EU funds fact-checking website in Hungary ahead of crucial elections

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is launching a website to fight disinformation in Hungary, just three months before elections that will determine Orbán’s grip on power – however, experts remain sceptical.

lakmusz.hu, the first fact-checking website in Hungary, was launched on Tuesday (11 January) as the result of an EU project with an initial duration of 15 months. The European Commission awarded it to France’s state-owned news agency AFP, Hungarian website 444.hu and the Media Universalis Foundation.

AFP will mostly provide training and know-how to a team of local journalists from an investigative background. In recent years, the AFP has developed an international network of fact-checkers. In Hungary, the agency is Facebook’s leading partner in the fight against disinformation.

“We are proud to be participating in this innovative initiative to help in the fight against disinformation in Europe, a major challenge for our democracies,” said AFP Global News Director Phil Chetwynd.

Hungarians will head to the polls on 3 April in what promise to be the closest elections in more than a decade, since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz came to power in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Since then, Fidesz has passed a number of laws concerning the media, including the 2010 controversial media law. Most recently, Orbán’s government passed a legislative ban on content “promoting or portraying” homosexuality or sexual reassignment to minors in media.

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International media

Following the fall of the communist regime, Hungary’s media market become largely diversified with the entry of international players from Germany and European countries. The situation started to reverse after the financial crisis in 2008, combined with global trends such as plunging ad revenues and the sharp rise of online platforms.

As a result, many international media groups left the media market, precisely at a time when Viktor Orbán’s government and businessmen close to him started to exercise increasing influence over the media sector.

However, there might be some recent signs of that trend reversing, as AFP is not the only international media increasingly active in Hungary. US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty relaunched operations in September 2020. German broadcaster RTL, one of the few foreign operators that did not leave the country, launched a news programme.

In spite of that, Dr Gábor Polyák, an associate professor at the University of Pécs, considers that these initiatives can do little to remedy structural issues in the Hungarian media market, which is largely distorted by public funding and politically-allocated advertising.

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Structural problem

For Polyák, the core of the issue is that the government made the media sector economically unattractive, something reflected in the type of international media that are active in the country.

“They are not market players. They don’t risk anything because they are funded by the US or German government,” he added.

The aim of the fact-checking project is to examine public statements or information that can have a significant influence on public discourse, paying particular attention to politicians and public figures.

Yacine Le Forestier, AFP’s Deputy Director for Europe, told EURACTIV that “the project is not about having a conflict with authorities or criticising the government.”

Nevertheless, the first articles of the website show that it is in a collision course with the Fidesz-led government, and some pro-government media already labelled it as an agent of George Soros, the Hungarian billionaire often targeted for conspiracy theories.

Polyák notes that in such a politicised context initiatives such as Lakmusz “have no chance to reach the Fidesz voters.”

“This is a misunderstanding of the whole Hungarian situation after 12 years,” he said, stressing that the issue in Hungary is not the lack of good journalistic content, but that the media system is so polarised that pro-government supporters will not listen to critical voices.

Polyák contributed to the filing of two complaints before the European Commission regarding the use of public money, which have so far not led to any action, allegedly because the EU executive does not believe it has a strong enough case to defend it in court.

“They don’t have to have any new regulation. These are based on the European competition law that is used from day to day, but not regarding Hungary,” the academic concluded.

Hungary may see takeovers of last free media, experts warn

Recent reports have confirmed the negative trend for media freedom in Hungary but also pointed to Budapest’s negative impact on press freedom in neighbouring countries. On World Press Freedom Day (3 May), EURACTIV talked to two of the main experts on Hungarian media.

Meanwhile, the Commission maintains that it is unable to act on the complaints and would need new powers to intervene.

“This frustration that we can not do anything through competition rules leads us [to] think about better rules,” Values Commissioner Vera Jourova said last year.

Instead, the European executive promised to come up with a legislative proposal by the third quarter of 2022.

The so-called European Media Freedom Act is supposed to “improve transparency, accountability and independence around actions affecting media freedom and pluralism”.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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