The lack of press freedom in Hungary is one of the key explanations for prime minister Viktor Orbán’s recent success in the Hungarian elections. Several sides criticize the Hungarian press for being non-critical of Orbán and his cabinet. Photo: flickr.com
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán electoral victory might not have happened if it hadn’t of been for his powerful media-owner friends, whose news outlets have printed uncritical government propaganda, according to Hungarian media experts.
“Another dark day for media freedom in Hungary.” This is how Hungarian economist and media expert, Ágnes Urbán, describes April 10th. On that day, the owner of Magyar Nemzet, Lajos Simicska , the biggest opposition newspaper in Hungary announced the closure of the media outlet.
The closure came as a shock for a lot people in Hungary. It occurred only days after the parliamentary elections in the country, in which the sitting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz party won a landslide victory.
Already before the elections and the closure of Magyar Nemzet, international and domestic observers had expressed concerns over the state of press freedom in Hungary. The closure of the government critical newspaper is just the latest in a list of serious of events where it might appear like the government and the press are not separate, like a free and democratic society demands.
This causes lots of worries within the country, especially since Viktor Orbán’s massive victory in the elections happened due to an extremely government friendly press coverage, according to Urbán.
“The media coverage – which primarily was government friendly propaganda – was absolutely crucial for the result of the election. It was the one thing that generated this huge majority for the government,” Urbán says.
Her view is backed up by the Hungarian Press Union’s Executive co-chairman, László M. Lengyel.
“The Hungarian Press Union and I personally, am worried about the current situation. That is more than natural,” Lengyel says.
“The question is: does real, authentic and relevant information reach the public? The answer is definitely no. The government’s and the ruling party’s messages dominate media contents. The biggest portion of society is, in this way, deprived of information with which it can make rational and expedient decisions upon.”
Both Lengyel and Urbán say they are very worried about the current developments concerning the media, following the recent elections. Not only Magyar Nemzet, but the government critical online news portal, Budapest Beacon, has also shut down.
“There is no good news about the freedom of press in Hungary right now. It’s hard to imagine that the situation can be much worse than it is now – but I’m afraid we haven’t seen the worst yet,” Urbán says.
Orbán’s friends in charge of media
The reason why most media outlets in Hungary are keen to keep Orbán in power is because, according to Urbán, they are mostly owned by rich tycoons with strong connections to Orbán and the Fidesz party.
“The problem is that the media market is extremely concentrated. There are only a few media owners and they are all friends with the prime minister,” says Urbán.
This media ownership structure causes a democratic problem. The owners interfere with the editorial line of the newspapers, making them publish content which supports the ruling government, explains Urbán.
“The recent election campaign in the media was not balanced at all. Media in Hungary was practically only doing government propaganda messages because most of the outlets are owned by pro-government Hungarian investors,” Urbán says.
She mentions the second largest commercial tv-channel in Hungary, TV2, as an example of a TV-media that have been very uncritical towards the ruling government.
“TV2 is owned by an investor named Andy Vajna who has very close ties to the government and the Fidesz party. This means that their news coverage of the elections has been heavily biased towards the government,” Urbán says.
Hungarian TV2 has declined to give a comment on the editorial line of their coverage of the recent election.
Controlling regional media
According to Urbán, the biased media coverage was especially clear in the rural parts of Hungary, where Fidesz and Orbán are extremely popular.
“All of the regional newspapers are owned by pro-government investors, meaning that the government has a lot of influence in the rural areas. General news consumption isn’t very high here, which means that these people are easy to influence,” Urbán says.
Furthermore, the national public service media has been very supportive of the government, according to Urbán.
Magyar Nemzet opposing
Magyar Nemzet was closed by the owner Lajos Simicska – apparently due to the poor economy. According to Urbán, Simicska was previously one of Orbán’s close allies. Magyar Nemzet was a newspaper supporting the government, up till recently. This changed after a disagreement between the two former allies.
