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  • Analysis
  • 20. May 2020

Media landscape in Hungary: from media wars to almost total control

Edit Inotai / Picture: Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban speaks during the 23rd EPP Congress in Helsinki, Finland. (EPA-EFE/Kimmo Brandt) /
Edit Inotai / Picture: Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban speaks during the 23rd EPP Congress in Helsinki, Finland. (EPA-EFE/Kimmo Brandt) /
The media in Hungary has never been free from political influencing. Ever since the democratic transition in 1989, the media – and especially the public media – has been considered as a fundamental instrument by political parties to convey their messages to the voters, and not as a public sphere of discussion and debate. Dominance of the media gradually shifted from a one-party communist control in the beginning of the 1990s to a bipolar structure, where government and opposition parties both tried to exert their influence over selected media outlets. The 1990s were characterized by the so-called media wars in Hungary, resulting in a clear left-right divide in the media landscape. This division has prevailed for a long time, with market forces still playing an important, yet weakening role. 

The year 2010 is clearly a turning point: the second Fidesz government and the media laws brought about a new era of media control in Hungary, meaning a total dominance of public media, degrading public TV and radio stations and Stroman-controlled news outlets to the role of mouthpiece of the government. Journalists, foreign and Hungarian investors, readers and politicians both bear some responsibility – even tough to different extent – in strengthening the polarization of the society and hindering balanced and professional debates on nationally important issues, let alone international developments. From 2010 on, we can definitely talk about the era of media hegemony, writes media expert Gábor Polyák in his essay entitled Irányított nyilvánosság (Guided Public). “With the media laws from 2010, instead of catching up with the West, we slid back to the level of southern and eastern European states, where the media is dominated by oligarchs and political and business interests are interwoven”.

But to understand the driving forces behind the developments of the last ten years and the unparalleled state-domination of the media in Hungary, we need to go back to the roots. 

After the democratic transition, the first democratically elected government – formed by the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and the Independent Smallholders Party  – complained bitterly that the media had not been loyal to the government. The conservative parties and their intellectual background pushed for taking over important positions in the TV and public radio, to convey the messages of the government and rally their supporters. Yet after 1989, leftists and liberals were all busy cementing their positions in the media and tried to exert a sometimes (over) critical control function. Instead of letting the media to carry out its control and information functions, a media war broke out. Bad decisions, incompetence and personal grievances all contributed to digging deep trenches which helped shape today’s media relations in Hungary. For many, the original sin was when the President of the public TV refused to broadcast an interview with Prime Minister József Antall, shortly before the municipal elections in 1990, branding it a party-political statement. It surely did not help either when – in order to find a right balance – two news programs were launched, one offering a conservative viewpoint and another one, a more critical liberal-leftist  one. It clearly gave the impression that the public TV is unable to serve as a Hungarian BBC, having little professional autonomy and giving in to party politics. “From retrospect, it is clear that we did not have a chance to establish a free and balanced media. We all thought we would be able to work freely, but this was an illusion” – says János Betlen, a former head of the public TVs news program, a non-partisan journalist. – The trenches had been dug right in the beginning:  the leftist-liberals tried to dominate the media, whereas the conservatives thought they were underrepresented and suppressed. The animosity between the two camps prevailed for decades. The first democratically elected PM, József Antall, although won the 1990 elections, actually felt to be persecuted by the media and there was some truth to this. Many journalists overestimated their role and influence.” 

The 1996 Media Law just underpinned the polarization of the media as its objective was not to minimize political influence but to give every party a share in the media. The standing of the public media had further weakened from 1997, when private media channels appeared in the market, based on a different business model. They simply lured away the audience with their more colorful and often boulevard programs.  As the financing of the public media depended heavily on the state budget, their vulnerability towards politics was coded in the system. TV subscription fees – which were not popular, but could be seen as a more or less independent way of financing – were abolished in 2002, thus public TV and radio became in fact state financed (from the budget). The 2000s were the time of consolidation of the left-right divide in the media, especially in the market of print newspapers and weeklies. The guiding principle was to live and let live. Public TV and radio were slightly government-dominated, but opposition politicians appeared regularly as guests in political talkshows. In fact, the biggest political scandal of the decade – PM Gyurcsány’s infamous speech of how he and his government lied in order to win the 2006 elections – was unleashed by the public radio. This would be totally impossible in today’s media landscape.

