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“Either you are with us, or against us”: has the Hungarian media fallen into complete obscurity?

The recent turmoil at the news outlet Index is yet another example of how the government led by Viktor Orbán has been changing the media landscape in Hungary.

August 26, 2020 - Eter Glurjidze Soso Dzamukashvili - Articles and Commentary

Demonstrations in solidarity with index.hu July 24 2020. Sign reads: "Without an index, you're not going for a hybrid regime" Photo: Attila Szervác (cc) wikimedia.org

On July 22nd, Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief of one of Hungary’s major independent news outlets Index, was dismissed from his position. This followed the company’s announcement that its editorial independence was now under threat. Dull reported on Index that the company’s statement was “no accident” and was based on genuine worries about the group’s future. The company’s fears were explicitly depicted in an editorial barometer, which assessed the company’s freedom from “independent” to “in danger”. The barometer was introduced in 2018 following changes in the ownership of companies dealing with Index’s advertising. This issue became more prevalent due to Prime Minister Orbán’s growing efforts to take over independent media in the country. 

Index staff described the decision to dismiss Dull as “unacceptable”. After their demands to reinstate Dull were not met, the journalists began to quit the company en masse and joined street protests to voice their concerns regarding the future of independent media. 

Orbán’s quest to dismantle critical press

Historically, Hungarian media has been closely associated with issues concerning political influence. Since 1989, it has not been perceived as a tool of public discussion but rather as an essential instrument for political parties to convey their ideas to voters. In the 1990s, the media landscape was sharply divided into the left and right-wing camps. Nevertheless, the 1996 Media Law enabled every party to have a voice in the media, reflecting a growth in pluralism. Since 2000, the situation changed slightly. Whilst TV and radio were more or less dominated by the government, opposition representatives were still invited as speakers in political programmes. 

Despite this, 2010 would prove to be a turning point for backsliding of the Hungarian media. The government, led by Viktor Orbán, started to systematically dismantle media independence, freedom and pluralism. This distorted the media landscape by dividing the country’s journalistic community. Thus, the government possessed an unusually high degree of media control in comparison to other EU states. The Hungarian media monopoly that has existed since 2010 could be summarised with the following statement by media expert Gábor Polyák, who has stated that “instead of catching up with the West, we slide back to the level of Southern and Eastern European states, where the media is dominated by oligarchs and political and business interests are interwoven”.

Furthermore, during the same period, foreign media investors began to gradually leave Hungary. Of course, this only created a more favourable situation for Fidesz. On the other hand, economic crises led the government to view the media as nothing more than a profitable investment. Thus, Fidesz started to further disregard the media as an essential part of a democratic society. As a result, media channels, such as Origo and TV2, ended up in the hands of businessmen with close contacts within the ruling party. While Budapest has not permitted physical violence or jailed journalists similarly to many authoritarian regimes, it has pursued a strategy of manipulation by taking over once-independent media outlets and silencing critical voices.

These moves ultimately serve as a means of forming a pro-government media ‘empire’, which largely restricts the public access to critical and reliable information. In 2018, the government established the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF) in order to unite almost all pro-government media outlets within a single framework. These media outlets are financially supported by pro-government businessmen, who aim to ‘defend’ Hungarian national identity. In contrast, critical media is often labelled as the tool of “Hungary-haters”, foreign agents and traitors. As a result, pro-government and independent media are characterised as pro-Hungarian and anti-Hungarian, respectively. Independent media is now facing a level of pressure from the state not seen since the fall of the communist regime. Furthermore, journalists are systematically discriminated against and have limited access to public information and communication with state officials. These actions are aimed at strengthening Fidesz’s powerful position within the state. 

It is interesting to note that Russian disinformation, which poses an immense challenge to states across the region, remains largely absent in Hungary. Instead, public broadcasting, alongside the pro-government KESMA group, appears to take on this role as a broadcaster of disinformation. Subsequently, the Kremlin does not need to focus on the country when others are pursuing similar objectives.

The EU’s failure to contain Hungary’s democratic backsliding?

Despite attempts to challenge the government’s dominance, few critical independent media outlets now exist in Hungary. Any groups that remain are now under constant threat and in many cases suffer from a lack of financial resources. The pro-government populist narratives largely challenge their work, limiting their reach solely to the capital. This subsequently leaves the majority of citizens unaware of their work. In addition, the role of watchdogs is now being increasingly challenged through financial and bureaucratic suppression.

Despite the importance placed on conditionality by the EU, the organisation has not succeeded in preventing the Hungarian government from threatening the existence of independent media. This reality has helped other states in the region strengthen the power of the government within the media. The Hungarian system of media control has only encouraged a lack of scrutiny and has provided its rulers the ability to largely deny any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the EU has no excuse for inaction. Its procedures have failed to prevent one of its member states from explicitly subverting the media, which is an intrinsic part of democracy. 

As a result, this lack of action has only strengthened the government’s ability to ‘export’ its illiberal media model abroad, endangering the independent press across Central and Eastern Europe. If Hungary can get away with these authoritarian moves, others can circumvent EU conditionality as well. Moreover, the fact that an EU member state now actively deviates from international media freedom standards significantly undermines the organisation’s normative leverage to promote and defend media freedom elsewhere in the world.

The 2020 global survey of media freedom reported that Hungary was ranked 89th out of 180 countries. Surprisingly, it was 56th back in 2013. 

Eter Glurjidze holds a BA degree in International Relations rom the Black Sea University in Georgia. She is also an alumnus of the North China University of Technology. Her interests include Russian Foreign Policy, the Eastern Partnership and CEE-China relations.

Soso Dzamukashvili is pursuing an MA in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) at the University of Glasgow (UK). His interests include European Studies, EU-China relations, and the Eastern Partnership.

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