Media as bearers of democratic values: local modification of the CNN effect and its outcomes for Slovakia

Media as bearers of democratic values: local modification of the CNN effect and its outcomes for Slovakia

Katarína Stratená

The CNN effect is a theory which originates within political science and journalism and tries to explain the phenomenon of media’s massive impact on the decision-making of political elites throughout the world. The CNN effect is a product with its roots at the end of 20th century. It appeared in the late 1980s – early 1990s as a result of an unprecedented technological boom linked with the introduction of the satellite television signal. This allowed a world-wide TV broadcasting, which became available even in the most distant places of the world.

One of the forerunners of this technological revolution was the CNN which started its 24/7 life broadcasting. It covered, inter alia, the conflicts in the Middle East and Somalia. The CNN also covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests by demonstrating the images of a violent suppression of the Chinese civilians by the authorities. Raw images of violence have reached ordinary viewers who were absolutely unprepared for this level of authenticity. Previously, news was edited and presented in a several stages process which made information more digestible for the publisher and the reader. The satellite revolution also came to Europe and soon the BBC offered live images of the conflict in former Yugoslavia.[1]

While the CNN and the BBC took the lead, other world media also followed them soon. As a result, news broadcasting became more transparent, while news obtained capability to shock and provoke political stakeholders to take on action. Journalists suddenly became the ones who watch the state of democracy and human rights in the world while pointing on those who have the political responsibility to establish and maintain this order in every state and the region in the world.

Scholars dealing with the CNN effect claim that the way of news presentation, especially the emergency tone and the authenticity of live broadcasting, helped to make pressure on political elites. For them it was important to preserve their credibility and to prove the decision-making capabilities. Hence, the new media effect helped to end the Gulf War in the Middle East, to halt the active phase of the civil war in Somalia; it also allegedly contributed to speed up the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. In the latter case, the concept of CNN can be illustrated by the portrayal of the Berlin Wall demolition in November 1989, which put an end to the division of Germany. It is therefore argued that these pictures from East Berlin encouraged political opposition in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and some other countries of the former Soviet bloc, whose protests against the regime were only about to start.[2]

The CNN effect theory can be applied from a broader normative perspective. This implies that this phenomenon can be generated by any event of a universal or local importance any time the media are present and ready to disseminate the information to a wider public.

Taking into consideration the current situation of media and information overflow, there is the question whether in the 21st century it was still possible to find examples of a genuine CNN effect which has an impact on politicians and society. In other words, do media still have the power to change mindsets of a country’s establishment? Since the 1990s, the media sphere has changed significantly. As a result of globalization and digitalization, traditional journalistic networks have been supplemented by new information platforms (including, social media) which altogether created a massive information market. Bigger volumes of information and easier accessibility to news had also their negative consequences, such as media propaganda. Fake news or hoaxes, fabricated to influence the public or politicians became alternative and darker characters of what has been known as the CNN effect.

When focusing on the European Union and the transparency and objectivity of its media sphere, the concerns of the EU Commission about the media situation in the Visegrád countries (V4) should be recalled. The cases of Hungary and Poland demonstrate that state-controlled public media in these countries frequently fail to comply with the international and European standards of the freedom of speech and plurality of opinion. According to the World Press Freedom Index produced by to Reporters without Borders, Hungary and Poland have demonstrated some setback. Thus, Poland dwindled from the 54th place in 2017 to the 58th place among 180 countries in 2018, while Hungary dropped from the 71st position in 2017 to the 73rd in 2018.[3],[4] In the Czech Republic, its prime minister Andrej Babiš has considerable shares in the biggest newspapers of the country. This also triggers an attention of the European Commission. The World Press Freedom Index also recorded a significant drawback of the Czech Republic from the 23rd place in 2017 to the 34th in 2018.[5]

In Slovakia, numerous threats to journalists or prosecution charges towards some media stemming from high-ranking politicians did not shed a good light on the freedom of press in the country either.[6] Moreover, Andrej Danko, leader of nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), called for strengthening the country’s political regime following the example of Orbán’s Hungary and Kaczyński’s Poland. This measures would also include limitation of the freedom of media.[7]

Although Slovakia’s Freedom Press Index ranking was the highest among the V4 member states, it dropped from the 17th place in 2017 to the 23rd in 2018. This drawback is partly linked with a tragic murder of a young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend in February 2018.[8] The reason of Kuciak’s murder was his investigative activities. The information about this crime paralyzed the country’s civil society and intrinsically triggered a modified version of the CNN effect.

A journalist murder is a very rare singular event in Europe. For many, it was a wake-up call which was at last addressed by the Slovak media. Moreover, this crime greatly changed the social environment and the dynamics of the Slovak media which immediately started to work to clarify the details and inform the public about the investigation of the murder.

The alleged cause of Kuciak’s murder was his investigating activity on the connections between the Calabrian mafia ‘Ndrangheta from Italy and the high-ranking politicians in Slovakia. When the Slovak media published this information, a massive civil movement emerged. This was coordinated by the Movement for Fair Slovakia (Slovak: Za slušné Slovensko) which launched a series of nation-wide protests “All for Jan” calling for the political responsibility, proper investigation of Kuciak’s case and arrests of those who were responsible for this crime.[9]

The massive protests were lasting several months and brought together tens of thousands of people from several Slovak cities and municipalities, as well as Slovaks living abroad. They were accompanied by the pressure from the media. However, only minor changes have been achieved. On the one hand, charges were brought against the people involved in the murder. On the other hand, nothing in the political system which allowed this violent act to happen has changed. The main goal of the protesters were the dismissal of government and the new parliamentary elections. However, these claims were not fulfilled. There were only partial personal changes in the government, including the demise of Robert Fico, the prime minister and leader of Smer-SD political party.[10]

After almost a year and despite the decline of civil society engagement, it can be said with certainty that media still continue to produce political pressure which is gradually changing the political environment in Slovakia. This especially involves newspapers SME and Denník N which are the most vocal opponents of current political establishment. In general, media outlets actively produce articles, videos and podcasts, where they question and challenge the political situation in Slovakia, as well as uncover the practices which would never be uncovered in another political climate. The case of Kuciak helped to reactivate the political oposition and also generated an appropriate climate for launching new political platforms such as TOGETHER – Civic Democracy (Slovak: SPOLU – občianska demokracia) and Progressive Slovakia (Slovak: Progresívne Slovensko).

The CNN effect outcomes in Slovakia are impressive. Despite rather mild reaction of those holding political power, there is an observable change in the attitudes within the Slovak civil society.


[1] Bahador, Babak (2007). The CNN Effect in Action: How the News Media Pushed the West toward War in Kosovo. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
[2] Piers Robinson (2005). The CNN Effect Revisited. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22:4, 344-349. DOI: 10.1080/07393180500288519.
[3] Oligarchs and government control: Pressure on media mounts in V4 countries as the EU watches. Átlatszó, 10.08.2017,
[4] Reporters without Borders: World Press Freedom Index 2018.
[5] Oligarchs and government control: Pressure on media mounts in V4 countries as the EU watches, op. cit., note 3 above.
[6] Fico drops cartoon lawsuit. Slovak Spectator, 18.03.2013,
[7] Danko wants to follow Orbán’s example. Slovak Spectator, 24.10.2018,
[8] Shot journalist ‘was investigating Slovakian links to Italian mafia’. The Guardian, 28.02.2018,
[9] The Guardian: Slovak journalist’s murder was contract killing, says prosecutor. The Guardian, 26.03.2018,
[10] Slovakia’s PM resigns amid scandal over murder of journalist. The Guardian, 15.03.2018,

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