A new era started in 2010, with the election victory of liberal-turned-conservative Fidesz. PM Orbán – as journalists working with him often recall – was convinced that his first government (1998-2002) was defeated due to the lack of media support and he wanted to reassure that this was not going  to happen again.  While still in opposition, he managed to build up a loyal media empire, covering the whole spectrum from dailies, to weeklies, radio and TV channels. “This was a very conscious strategy orchestrated by Lajos Simicska, a businessman who used to be treasurer of Fidesz. The money earned by public procurements was partly invested in the media. Their  goal was not to establish forums of objective information, but to create a loyal media and to rally their own camp’- media expert Gábor Polyák of Mérték Media Monitor says about the 2000s. In 2010, Fidesz found itself in a favourable situation even in the media:  with the financial crisis slashing advertisement revenues, most foreign media investors were contemplating to leave the Hungarian market. “Foreign investors made huge mistakes and bear a serious responsibility – adds Gábor Polyák – They looked at their media portfolios purely as an economic investment, disregarding the media’s essential role  in upholding a democratic society. Their approach is totally different in the German media market, because they all know pretty well, that media is only important until there is a political debate. But without media, there is no real political debate. They helped the Fidesz government kill it. “– Polyák refers to Deutsche Telekom, which sold leading online news site Origo to the business circle of György Matolcsy, Orbán’s chief economic advisor and  currently Governor of the Central Bank. Another example is German TV ProSiebenSat1 handing over the second biggest commercial TV channel TV2 in a non-transparent vendor loan to the management, later ending up in the hands of Fidesz-close businessmen. 

As soon as establishing a two-thirds majority in parliament, the government pushed through the new media law, which led to an unprecedented centralization of public media and news service. A key element was incorporating the previously politically independent Hungarian News Agency (MTI), into the government-controlled public media. With this step, the government could control the news even before it reached news outlets. As a second step, fees paid to MTI have been slashed, wire service became free of charge, killing competition in this sector. This seemingly alleviated news outlets, suffering still under the consequences of the financial crisis and of shrinking revenues. But the hidden costs were high: sacrificing independent and non-partisan news service. Sources say that sensitive news cannot be posted without previously having checked by unknown “censors”. The news agency has also become an effective tool to disseminate government propaganda. Public media had been restructured, and transformed into the government’s mouthpiece, without any critical approach towards the ruling elite, but waging a harsh and often personalized campaign against opposition politicians, critical journalists and  European institutions.  

The Media Law also established the Media Council, which on paper had to function to assure a “democratic public” and guarantee the plurality of the media market. But in fact, neither was taken seriously. In 2011, the Media Council ruled that a merger between Axel Springer and Ringier would lead to market distortion and obliged the two foreign-owned companies to get rid of some of their assets. The decision cleared the way for Austrian businessman Heinrich Pecina to acquire the leading political daily, Népszabadság, and then shut it down from one day to another, allegedly due to economic difficulties. Népszabadság was a well-established brand, and with its sharp government critical tone and investigative journalist team digging out corruption scandals around the government party, was clearly a number one enemy in the eyes of the government.  It has never been proven that the newspaper was on the brink of bankruptcy. Pecina was also involved in a corruption affair and  indicted for fraud and misuse of funds in Austria. Last year, Austrian far-right party leader Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) claimed in his scandalous Ibiza video that he wanted to buy up media “just as Viktor Orbán did in Hungary”, proving what has already been obvious. 

