Hungary may see takeovers of last free media, experts warn

Supporters of the closed Hungarian newspaper Nepszabadsag hold a demonstration in front European Commission entrance in Brussels, Belgium, 19 October 2016. [EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET]

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 Hungarian media experts.

Marius Dragomir is the director at the Centre for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) at the Central European University (CEU). Gabor Polyak is an associate professor at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies, at the University of Pécs.

 Interview highlights:

  • In Hungary, the government and a class of oligarchs close to it control the vast majority of the media.
  • With parliamentary elections due next year, experts expect moves to take over the last independent media in Hungary.
  • Media pluralism can be restored only with an EU intervention, otherwise the Hungarian model might take hold in Central-Eastern Europe.

What is the current situation for the media in Hungary and how has the COVID crisis influenced it?

Polyak: It is currently forbidden for journalists to enter hospitals or speak to a doctor, and none is willing to answer the media about the true health situation. As a result, the government is the sole source of information on the COVID crisis. In addition, the Hungarian Parliament has also recently approved a new criminal law that has been presented as fighting the spreading of fake news. In fact, the very vague formulation of the law allows to criminalise criticism against governmental measures.

Media ownership is often mentioned as one of the main threats to media freedom. What is the landscape of media ownership in Hungary and how is this impacting media independence?

Dragomir: The situation in Hungary is very bad in terms of media ownership concentration. This is an issue that has been present across Eastern Europe for the last 20 years. The problem is the very high degree of concentration of ownership in the hands of a class of oligarchs who are very close to the government.

We call this problem ‘media capture’. It starts with public media, which in Hungary are fully controlled by the government. At the same time, the government uses public funding to reward the media owned by its friends. There is currently no transparency nor an objective mechanism to finance the media, it is purely a tool to control them.

For what concerns private media, there has been a concerted campaign of systematic takeovers by this group of oligarchs since Fidesz has taken power in 2010. This very high level of control by one group of powerful businessmen and government officials creates one of the most problematic media situations across Europe.

What is the economic model of media that want to remain independent?

Polyak: There are three existing alternatives.  RTL Hungary is part of a large European company, which makes RTL’s news programme the most important source of non-pro governmental information. The second model is Central Media owned by Zoltán Varga, the only major Hungarian-owned media with no political affiliation. Thirdly, small media outlets that are mostly online have recently found in crowdfunding a way to maintain themselves financially, at least in part.

Dragomir: However, the real problem is the imbalance of forces. Oligarchs took over most of the media in the country, including at local level, which combined with a very well financed state media creates a situation that increases the cost of doing journalism tremendously. If you want to launch a media outlet you are basically up against the whole market.

The demise of Klubradio and the takeover of Index have been regarded as worrying developments for media freedom in Hungary. What other actions can we expect from the Hungarian government?

Polyak: RTL and Central Media are the next (and last) big targets. Central Media have already refused offers from pro-governmental media, still you never know for how long that will be the case. RTL is a strong company, but in recent years Western media have been leaving the Hungarian media market, bought out by oligarchs. RTL remains an exception for the time being.

Dragomir: If you study this pattern of takeovers there is a very strong correlation between buyouts and elections. One year before the elections these takeovers increase, which shows that this is a very sophisticated governmental machine that calculates very well the media outlets that need to be taken over before the elections to secure a vast majority. Elections are coming up next year, hence we should expect some moves in the upcoming months against RTL.

Polyak: In addition, last week there was a new regulation that labelled the media sector as ‘strategic’. As a result, all mergers and acquisitions in the media market need to be pre-approved by the government.

Orbán’s influence on the media is without rival in Hungary

The state of Hungary’s media has become the focus of intense public debate at home and across Europe after the national Media Council, run exclusively by people from the ruling Fidesz party, revoked the opposition Klubrádió’s frequency in February. EURACTIV’s media partner Telex takes stock of the country’s media landscape.

Reporters without Borders has identified Hungary as a negative trend-setter in the region. Where and how is Hungary influencing other countries in Central-Eastern Europe?

Dragomir: There is definitely a pattern of the Hungarian model being recreated in other countries. Poland is ideologically closer to Hungary, and there also affinities with leaders across Europe, Slovenia’s Janez Janša is a clear example of that. However, it is not just about the ideas, in the past years Hungarian oligarchs have also started buying media outlets in in Northern Macedonia and Slovenia. They also bought Hungarian media in Romania, which is very important as there is a large Hungarian community living in Transylvania and they have the right to vote.

Commissioner Breton has recently launched the idea of a European Media Freedom Act. What can the European Union do to address the main challenges for media freedom in Hungary and in the region?

Polyak: One of the reasons for this shocking situation is that the European Union has not taken it seriously. Hungary itself was not interesting enough, and it was too late when they started noting that it was not only about Hungary but the entire region. The European Union has existing tools it could use, in particular to prevent market distortion. With my NGO we have made two complaints to the European Commission, on the funding of the public media in 2016 and on the use of public advertisement in a discriminatory way in 2019. No action was taken.

It is also interesting that only in Western Europe you can find research centres for media freedom. The problems are here but there is no one here to monitor the situation. A key aspect where the European Union could help is the independence of the Media Council, the Hungarian media authority whose decisions are very important to prevent this distorted media market. In the Audio-visual Media Directive (AVMD) there are some rules that should guarantee the independence of the Media Council. However, these rules can be easily circumvented by the government if none keeps them in check. As there is no monitoring, it remains a purely political debate since it is not based on evidence.

Under which conditions do you think we will see a turnaround for media freedom in Hungary?

Dragomir: The Hungarian media need an intervention from Brussels, and not only for Hungary but many European countries that have been experiencing worsening conditions. A strong intervention by the European Union is needed.

Polyak: Many people and organisations have been fighting for change and the most relevant tools were procedures at European level and to raise awareness with European decision-makers. As an authoritarian state, we do not have a functioning rule of law and public institutions (i.e. Constitutional Court, Ombudsman, Chief Prosecutor). Everything is politicised and linked to the ruling party. Without any help from the European Union it will be really problematic to go back to a democratic way in Hungary, and the situation will worsen also in Poland, Slovenia and other countries. The European Union should act before it is too late.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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