Is Hungarian press freedom’s foe about to be reelected?

Viktor Orbán, who hopes to win a third straight term as prime minister in the parliamentary elections that will be held on Sunday (8 April), is a strongman who has completely reshaped Hungary’s media landscape in the past six years while trying to silence all criticism.

Since his return to office in 2010, Orbán has engineered so many changes in the Hungarian media that almost none of the pre-2010 media owners is still an owner now. In the process, he has elicited many warnings from the European Union.

Control over state media and oligarchs

State radio and TV was the first target. Then the government targeted privately-owned media, depriving them of state advertising contracts. The main opposition daily, Nepszabadsag, was taken over by Orbán allies in 2016, a few days after being forced into bankruptcy. Pro-Orbán oligarchs then bought up all the regional dailies.

Businessmen allied to Orbán’s Fidesz party now have dominant and often monopolistic position in virtually all the media, whether local dailies, national commercial TV channels, tabloid newspapers, news websites and political weeklies.

The media groups controlled by these businessmen reach a much broader public than the independent or critical media (aside from online newspapers). Furthermore, regardless of their market performance, the pro-Fidesz media get major state aid in the form of advertising and official subsidies based on completely arbitrary decisions by officials.

The number of independent media outlets that are in good financial health is meanwhile falling steadily.

A controversial 2010 law that overhauled the state media and created a Media Council with utterly disproportionate powers opened the way to direct political control over the editorial content of the public service media and turned them into propaganda tools.

If Fidesz gets a two-thirds majority, it will be a massacre for the media, but if it gets only a relative majority, the media will be able to breathe again,” said Péter Pető, the deputy editor of the independent news website “The current propaganda cannot be sustained because everyone, including Fidesz’s members, realize it has its limits. With a bit of luck, Fidesz will have to change its tactics towards the media.”

Vetting media and journalists

Since 2010, Fidesz has taken great care to ensure that non-aligned media with a signicant audience are kept at distance from election campaigns. In this, it is helped by the 2010 electoral law, which bans political advertising in commercial media.

Orbán has repeatedly said during this campaign that “the time for debates” is over. Although the opposition parties have substantial electoral programmes, they receive very little media attention because Fidesz refuses to participate in debates on public policy issues. This was a deliberate decision, taken with the aim of avoiding a repeat of the setbacks in 2002 and 2006, when Fidesz still debated with the leaders of the other parties.

The constant refusal by Fidesz’s leaders to talk to journalists from media outlets that are not pro-Fidesz reinforces the polarization of much of the media. On the one hand, the pro-government outlets are obsessed with migrants, defending Hungary’s borders and their hatred for Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. On the other, the tabloid media are packed full of scandal stories of every kind.

One of the gravest restrictions imposed on the media is a selective ban on journalists covering the Hungarian parliament. The national assembly’s speaker is empowered to restrict the access of individual journalists as he sees fit. And he often uses this power to ban critical journalists, sometimes entire media outlets.

The government prohibits officials – especially the directors and personnel of public institutions – from talking to the media without its prior permission. Some media outlets no longer even have the right to address members of the government or ask questions during press conferences. The government’s spokesman recently even scolded foreign journalists who tried to ask a question during a press conference.

Last month, Orbán refused to answer the questions put to him by a critical TV news channel, HírTV, dismissing it as nothing more than a source of “fake news.” The 2011 Hungarian constitution nonetheless says that “Hungary (...) must guarantee the freedom to receive and impart information in a democratic society.”

Asked last month by RSF about the refusal of government members to answer questions from certain journalists, government spokesman Zoltán Kovács said he reserved the right to decide who he regarded as a journalist, because some journalists, he said, are just “activists exercising a journalistic activity.”

The threats to foreign journalists are a source of growing concern. In recent months, several foreign correspondents who have worked in Hungary for many years have told RSF that they are finding it increasingly difficult to work.

Hungary has fallen steadily in RSF's World Press Freedom Index since Orbán returned to office in 2010. It is now ranked 71st out of 180 countries.

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Updated on 06.04.2018