The government and conservative circles claimed that the balance had to be reestablished in the media, dominated by leftist-liberal voices.  From 2010 on, government advertisement and those of state-owned companies clearly favoured media outlets which were loyal to the government. By the end of the decade, the advertising market has become totally disproportionate. Pro-governmental outlets, regardless their number of their readers are comfortably cushioned by advertisements of either the government or state-owned companies. The Fidesz government is in a permanent campaign-mode, which provides constant funding for pro-government outlets through advertisements (paid from taxpayers’ money, by the way). Government-critical outlets are locked out of most of the propaganda spending or they should think twice if they publish an anti-EU or antimigration slogans of the government, which are in clear contrast with their view on the world. 

Newspapers and news outlets have been clearly divided into two categories: government-controlled and independent of this network financed by the government. Objective, nonpartisan journalism is fading away, as journalists are basically “obliged” to sign up for either of the camps. The situation can be best described by the old communist slogan:   “either you are with us or you are against us”. The division has been aggravated by the unprecedented move of the government to create a seemingly independent media foundation where (almost) all pro-government media outlets are centralized. The Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF) was established in 2018 with the mission of defending the traditional print media and strengthening Hungarian national identity via the media. 476 media outlets were donated by the owners – all government-friendly businessmen – , free of charge, to CEPMF. It was a clear message from Orbán that “I can take your property any time”. The portfolio includes all regional newspapers, one of the biggest news sites, two TV stations, the leading conservative daily, a weekly, and a lists of other boulevard papers. According to Mérték Media Monitor, outlets belonging to KESMA account for 40% of all news and public affairs revenues in Hungary’s media market. Adding revenues of government-close TV2 and the public media, this amounts to 80%, which is clearly a breach of state aid regulations. Nevertheless, the Media Council found the mergers lawful, and the Competition Authority could not open a competition investigation after the government declared the merger and the foundation of “national  strategic importance”. Just a year before, the same Media Council  hindered that the main commercial TV channel RTL acquire a 30% share in Central Digitális Média, a company mainly active in online media. The Media Council ruled that the “proposed concentration would lead to a significant increase in ownership concentration in the television and digital sectors at the same time, and it would jeopardize the right to diverse information. “ The same concerns were not voiced regarding CEPMF and the concentration of conservative-pro-governmental media outlets by the Media Council which should be – at least on paper – the guarantor of plurality in the media market. The public media is not part of CEPMF, but its loyalty to the government surpasses even those of the most conservative sites. 

After the 2018 parliamentary elections, OSCE published a report in which it deemed the elections “free but not fair”. They mainly criticized the public media, which clearly leaned towards  the government during the campaign. “Media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarized and lacking in critical analysis. The public broadcaster fulfilled its mandate to provide free airtime to contestants, but its newscasts and editorial outputs clearly favoured the ruling coalition. Most coverage by commercial broadcasters was partisan, favouring either ruling or opposition parties. Online media did provide a platform for pluralistic, issue-oriented political debate.”- the statement reads. 

Government politicians still argue that there is a leftist-liberal dominance in the media. They base their argument on the fact that the most watched TV station is private RTL, whose news program is critical towards the government, and the leading weekly and internet outlets are both critical. “It is a global phenomenon that most journalists are liberal, because they attach high importance to freedom. This is a normal attitude. But loyalty towards a party or a government contradicts the basics of this profession. When we had a leftist government, journalists working for left-leaning media outlets were voicing fierce criticism towards the government. If we had a real conservative media, they would do the same. But this is something else.”-says Polyák. 

According to a 2018 survey of Mérték Media Research and Median polling institute, 12% of Hungarians use only and exclusively government-loyal sources, and a further 43% inform themselves mostly from government-loyal outlets. On the other hand, only 4% use only critical sources and a further 9 % prefer mostly those. In the middle, there is around 33% of the population which uses both critical and government friendly outlets. The research clearly underpins the importance of  TV in spreading information, a slow growth of the internet and a shrinking preference for print media.  For most Hungarians, it is still the TV which serves as a prime information source. Although people in Budapest and the countryside have the same media consumption habits, it is also clear that government propaganda works better outside the capital, where it is coupled with other dependencies – concludes Gábor Polyák. 

 This story was supported by Visegrad Fund.