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Hungary: a lesson in media control

Volume 31, Number 1, March 2020

Scott Griffen

It’s possible to control journalists without intimidation and imprisonment, as the prime minister of Hungary is proving

Press freedom is under intense pressure around the globe. Ninety journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, down from a high of 130 last year. At least nine journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2019 alone. Governments from The Philippines to Australia to Uganda are ratcheting up legal pressure on the press through politicised prosecutions and raids on media houses.

The goal of those who attack the press is invariably the same: to prevent the public from accessing critical news and information. But the methods employed in such efforts can differ greatly – and regularly evolve. More than any other country, it is Hungary that best exemplifies the shifting nature of the assault on media freedom. Visit Hungary today and you won’t find journalists in jail. You won’t hear stories of journalists dragged to court on charges designed to intimidate and silence them. Physical violence against the press is virtually unheard of. You’ll even find – if you know where to look – news coverage critical of prime minister Viktor Orbán and his allies. And yet a press freedom mission to Hungary in November 2019, led by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) in cooperation with six other journalism groups, concluded that, since 2010, the Hungarian government has systematically dismantled media freedom, pluralism and independence, ‘achieving a degree of information control unprecedented in an EU member state’.

How is this apparent contradiction possible? The answer, as our report noted, is that the Hungarian system was ‘deliberately designed to deter scrutiny’. Assiduously avoiding the violence, jailing or legal harassment found in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes elsewhere, the so-called ‘Orbán model’ is based on the careful subversion of the rules of the media market to acquire power while maintaining plausible deniability.

In the specific case of Hungary, this model – which has thus far been successful enough to evade consequences from the EU – consists of four principal elements: 1. state capture of the media through the forcible closure or effective government takeover of once-independent media; 2. manipulation of the media market through the abuse of state resources and regulatory power; 3. delegitimisation and exclusion of independent journalists; and 4. preservation of the illusion of media freedom. Let’s look at each.

Media capture

The most prominent element of the Orbán model is media, or more specifically media ownership, capture. Since coming to power for the second time in 2010, instead of bullying independent media into silence, Orbán simply ensured that these outlets were purchased by friendly oligarchs, forcing a change in their editorial line. This strategy has allowed the Hungarian prime minister to assemble a massive pro-government media empire that is able to blanket the country with his message.

This takeover was facilitated by the withdrawal, under government pressure, of foreign media companies (mostly German). In 2013, Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1 sold the country’s second largest commercial television broadcaster, TV2, to a close friend of Orbán’s. Deutsche Telekom followed suit with Hungary’s leading online news portal, Origo.hu, in 2015. In 2014, Hungary’s government-controlled competition authority forced the German companies Ringier and Axel Springer to sell a number of their newspaper holdings. As a result, a large number of regional dailies as well as the storied centre-left daily Népszabadság were sold to Orbán-allied investors. Népszabadság’s new owners closed the paper in 2016. By autumn 2017, thanks to additional properties acquired from yet another German media company, Funke, all of Hungary’s regional newspapers were in Orbán-friendly hands. A prominent last holdout, the centre-right daily Magyar Nemzet, was closed in 2018.

The following year, however, Orbán decided that ownership concentration in friendly yet disparate hands was not enough. The crowning moment in Orbán’s media capture efforts came in November 2018 when pro-government media owners ‘donated’ 467 outlets to an entity called the ‘Central European Press and Media Foundation’ (KESMA), which is controlled by a small group of Orbán loyalists. A government decree exempted KESMA from scrutiny under Hungarian competition law. The bundling of pro-government media under one roof removed the risk of ‘runaway oligarchs’ and, as independent journalists explained during our mission, facilitates a coordinated system of censorship and content control among the media involved.

The outcome of this recent history is remarkable. According to independent research, nearly 80 per cent of the Hungarian market for political and public affairs news is now ‘financed by sources decided by the ruling party’. The government has a quasi-monopoly in the daily print and radio sectors. It dominates overall in the television sector, balanced only by market leader RTL Klub, a foreign-owned commercial broadcaster, whose evening news programme carries reports on government-related controversies. The online sector is more balanced on paper, but the reach of online media is primarily restricted to urban areas.

Notably, the pro-government media empire includes Hungary’s public broadcaster, which today simply transmits state propaganda. One of the most striking findings of our report was that Russian disinformation – a strong concern throughout Eastern Europe – is largely absent in Hungary. The reason, experts told us, is that the public broadcaster effectively plays this role.

 

Media market manipulation

The concentration of media ownership goes hand in hand with a second phenomenon: the use of state resources and regulatory competencies to manipulate the media market. In Hungary, the most prominent example is the weaponisation of state (ie. taxpayer-funded) advertising. Independent media are almost completely excluded as the beneficiaries of such advertising, which is instead used to prop up pro-government outlets. In 2018, for instance, the pro-government broadcaster TV2 received 67 per cent of state advertising in the television sector, while the independent RTL Klub, which has a slightly larger reach, received just one per cent. Similarly, the independent news site Index.hu, the online market leader with one million real daily users, received virtually zero in state advertising.

This practice seriously distorts the market, depriving independent media of a valuable source of income and weakening their ability to compete with pro-government outlets. Compounding the problem, numerous journalists say, is that commercial advertisers – both Hungarian and multinational companies – are under pressure not to advertise with independent media. As we noted in our report, it is not possible to determine whether this is due to direct threats from the government or to self-censorship for fear of economic or tax-related retaliation.

