website recently published a list of eight journalists working for the news outlets Politico, Bloomberg and Reuters whom it called “propagandists” for Soros. Orban also asked the country's spy agencies to investigate journalists and others involved in what he calls a “Soros network.”
Poland's right-wing populist government, in power for two years, has been repeatedly condemned by the European Union and others for eroding judicial independence. It also has taken firm control of the public media, purging journalists seen as too liberal or as opposing the government.
The public media now operates as a propaganda tool for the ruling right-wing party. The head of state television defends its approach, saying it's just acting as a “counterweight” to the critical coverage of the privately run stations.
The future for Poland's private media companies is unclear, given signs that the ruling party hopes to reduce foreign ownership or weaken independent outlets enough so the government can take control.
A reporter for the country's leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has been threatened with a trial by military court — and up to three years in prison — for writing a book alleging that associates of the defense minister have links to Russian agents and mobsters.
The paper's deputy editor, Piotr Stasinski, said the government's steps are adding to the newspaper's problems as it struggles with declining print sales in the digital age. But he vowed to keep holding authorities to account as long as possible.
“We are going to be very critical of a government that destroys the constitutional system,” Stasinski said. “All we can do is speak truth to lies.”