Hungary: RSF warns against new draconian measures of Prime Minister Viktor Orban who remains careless about press freedom concerns
After meeting the independent media and the national authorities, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) asks the European institutions to mobilize more than ever to save Hungarian journalism.
“Since the new landslide victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the general election, the politicized media regulator has taken measures damaging independent radios. The government plans an advertisement tax potentially dangerous for media pluralism,” said the Head of the European Union/Balkans Desk Pavol Szalai after his return from a mission to Hungary. “Moreover, government-critical journalists as well as their audience become increasingly disenchanted which makes them more vulnerable to further draconian measures of the press freedom predator Viktor Orban. In order to cut this vicious circle, the European Union’s institutions must mobilize more than ever to save Hungarian journalism.”
RSF asks the EU Council to request explanation from the Hungarian authorities about the discrimination against Klubradio and Tilos Radio’s access to radio frequencies during the next hearing within the Article 7 procedure (which may lead to sanctions for breach of EU’s values). The institution representing the EU Member States and chaired since 1 July for six months by the Czech Presidency should also ask the Hungarian government about the announced advertisement tax.
As for the European Commission, it must urgently pressure via infringement procedures the media regulator to stop discriminating the independent radios, as well as strengthen the independence of national regulators in the upcoming proposal of the European Media Freedom Act. RSF also calls on the European Parliament to examine - in the ongoing inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal - the potential failure of the Hungarian institutions to protect journalists against arbitrary surveillance.
The only EU country suspected of spying on journalists with Pegasus
The national authorities, which met RSF and other press freedom groups in late June in Budapest on the invitation of the Council of Europe, showed carelessness about concerns expressed by the present international NGOs and by the recent critical reports by the European Commission on the rule of law and the United Nations on human rights in Hungary. Secretary of State and International Spokesman of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Zoltan Kovacs, refused to give to RSF and other groups the “national security and law-enforcement” reasons behind the use of Pegasus against at least three Hungarian journalists since 2019. He referred to the “confidentiality” of the national security spying operations thus defying the request for a basic transparency voiced also in the 2018 recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee to Hungary. The Hungarian institutions have found no wrongdoings in the only EU country suspected of spying on its own journalists with Pegasus: in mid-June, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office excluded any unauthorized surveillance and last January the data ombudsman ruled out any violation of rights.
Zoltan Kovacs also insisted on the independence of the Media Council and the legality of the selection procedure of its members, despite all of them being nominated by the ruling majority. He refused the opinion of the European Commission which, in June 2021, launched an infringement procedure against Hungary for the violation of EU law by the “non-transparent”, “disproportionate” and “discriminatory” decision of the Media Council to strip Klubradio of its radio frequency. As a counter-argument, he referred to a recent verdict by the Hungarian Supreme Court approving the Media Council’s decision and to a “certification” of Hungary’s regulatory framework by the European Commission in 2011. But when asked by RSF, his secretariat failed to provide details about the certificate.
Poorly justified decisions of the media regulator
At the meeting in Budapest, Zoltan Kovacs accused press freedom organisations of becoming “increasingly political”. The main problem of the media is, according to him, the “undermined” journalistic standards. The biggest independent radio, Klubradio - which now broadcasts to its 200,000 daily listeners only via the Internet - is, according to him, a “marginal radio”.
The representatives of the Media Council - who also met RSF and other organisations at the invitation of Council of Europe - failed to explain in a credible and detailed way the decision to take Klubradio off the air because of a few administrative mistakes committed in seven years of broadcasting. They did not shed light either at their late-June decision to attribute Klubradio’s former frequency in a public bid to another contender, Spirit FM, while justifying it partly by a “subjective” assessment. Similarly, they did not give any details about the Media Council’s decision to provisionally attribute Klubradio’s former frequency for several months in 2021 to Spirit FM without a public tender and solely based on the radio’s request. After an amendment to the media law allowing such provisional allocation, the frequency was attributed to Spirit FM which had previously bidded against Klubradio for the long-term frequency.
Hungarian media: between freedom, fatigue and fear
At his meetings with 15 independent media and journalists’ associations from Hungary, RSF’s Pavol Szalai inquired about the pressures they suffer from the authorities, while Betrand Mossiat, in charge of the Journalism Trust Initiative, presented them RSF’s initiative favoring media respectful of journalistic ethics. While the media showed a strong commitment in defending their independence from the government, several representatives expressed concern about their future. One editor-in-chief mentioned a significant decrease in the sales of his newspaper after the April election, which he explained by disenchantment of the readers. During the mission, RSF could also observe a certain fatigue of the Hungarian journalists.
The government-critical outlets also apprehend the introduction of the advertisement tax - announced by the government amidst the ongoing economic crisis - which could financially weaken them. During the meeting with press freedom groups in Budapest, Viktor Orban’s spokesperson did not give any details about the tax, while “excluding” its deliberate “use against any media outlet”.
However, the tax could make media which still keep advertisements more prone to purchase by oligarchs close to the ruling party Fidesz. It would be yet another measure hostile to press freedom in addition to unfair distribution of the government advertisement, poor access to public information or the law criminalizing the spreading of fake news.
Hungary is ranked 85th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.