Such fears would not be ungrounded. Orbán’s government has in the past mobilised its control of parliament and all major regulatory institutions to harass critical voices. In 2014, for instance, it attempted to introduce a new advertising tax that would have forced RTL Klub to hand over 50 per cent of its profits. More recently, it introduced a measure capping the allowed time span for primetime television news to 45 minutes.

The country’s media regulator, the Media Council, is completely controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party, with predictable consequences. It has politicised the tendering of radio frequencies, cancelling or not renewing the frequencies of independent broadcasters, such as those of the last remaining independent talk radio, Klubrádió, now confined to Budapest. Furthermore, both the Media Council and the Hungarian Competition Authority, another Fidesz-controlled body, have blocked mergers of independent media groups on political grounds while allowing obviously market-distorting mergers among pro-government media to proceed unchallenged.

Delegitimisation and exclusion of journalists

A third element of the Orbán model is efforts to undermine the credibility of independent media in the eyes of the public. On the one hand, this consists of public smear campaigns. Our mission arrived in Hungary just as an anti-semitic campaign was under way against two journalists with the online news portal Index.hu, complete with posters around Budapest with portraits of the journalists in front of an Israeli flag with the slogan ‘We, too, came from across the border!’. While this particular campaign appeared to be driven by the extreme right, it was the state-controlled public broadcaster that provided the campaign’s far-right instigators with disproportionate airtime. While the smears against journalists in Hungary often carry a right- wing, nationalistic veneer, the targeting of media is non-ideological. Both left and right-wing independent media are regularly attacked as foreign agents, traitors, ‘Hungary haters’ and political activists. The latter term was used repeatedly by Hungary’s international spokesman in an interview with the mission. A second aspect of the effort to undermine credibility is the pervasive discrimination by the state against independent media when it comes to access to information. As our report noted, independent ‘journalists are routinely denied access to publicly held information without explanation and excluded from official events’. Public officials largely refuse communication with them. While this tactic clearly helps shield officials from scrutiny, it ultimately also weakens the journalistic output of the media involved, further diminishing their value in the eyes of the public.

Preserving the illusion of media freedom

Finally, the glue that holds the Orbán model together is (seemingly) plausible deniability. The government defends its press freedom record by pointing to the existence of critical media outlets, noting that some of these media remain market leaders. This is clearly misleading: the relevant metric is not the relative position of a single media outlet but the overall market picture, which is massively tilted in favour of pro-government media. Moreover, the reach of the (primarily online) independent media that still exist is mainly confined to Budapest, leaving voters in the rest of the country at the mercy of an all-encompassing pro-government narrative. And, in any event, these remaining independent media are under constant threat and in many cases suffer from a lack of financial resources.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to see Hungary’s surviving independent media as a significant thorn in Orbán’s side. Internationally, the existence of these media allows Orbán to maintain the illusion of freedom and pluralism on the international stage – placing the burden on critics to explain the relatively complex reasons why press freedom is under threat despite having media that regularly criticise the government. Domestically, therefore, the government doesn’t seek total control – nor does it need to: as our report emphasised, it only needs to ‘insulate enough of the public from critical information so as to maintain the party’s hold on power’. Thanks in part to Orbán’s clever reworking of electoral law, its power system can withstand urban free media bubbles so long as a critical mass of the public is fed exclusively or primarily the state narrative. This logic also implies that if this critical mass is threatened – possibly following the opposition takeover of mayorships in several large cities – then renewed pressure on existing independent media may follow.

In our interviews with journalists and experts in Hungary, there was widespread disappointment about the role of the EU in particular in failing to uphold fundamental rights in the country. Brussels’s lack of action early in the past decade, when an array of new legislation concentrated media regulation in the hands of the government, is being used by Hungarian officials to claim that its actions are not opposed by the EU.

The EU has not yet fully recognised the manner in which the Orbán model operates, and what that implies in terms of a response. Brussels claims that it has no competence in the area of media freedom, which is technically true. But Orbán is not using the usual tools to crack down on the press. Rather, the subjugation of the Hungarian press has been accomplished by running roughshod over principles the EU was created to protect, chief among them free and fair market competition. The market-distorting concentration of media ownership and the misuse of state resources to benefit selected market players fall squarely within the EU’s competencies. Yet the European Commission has failed to act on at least two competition law complaints, one regarding state aid to the public broadcaster, filed in 2016, and one regarding the abuse of public advertising, filed in January 2019. With our mission and recent report, IPI is working to expose the functioning of the Orbán model and, in doing so, show that clear tools exist to combat its tools of media control. Whether sufficient political will exists to make use of these tools is, as always, a separate question. However, our report also makes clear the dangers of inaction: ‘The methods used in Hungary have not only gravely damaged the Hungarian public’s right to information, but they are also already being exported to neighbouring countries, both existing EU member states and candidate countries.’

The Orbán model is ripe for copying. Institutions in Brussels and elsewhere tasked with defending fundamental rights must become wise to its ways – and intervene in time.

Scott Griffen is deputy director of press freedom programmes at the International Press Institute (IPI), the Vienna-based organisation that defends press freedom and freedom of expression worldwide.

@scott_f_griffen

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