The pandemic has boosted audiences for Europe's public service media, with Europeans turning to fact-based news, according to the broadcasters' trade association and academic studies.
Television, radio and digital channels all have shown upswings, especially in western Europe.
But while the public has appeared to have been appreciative, the continent's public broadcasters are facing a twin threat. Central Europe's populist governments have been or are seeking to reduce their editorial independence, transforming them into official mouthpieces, warn rights campaigners and journalists.
And in western Europe, center-right governments are coming under mounting pressure from conservative lawmakers and populists to defund public broadcasters.
Attention in recent weeks has focused on Czech Television, and what critics of the populist government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis say are efforts to politicize its governing board and undermine the broadcaster's senior management team ahead of October's parliamentary elections.
Last week, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a trade association, urged Czech lawmakers to protect the independence of the country's public broadcaster, saying Ceska Televize is "the most used news brand in the Czech Republic, with 60 percent of everyone in the country using the service at least weekly."
The EBU's president, Delphine Ernotte Cunci, and the association's director general, Noel Curran, noted it also was "trusted by more Czechs than any other news brand." They based their assertions on data and surveys compiled by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
"In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic's government is trying to exert pressure on that very independence, directly and indirectly," they said.
Last November, the broadcaster's supervisory council — which oversees operations, appoints the broadcaster's director-general and approves the budget — was abruptly removed. The country's parliament voted last week on a slate of new council members, all affiliated with the ruling ANO party.
The broadcaster's current, and embattled, director-general, Petr Dvořák, told local media, "The aim is not to change one person in a leading position, but to change the whole Czech Television, its behavior and functioning."
He warns the populist plan is to keep the broadcaster formally looking like an independent one, but it will be made to reflect the views of the ruling party. "The same has happened in Poland," he added. Dvořák expects to be ousted soon.
Krzysztof Bobinski of the Society of Journalists in Poland worries that public broadcasters in 11 European Union member states are at high risk of coming under control of ruling parties.
Bobinski is urging the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to work more closely together to highlight how "too many EU governments are using public media to skew public debate in their favor and thus threaten the quality of the democratic processes and the rule of law."
Babis's moves to change public broadcasting in the Czech Republic are mirroring actions elsewhere in the young democracies of Central Europe. After it won power, Poland's Law and Justice Party clipped the wings of the country's public network, TVP. The OSCE's observation mission of Poland's 2019 parliamentary elections noted in its report of "a lack of impartiality in the media," especially of TVP's coverage.
Reporters Without Borders says Poland's public media outlets "have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces." The group has raised similar concerns about public media in Hungary. During the country's 2019 elections, leaked audio recordings emerged of editors instructing reporters to favor Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party in their coverage.
Populist leaders say the criticism is unfair and that public broadcasters have been the mouthpieces of liberals and the left for years. Slovenia Prime Minister Janez Jansa accuses his country's public service media of regularly dishing out "fake news."
He has dubbed the Slovenian Press Agency a "national disgrace" and says reporters working for public broadcaster Radiotelevizija Slovenija are paid too highly and spread "lies." His government wants to amend the country's media laws so they can increase state influence over public-service media.
The criticism in Central Europe by populists of public broadcasters is echoed by counterparts in western Europe, who identify public media as liberal and accuse it of being hostile towards them and of being dominated by a metropolitan mindset out of step with the lives and thinking of millions of ordinary Europeans, especially those living in rural and de-industrialized areas.
Germany's populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been locked in a war of words for years with the country's public broadcasters. In 2017, it went to the courts to try to get more airtime for its representatives, accusing the broadcasters of routinely shunning them.
Executives of German public-service television broadcaster ZDF have admitted they often have been too focused on covering issues and events in the country's large metropolitan areas and have not been providing enough coverage of the rural east. They say that's something they are seeking to rectify.
In Britain, the ruling Conservatives have long had a strained and ambivalent relationship with the BBC, which they accuse of liberal bias. Libertarians object in principle to public funds being used. The BBC is funded largely by an annual television license fee charged to all British households, businesses and organizations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts and iPlayer catch-up.
The Conservatives pledged in 2019 to reform the BBC and review its funding. There has been a growing movement in recent years to abolish license fees, and a growing number of Britons have been refusing to pay it.
"There's no need for the BBC," according to Alex Deane, a PR consultant and former Conservative government adviser. He says resentment toward the BBC is not based on right or left politics but instead is rooted in "cultural issues and topics like Brexit and patriotism." And he says in the digital age, there are plenty of commercial news and entertainment sources.
But the BBC's defenders say it is respected both in Britain and around the world for its reliability, the strength of its journalism and its impartiality, and they highlight how in times of crisis, it is the preferred source of news for Britons over commercial rivals.
Ninety-three percent of the British population tuned in to BBC television or radio during the first two weeks of the 2003 war in Iraq, according to surveys. At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the start of strict new coronavirus restrictions, more than 15 million viewers watched the BBC's coverage, double the number who turned to commercial rivals.