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 strongly 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 HGV; 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 were taken over or silenced. The ruling party, Fidesz, has seized de facto control of 80% of the country’s media through political-economic manoeuvres and the purchase of news organisations by friendly oligarchs.
Regulatory agencies – totally under Fidesz control – absolved themselves of responsibility to deal with the concentration of ownership of private media and with Fidesz control of public media by claiming lack of jurisdiction. But, in 2021, the agencies arbitrarily cancelled the on-air broadcasting licence of Klubradio, the last big independent radio station. The government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to criminalise dissemination of false information – of which it accuses independent media – and to restrict the independents’ access to public information.
The country’s medium-sized media market is not accustomed to monetisation of content. Stable financing of independent media is threatened by the discriminatory allocation of state advertising for the benefit of pro-government outlets. The shrinking revenue of major news site Index.hu enabled its takeover in 2020 by business interests close to Fidesz.
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.