Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is publishing the conclusions of the joint international press freedom mission to Hungary in which it participated last month. After finding “a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU Union member state,” the mission calls on the EU authorities to lose no time in taking action.
Consisting of representatives from RSF, the International Press Institute, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists and Free Press Unlimited, the mission visited Hungary from 25 to 27 November, meeting with many journalists and civil society groups to evaluate the state of press freedom. They also met with the government’s international spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, and Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony.
These meetings served to confirm that there has been a dramatic decline in press freedom in Hungary. To silence media criticism, the government has used a range of well-oiled methods including acquisitions of media outlets, forced closures, controlling the management of independent media, and smear campaigns against outspoken reporters. As a result, much of the population, especially in rural areas, has been deprived of independently reported news and information.
The mission’s report stresses the lack of media pluralism and the fact that most of the media are now owned by businessmen allied with the government. This situation is not new. RSF has been drawing attention to governmental control of the media since 2017.
Since the closure of two influential dailies, Népszabadság and Magyar Nemzet, Hungary has had only one independent political daily, Népszava, which has a limited reach. The media regulatory system is completely controlled by the ruling Fidesz party. All five members of the Media Council, which has repeatedly obstructed critical journalists, are appointed by Fidesz.
The report also highlights the growing marginalization of independent media outlets, which are no longer able to work properly because the state discriminates against them. Their voices are also stifled by the predominantly pro-government discourse and their influence is limited to the capital, leaving the rest of the country in the dark.
Independent journalists are badly underfunded and are repeatedly subjected to threats. Just last month, two journalists with Index , one of the few independent news websites, were subjected to attacks in pro-government media and to an anti-Semitic smear campaign. This toxic environment makes it very hard for journalists to fulfil their watchdog role.
The report also deplores the European Union’s inaction and inability to prevent a member state from flouting press freedom so openly. The lack of a reaction has enabled the Hungarian government to export its illiberal model to other central and eastern European countries, jeopardizing media independence throughout the region.
The mission’s complete report on press freedom in Hungary and the full list of its recommendations can be read here.
In response to the press freedom violations identified in Hungary, the mission calls on EU member states and relevant EU institutions to:
- Recognize the gravity of the media freedom situation in Hungary and take all necessary measures to respond; explicitly condemn all attacks on journalists and insist on the importance of independent and critical journalism as an essential element of democracy.
- Monitor the independence of Hungary’s media regulatory bodies and judicial independence; verify that European funding is not being misused and, at the same time, extend and reinforce EU financial assistance for independent Hungarian media.
The mission calls on the government of Hungary to:
- Recognize the importance of media freedom and media pluralism to democracy and take meaningful action to restore these values to the media environment; guarantee fair competition in media markets and limit a concentration of ownership in pro-government hands.
- End the abuse of state resources, especially state-controlled advertising, to punish independent media outlets and reward pro-government media outlets.
- Guarantee the protection and safety of independent journalists by ceasing to encourage the attacks to which they are being subjected, by publicly condemning such attacks and by prosecuting those responsible if necessary.
Hungary is ranked 87th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.