Orbán with a Hitler moustache – on freedom of the press in Hungary

Hungary has received harsh international criticism for being a country where the government draconically restricts freedom of the press. The ruling party usually dismisses these accusations with indignation and points to all the criticism they get in the free Hungarian media. But as the journalist Attila Mong puts it, there is, as the saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat. 

October 13 2015 Text: Attila Mong

‘Long live Hungarian press freedom’, sarcastically tweeted a Hungarian delegate of the European Parliament from the ruling right-wing Fidesz Party in September. The tweet was a reaction to a highly controversial cover page published by a small liberal weekly, Magyar Narancs. It depicted Prime Minister Viktor Orban as Adolf Hitler, but with the characteristic moustache made of barbed wire. The cover referred to the government's handling of the refugee crisis: closing off borders with a fence, reminiscent of the Cold War, and firing tear gas on refugees and migrants wishing to enter the EU's Schengen area via the Hungarian–Serbian border. Other right-wing commentators were also quick to comment; ‘Pretty good from an oppressed media’, added one pro-government columnist also on Twitter.

These comments highlighted an apparent contradiction often mentioned by the government in different international debates: how can Hungary's media be qualified as ‘partly free’ by international press freedom organisations like the Freedom House when, in fact, press freedom is seemingly thriving? How can, on the one hand, liberal commentators—including me—“bury” Hungarian press freedom on a near daily basis for the last five years, while the government and Viktor Orban are often fiercely attacked in the newspapers? How can Hungary’s press freedom be dead while it is alive and kicking?

Orban’s Goulash with Putin Dumplings
The truth is that reality is often more complex than the headlines and tweets by both the government and the opposition would suggest. Hungary is not a dictatorship and Orban is no dictator; rather, he is like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who are sometimes called ‘democratators’, since they both won through more or less democratic elections and then used their popular mandate to consolidate control of independent institutions, including the press that could constrain their power. For them, independent media is an enemy they have to tame.

Orban is no exception. He was first in power between 1998 and 2002 and lost to the socialists after a relatively successful four-year period with moderate economic growth and a flawless management of the country’s EU accession talks. For his defeat, he blamed the press, which he believed to be politically biased and still under the influence of the old communist elite of the 1980s. After eight years of opposition, the left-liberal governments were characterised by bad economic governance and a series of corruption cases. Then Orban scored a sweeping election victory in 2010, providing him with a constitutional two-thirds supermajority in Parliament. He called the elections a ‘revolution in the voting booths’ and acted accordingly—with the speed and the determination of a revolutionary leader. Symbolically, he first adopted a restrictive set of media laws; an overhaul of the whole constitutional setup of the country followed. He wanted to avoid at all costs a repetition of the mistakes he thought he had made before 2002 by being too lenient with the press.

The international outcry that followed these media laws, however, taught him an important lesson: to a certain degree, he has to play or pretend to play by the rules of the European Union, using the many loopholes in the European system to avoid possible repercussions and maintain a democratic facade for his rule. As a consequence, in the last five years he has managed to completely transform the media market using a mix of methods implemented by Italy’s Berlusconi and Russia’s Putin. He maintains a firm grip on the mainstream private media and most prominently on TV, the country’s main source of news. He has turned public media into the government’s mouthpiece while only allowing uncensored free speech on the Internet and in small liberal publications, like the one that published the Hitler cover.

Back to 1981
A recent affair showcased how Hungary’s publicly financed media has been turned into a state-controlled outlet recalling the era of communist dictatorship. According to a leaked memo, news editors at the state TV station have been instructed not to include children in the footage of news pieces about migrants and refugees in order to possibly limit public empathy towards them. The station denied these allegations and stated that the memo was aimed at protecting children’s privacy. However, the news coverage shows that the state broadcaster obediently follows the government’s anti-immigration rhetoric; they never speak about refugees, only about migrants—even in the case of Syrians. The government’s spin overrules all other considerations when reporting news, especially the rules of basic journalism. A brokerage scandal that erupted in 2015 was interpreted exclusively as the result of the wrongdoings of previous leftist governments. Hungary’s growth and inflation figures are shown in almost North Korean style—like victory announcements. A pluralism of opinions is practically non-existent. There are informal blacklists of experts who might contradict the government’s opinion; these blacklisted experts will never be quoted or invited into debates.

