Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom RSF has deemed a press freedom predator, has built a media empire whose outlets follow his party’s orders. Independent media maintain major positions in the market, but they are subject to political, economic, and regulatory pressures.
The market is highly concentrated in the KESMA Foundation, which, just like state-owned media, serves the government. The foundation owns about 500 national and local media organisations. However, independent media maintain strong positions in other segments of the national market. They include the RTL Klub television network, the daily Népszava, the weekly HVG, and the 24.hu site.
Since returning to power in 2010, Orbán has unceasingly attacked media pluralism and independence. After public broadcasting was turned into a propaganda organ, many private media outlets were taken over or silenced. The ruling party, Fidesz, has seized de facto control of 80% of the country’s media through political and economic manoeuvres and the purchase of news organisations by friendly oligarchs. A month after the 2022 parliamentary elections, which, for the fourth consecutive time, gave an overwhelming majority to Fidesz, the renowned weekly magazine 168 Óra was shut down.
Regulatory agencies – under total control of the ruling party – have absolved themselves of their responsibility to deal with the concentration of ownership of the private media and Fidesz’s control of the public media by claiming lack of jurisdiction. But, in 2021, the agencies arbitrarily banned the last major independent radio station, Klubradio, from airing. The licence of a smaller independent station, Tilos Radio, was also arbitrarily suspended only to be renewed a few months later. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, legislation criminalising the dissemination of false information has been in force.
The country’s midsize media market is not accustomed to monetising content, and the sustainable funding of independent media is threatened by the discriminatory allocation of state advertising to pro-government outlets. The shrinking revenue of major news site Index.hu enabled its takeover in 2020 by entrepreneurs close to Fidesz. The pro-government media giant KESMA has been subject to budget cuts leading to the suspension of some publications.
The government regularly accuses critical media of disseminating false information and of receiving financing from George Soros, a billionaire of Hungarian and Jewish origin. Pro-government media echo this rhetoric. In addition, conservative forces within the government have taken advantage of a weak legal framework to pursue legal cases against journalistic content seen as too liberal.
Hungarian journalists are only rarely subject to physical assault or unjustified police interrogation. However, the Hungarian state is the only European Union member suspected of having arbitrarily monitored journalists using Pegasus software. In addition, in the context of official smear campaigns, journalists critical of the government are harassed online by ruling party supporters.