Prof. P. Gross on Media Transformation in CEE

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On October 14, VMU hosted the international colloquium Between Adoption and Adaptation: Contemporary Perspectives on Journalism and Media Change in Central Europe, which was organized by the scientists at the VMU Dept. of Public Communication. One of its most honourable guests was Prof. Peter Gross, Director and Professor at the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, College of Communication and Information, University of Tennessee, USA.

In the colloquium, the media scholar presented a retrospective on two decades of media transformation in the post-Communist world. Quoting from a soon-to-be-published book which he worked on together with political scientist and media expert Karol Jakubowicz, the researcher named four possible ideational wellsprings for the direction in which transformation should lead: the failed hopes of political dissidents to create a new system comprising the best of both Communism and capitalism, the concept of re-joining Europe and catching up with the West, the hopes of old regime’s holdovers to pervert the trappings of democracy and retain many elements of the old autocratic system, and the classic concept of liberalism, which quickly deteriorated in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) into raw back alley fight instead of a bona fide contest of power.

No Unified Standards

According to the professor, most countries chose to follow the second direction: "Neither the leaders nor the general population wanted any new experiments, so they opted for tried and true Western solutions, without necessarily fully understanding them. Another reason is that the CEE countries wanted to join international organisations which made conformity with Western standards, at least in legal and institutional terms, if not necessarily in the daily practice of the media, a condition of admission", Peter Gross explained.

The guest of the colloquium also discussed the criteria applied in the assessment of media transformation, recalling common complaint of CEE media scholars that the new post-Communist governments never formulated a full-fledged media policy: "In many countries, the officially avowed principle of freedom of speech and of the media has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Of course, general directions of systemic media policy, e.g. privatization of print media and establishment of dual broadcasting system combining public and commercial stations, has been pursued, but this hardly adds up to a full set of criteria by which to judge the progress of transformation", the specialist noted.

Professor Peter Gross also drew attention to the fact that there are no unified standards in Western Europe for the CEE region to conform with, apart from a bit idealistic ones formulated by the Council of Europe and by the EU in general, but it would be hard to find a country whose media system is fully in line with them: "EU does make conformity with these standards a condition of admission for the CEE countries, but it is content with the pro forma transplantation of Western laws, institutions and regulations and turns a blind eye to the non-Western nature of their application and media and journalism practices that often fail to observe them. We need to answer which one of the many examples of Western European media and journalism are CEE countries to emulate and why do we assume that any of the Western types is truly adequate for a true democracy. Socially and technologically driven change in their media systems is so fast that trying to emulate them would be like trying to aim at a panoply of movable targets", the scientist explained. He argued that there is no template to which post-Communist media systems could be compared to see how advanced in their transformation they are.

Historical Heritage of Ruin

According to Prof. Gross, CEE countries missed out on the Western European developments of the 19th century and thus are still burdened by the effects of autocratic regimes and their institutions. "To quote Robert Conquest, this “left a heritage of ruin not only in the economy, ecology, health, politics, but also, and above all, in the minds and psyches of its citizens". With such a historical legacy, transformation cannot be over any time soon. Western transitologists simply err in their assumptions that the post-Communist process meant a quick progression to a free mass media and journalism", professor claimed.

Quoting Karol Jakubowicz, the media researcher compared the transformations in the CEE countries with ontogenesis, i.e. the sequence of events in the development of an organism, which brings the desired results after a long period of time. "The easy answer is that the transformation has simply not lasted long enough to have produced such a stable situation. According to Harry Eckstein, a plan to democratize fully should probably cover some 25 years, more or less depending on local condition (60 years according to Ralf Dahrendorf). So there may still be both backsliding and moving forward, and the media is always the first to be effected by such change, for good or bad. To probe a little deeper, media systems in democratic CEE countries operate on at least two levels: that of democratic theory and that of not always democratic practices", Peter Gross concluded before adding that CEE must retrace the path taken by the West and even repeat the same mistakes in order to successfully create a similar media system.

Issues Unsolved in 400 Years

At the end of his presentation, the guest concluded that we lack framework of reference and a set of criteria by which to judge whether the transformation is over, and that the democratic CEE countries’ media systems are close enough to Western European counterparts only in legal, institutional and market terms. For some, this is convincing enough that the media transformation is over.

"When one looks closer it becomes obvious that the general cultures and many of these laws and institutions are in fact empty shells, far from capable of performing their democratic leadership and supporting functions properly. Post-Communist societies now face a policy overload, in that they must simultaneously resolve four centuries worth of business their histories prevented them from dealing with at the right time, i.e. from the 17th century issues of freedom of speech to the 21st century’s issues of the information society. If that is true, then transformation has indeed a long way to go. Thus we must understand that a media system and journalism are but a way-station to a future obscured by the unknown vicissitudes that may befall them and by the insufficiently understood effects of the past that will not die for a long time, if ever. To quote William Faulkner, one of the most famous American novelists, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”, Prof. Peter Gross said in closing.

Foreign Specialists Discussed Media Transformation Experiences

According to the colloquium’s organizer prof. Auksė Balčytienė, its speakers covered a broad spectrum of ideas related to ongoing changes and transformations as well as emerging challenges that contemporary journalism and media professionals, scholars, policy makers need to address in diverse political and cultural contexts. “In the colloquium, we sought to research the experiences of Central and Eastern European media transformations and encourage debates about the complex processes in our societies”, Prof. Auksė Balčytienė summarized the goal of the international event.

The topics discussed at the colloquium included media ownership change, changes in the business models of the media, changing journalistic professionalism requirements and continual attempts to meet media’s democratic performance requests, effects of cultural traditions, values and norms on journalism, declining trust of the audience in the media, growing use and adaptability of the Internet-inspired communicative practices in media and communications, etc.

Other speakers at the event were representatives of academic and media institutions in the USA, Poland, Romania, Belarus, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, scholars, researchers and professionals who have gathered a wealth of experience which allows them to stand firm in the face of these transformations and look for possible solutions.

Colloquium program and speakers

Video recordings of the colloquium’s speakers’ presentations, filmed and edited by Kristijonas Jakubsonas (k.jakubsonas@vkt.vdu.lt), are available on the website live.tvdu.lt.

You are welcome to view the photo report by Jonas Petronis (j.petronis@vkt.vdu.lt).

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