One of the country’s most prominent writers, Peter Esterhazy, described an incident last year illustrating this type of government interference in the media. He was interviewed by the state broadcaster about a production by the National Theatre, but all of his positive remarks were left out because the director (since then replaced) had been fervently criticised by the right-wing. Esterhazy wrote that the last time something like this had happened to him was in 1981, during the communist dictatorship.

All these changes concerning the public media—which, by the way, have always been politically influenced—should not come as a surprise. Previously, competing parties have managed to maintain some kind of balance in the governance of the institution, but since 2010, all of the executives have been appointed by the Media Council, which consists only of Fidesz appointees. One of them famously said that the public media should be fair with the opposition, but loyal to where the money comes from: the government.

Carrots and sticks 
Orban’s regime changed tack after international criticism following the adoption of the media laws in 2010, as it now deals with private media with a mixture of sticks and carrots. It uses all its financial, legislative and administrative powers to punish critical reporting and reward favourable coverage. Mertek, a media think-tank (of whose research team the author of this article is a member) specialising in press freedom issues, has presented reports showing there is a growing threat of soft or indirect censorship techniques.

Last year, one of the two main private TV channels, the market leader RTL Klub, was punished by the introduction of a new advertising tax. This tax clearly targeted the station for maintaining its critical news reporting. Following pressure by the European Union, the government has since backtracked, spreading more evenly the burdens of the tax on the media market. Still, the economic conditions of private TV channels have deteriorated significantly as they are prevented from collecting distribution fees from the cable operators. As a result, the German owners of the second biggest commercial TV channel sold their stakes to the management, which is now rumoured to be reselling the company to a government friendly businessman.

State advertising is mainly used to reward friendly coverage—as long as it is unconditionally friendly. For years now, the bulk of the state’s spending on advertising has been distributed among media outlets belonging to oligarchs close to the government and mainly to one of them, the one-time cashier of Fidesz. Last year, however, relations soured between this person and Viktor Orban; consequently, the once generous funding has stopped. Now Orban’s closest allies—including his spin doctor—have established media companies that are supposed to absorb the state’s spending on advertising.

Since 2010, the radio market has also been fundamentally transformed thanks to the activities of the media authority in charge of tendering licenses. The license of a bankrupt national commercial radio station was used to expand the coverage of the state broadcaster; thus there remained only one private national station, thereby ending market competition in this domain. As highlighted by Mertek’s research, local and regional stations that had previously operated successfully in the market have either completely or partially disappeared. In parallel with this process, new players have begun gaining in strength owing to the media authority’s tender practices. Among the preferred players are radio stations belonging to rightwing media empires and stations with religious content.

Journalists under pressure
When these market pressures do not work, the government is no longer afraid to use overt political pressure. The most spectacular scandal in the media market in 2014 was the removal of the editor-in-chief of Origo.hu, the country’s biggest news site. This was triggered by an investigative report that looked into a lavish official foreign trip taken by a cabinet member. The most striking feature was that this happened at a site then owned by Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of the German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. If a company like this cannot withstand political pressure, then smaller Hungarian media owners do not stand a chance.

These pressures are reverberating in practically all newsrooms. Ever fewer outlets have the capacity to resist these varied pressures; the consequence is that self-censorship is becoming the norm. According to an opinion poll conducted by Mertek, 30 percent of the respondents said that they had concealed or distorted some facts during the past year to avoid adverse consequences in their workplace.

There still exist a few rare exceptions to this trend: a handful of online media outlets that retain a considerable share of the advertising market despite distortions in the business environment; editorial teams backed by a few strong and committed owners; and institutions that do not receive their funding from traditional media market sources, so primarily those relying on non-profit funding. The most successful non-traditionally backed news outlet is Atlatszo.hu (which I am a board member of). Atlatszo.hu is an investigative journalism outlet that relies mostly on crowd-funding and now has a huge online presence with more than 60,000 Facebook followers.

Yet it seems that thousands of Hungarians were ready to defend the remaining corners of press freedom on the Internet. Last year, the government failed to introduce a special tax on Internet data usage, which was interpreted as an attempt to reduce the impact of online outlets. In the autumn cold of Budapest, tens of thousands of people marched in protest in one of the biggest opposition demonstrations in recent years.