“Simicska had a conflict with Orbán three years ago and this conflict changed the editorial line of the Magyar Nemzet in the last three years. It became a government critical newspaper,” Urbán explains.
Magyar Nemzet continued criticism of the government all throughout the election campaign. But after Orbán’s landslide victory, Simicska had no other choice than to close it, according to Urbán.
“Magyar Nemzet was not big enough or strong enough and it was unable to survive on just commercial grants from its owner. It just generated losses for Mr. Simicksa and he financed the losses over the last three years. But in the end he the make the rational business decision, which was to close it. After this election it simply made no sense to finance Magyar Nemzet anymore,” Urbán explains.
Ability to change media laws
The closure of Magyar Nemzet is only the latest of closures of government critical newspapers. The largest opposition newspaper, Népszabadság, closed in 2016 after being bought by a new owner, known to be a supporter of Fidesz.
The lack of press freedom in Hungary has also sparked criticism from the outside world. Freedom House states that the freedom of press in Hungary is only “partly free.” Also, a report from the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom made for the European Union expresses concern over the media situation in Hungary.
“The Hungarian media environment poses high risks to media pluralism. (…) Media pluralism is declining due to government influence over the market,” the report concludes.
According to Urbán, the people who worry about the media situation in Hungary might not have seen the worst yet. In the light of the results of the recent elections, Orbán, with his super majority, can change the media laws in Hungary, harming media pluralism even more.
“For example, it is possible to increase the tax rate for media companies in Hungary. If this tax is to be increased for the independent media – who are already struggling now – they will likely be closed. And there are several other possibilities to somehow kill independent media. My imagination is not good enough to picture what the government could do in this sense,” Urbán says.
It has not been possible to get a comment from government spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács, for this article.
The United States of America is also worried about the situation in Hungary, according to Reuters. The US has launched a journalist program worth $700,000 USD (approximately €574,000) to help train journalists to be more critical and independent.
David Kostelancik of Chargé d’Affaires from the US Embassy said at a journalism conference that, “There are still independent and opposition media outlets here that are able to practice journalism with broad editorial freedom.
“However, their numbers are dwindling, and they face challenges in the advertising market that the pro-government outlets do not. They face pressure and intimidation… as a result, fewer and fewer Hungarians are exposed to the robust debate and discussion that is so important – in fact fundamental – to a representative democracy,” Kostelancik added, according to Reuters.
EU-sanctions may be needed
Due to the many problems connected with press freedom in Hungary, Urbán is looking towards the EU and its member states to try and find a solution for the suffering media pluralism.
“If the European Union can put any pressure on the Hungarian government it might help. The role of Germany is very important in this sense because most of the investors in Hungary are from Germany,” Urbán says and continues:
“But I’m not too optimistic about this pressure actually happening”.
On the EU Commission’s website, it is expressed how important a value, free and independent media is for the Union.
However, the EU Commission is hesitant to interfere with the media landscape in its member states.
EU Commission spokesperson, Nathalie Vandystadt says, “Media freedom, pluralism, and the protection of journalists are at the very base of a free and democratic society. The Commission stands for these values and is supporting them strongly. However, this is the responsibility of Member States to protect media freedom and pluralism within their respective country.”
Vandystadt also says that, “The Commission supports media freedom and pluralism within the scope of its competences – which are limited – and through different initiatives. While media freedom and pluralism are enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Charter applies to Member States only when they are implementing EU law.”
Lengyel is also skeptical about the interference of EU in the press situation in Hungary.
“The EU must mind that the Hungarian people voted for this government. This government and the ruling party are popular in Hungary and the EU must be more modest,” Lengyel says.
Lengyel agrees with Urbán about the severity and complexity of finding a solution for the diminishing press freedom in Hungary.
“A solution would be to change the government, the opposition, the whole political elite, to unite the journalist profession with its classic ethics, to give society the right and the possibility to decide its own fate, and to give the proper information through an independent, professional, authentic, institutional media system. But this is impossible in Hungary under the current political, social, professional and other circumstances,” Lengyel says.