Orbán wants to further restrict the independent media. Hungary is a warning to Poland
Fidesz's media empire keeps pushing the message that the entire opposition and the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony are “rooting for coronavirus”, naming them as “the coalition of the death” - Edit Zgut on the media landscape and its prospects in Hungary
Edit Zgut is a Hungarian political scientist based in Warsaw, Poland. Edit is a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences and policy fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Visegrad Insight.
Where do Hungarians get their news? What is the scale of media capture in Hungary? How has it been achieved?
Edit Zgut: The RTL Klub commercial television is the only media outlet is independent of Viktor Orbán’s regime. The remaining media are internet outlets with limited outreach.
The regime employed various strategic steps to distort the media market in 10 years. Critical voices have been gradually silenced by economic means, or by a legal argument, like in the Klubrádió case, which has been under attack since Fidesz came to power in 2010.
The government used informal power. It used influential individuals and companies in this process. Heinrich Pecina, an Austrian businessman who is famous for controversial business deals with politicians in the region, bought the largest non-governmental daily Népszabadság and local press. He later shut down Népszabadság and passed the local press to Orbán’s crony, Lőrinc Mészáros.
The regime also weaponized the state advertisement to fund pro-government media and starve non-governmental outlets. To give an example: in 2018, the pro-government broadcaster TV2 received 67% of state advertising in the television sector while RTL Klub received just 1%.
A similar trend prevails in Poland where pro-PiS outlets such as Gazeta Polska are heavily subsidized and state-owned companies are no longer placing their advertisements in media outlets owned by Ringier Axel Springer, along with a range of other media outlets in Poland.
However, the key to informal centralization was creating the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA). Despite that, it made no sense from the business point of view, 470 pro-government outlets deliberately donated their precious assets to a newly formulated, centralized foundation. KESMA is one of the giant media conglomerates in the EU, having 408 print media and dominating one-fifth of the advertising market.
Today, all of them are parroting the same central message of the Orbán government. In a perverted way, the establishment of KESMA demonstrated that these cronies have never been actual owners of these media outlets.
Ironically, Orbán still complains that he has to govern while facing immense oppositional media pressure. However, the reality is that Hungary became a very classic example of informal media capture: journalists in this empire would never risk reporting any information that would shed a negative light on the government, let alone systemic corruption issues related to the Prime Minister’s family.
What is the landscape of new independent media initiatives and their prospects?
It is a ray of light that a paradigm-shift has started for the first time since the democratic transition. Crowdfunding is becoming more frequent, and recent positive examples of Telex.hu, Jelen, and Magyar Hang weekly magazines show that a profitable subscriber model could exist in Hungary. Telex.hu, established by the former editorial team of Index.hu, could be kicked off without cannibalizing the rest of the internet “startups”. With cautious optimism, I would say that there is an increasing number of citizens who demand fact-based content and are willing to pay for it.
Even the most dedicated Fidesz voters realized that there is a massive discrepancy between the regime’s propaganda and their perception of reality. For example, during the local elections in 2019, the governmental media did not report the sex scandal of a Fidesz front runner who participated in an orgy on a luxury yacht. This leaked video was the most often googled item on the internet in the campaign’s very last days.
A similar thing happened in the recent scandal of Orbán’s Hungarian MEP József Szájer: the government’s media empire embedded into a broader conspiracy that foreign secret services were plotting against Szájer, entirely omitting the fact that he deliberately participated in a gay sex party and carried drugs in his backpack.
It was not a coincidence that Index, the largest non-governmental website, was overtaken in 2020: polls have confirmed that 1/3 of its readers voted for Fidesz. It simply did not fit the fake dichotomy of the government that the media landscape can be divided into to antagonistic groups: the “good conservative” media that protects national sovereignty and the “evil leftist” media that is serving the interest of foreign subversive powers, willing to destroy the nation.
Orbán was aiming to delegitimize Index. He explicitly claimed that it is a fake-news factory and refused to take questions from it. It is a classic populist touch, claiming that they are the only voice of the real people, and that any criticism of their rule is illegitimate.
One of the most concerning parts is that it had a massive negative impact on the Hungarian public sphere. Besides the drop of civility in the public discourse, there are no more political debates, not even exchange on policy-related issues between the government and the opposition. A large chunk of the society is still consuming the news from the television, and the elderly are less likely to read the internet, which further accelerates extreme polarization in Hungary.
The EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders recently said: “Following the recent very worrying developments in #Poland and #Hungary, it is of utmost importance to recall that free and independent media are at the heart of any democratic system. We cannot and will not tolerate threats against press freedom. #RuleOfLaw #PressFreedom”. What have the EU institutions recently achieved regarding safeguarding remnants of media freedom and broader democracy in Hungary if they achieved anything?
Due to the institutional shortcomings, the EU’s legal framework is ill-suited enough not to address formal abuse of power, let alone informal abuses. Nevertheless, unlawful state aid and competition law are precisely where the EU can and should act since the Commission has a huge responsibility in these two areas that Fidesz has abused to silence the media.
However, the EU Commission is still sitting on a complaint submitted by Klubrádió years ago against unlawful state support to pro-government media. We have just seen how it ends: the Hungarian government could once again manage to silence a dissident voice due to inaction.
The Commission could not only step up against these irregularities in a much more effective way. It should bring more infringement actions regarding the Article 7 procedure because the violations of press freedom and media pluralism are among the significant concerns listed under the procedure’s scope.
Hungary should have been a huge warning that the combination of weak institutions and shrinking advertisement space in Central-Eastern Europe provides a favorable informal media capture environment.
We must not overlook the German industrial actors’ general responsibility who let Orbán get away with this. The German automotive industry is reluctant to advertise in non-governmental Hungarian weekly, Magyar Hang, among others, to keep their business privileges received from the Orbán government.
In his context, we must take the Polish government’s latest moves seriously. I highly recommend reading the alarming scenario report of Visegrad Insight about the long-term implications on Information Sovereignty.
In Poland, the government aims at preserving the freedom of expression on social media by constraining Big Tech companies. Hungarian government followed up. What does it propose and why?
Due to the distorted media environment, social media, especially Facebook remained one of the platforms where the opposition could meaningfully compete with Fidesz’s narratives.
Facebook is only one of the potential communication channels for the governing party. However, it is a primary strategic platform for the opposition.
Orbán’s party core electorate are the elderly, villagers, and those with little formal education. Fidesz struggles to reach out to the social media-savvy younger generation.
The government has had to regulate tech giants on the agenda for a while, but it lashed out against them after Facebook and Twitter banned Donald Trump. Fidesz is now accusing social media platforms of reducing the visibility of conservative, right-wing views. The reason behind the Hungarian government’s goal to restrict social media platforms ahead of the EU is mainly politically-ideologically driven. Fidesz is presumably seeking to outpace the opposition on social media on this platform in the upcoming electoral campaign.
Recent polls suggest PiS loses support in Poland. How is Orban’s government doing in Hungary, and what is the opposition doing?
Fidesz lost 0,5 million voters and has struggled to reach out to the younger generation. It is not a coincidence that the government is restricting the independent media even further. The next step might be the restriction of the internet/the social media.
The Hungarian opposition decided to join forces. For the first time in a decade, there is a slight chance that they could win. They started to coordinate on a policy level and elaborate on how to restore democratic institutions when they are in power.
Fidesz aims to delegitimize the opposition and hider their chances to succeed. After the opposition managed to win Budapest and 10 out of 12 big cities in the 2019 local elections, the government restricted their financial and political autonomy under the guise of fighting with the COVID pandemic.
Fidesz’s media empire keeps pushing the message that the entire opposition and the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony are “rooting for coronavirus”, naming them as “the coalition of the death”.
In the state propaganda media, any news about the opposition is framed in the most negative light. Moreover, the stories are only published after the Fidesz communication team reacts to a crisis and paints a more government-friendly context.
The institutional environment does not provide equal opportunities for the opposition. due to the hugely skewed playing field, winning the next elections will be an uphill battle for the opposition.
Fidesz is justifying its further power grab during the pandemic by crisis management. It claims that what has been done is the only way to combat the crisis effectively.
Citizens are more likely to tolerate or support authoritarian measures during security crises, when they fear for their safety. History taught us that anti-democratic measures introduced during crises remain in force after the crisis because societies start tolerating them and being accustomed to them with time.
The Hungarian democratic forces now have to challenge this particularly dangerous notion, claiming that enhanced rule of law and the protection of minority rights help us best to coordinate in this global crisis.