Investors or professionals: How most Hungarian media helped discrimination

Newspaper stand in Budapest, Hungary, 15 May, 2018. [Shutterstock/Peter Gudella]

This article is part of our special report Media society and non-discrimination: Are we doing enough?.

You can also read this article in Romanian.

Media watchdogs have been sounding the alarm over the shrinking space for media pluralism in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. EURACTIV looks into how discrimination of ethnic and social minorities has evolved in the country and how the development of its media landscape also played a role.

“Since 2010, the Hungarian government has systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism, distorted the media market and divided the journalistic community in the country, achieving a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state,” said a report published last year by seven media monitoring organisations.

The shrinking space for independent voices has been reflected in the coverage of minority issues, while evidence piles of discrimination in state and pro-government media.

During the 2015 migration crisis, leaked documents suggested of editorial guidance not to show children in footage of refugees and migrants in state media.

“It’s a lot harder to be afraid of a family where dad, mom, kids are trying to survive together, and it’s a lot easier to be afraid when we see 10-12 youthful men in the picture,” explained Ágnes Urbán, an expert at the Hungarian media think tank Mérték.

She added that the images edited in such a way “presented a staggering and unsolvable problem to the viewers” and contributed to the portrayal of “the problem as a threat.”

“Obviously, the correct procedure would have been to show the human destinies, how these people got here, why they came, why they felt that even this was better than staying home.”

Since the refugee crisis, state and pro-government media have been looking for new social minority groups to take into the crosshair, analysts suggest.

“My estimation is that the anti-migration campaign was no longer working,” said Tamás Dombos, a board member at Háttér, an LGBTQI civil society organisation.

In Dombos’s view, the government was “testing” the communication potential in various minority groups, including the Roma, the country’s largest ethnic minority, but “LGBTQI was the one that stuck out the most.”

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Since the start of 2020, Hungary has barred citizens from legally changing their gender, and introduced legislation that would limit adoption to married couples, cutting paths to adoption for gay couples, as well as constitutional amendments that define that the “mother – is a woman, the father – a man.”

Hungary’s controversial media law, one of the first bills enacted after Fidesz came to power in 2010, lists amongst the goals of public service broadcasting the promotion of “respecting the institution of marriage and the value of the family.”

However, this law has so far not been used to curtail LGBTQI-friendly material, at least until now, according to Dombos.

“When it was adopted at the time, many people were really afraid that there will be a crackdown on any reportage about LGBTQ issues, now I think those fears were unfounded, legally speaking,” he said.

Nevertheless, the absence of LGBTQI friendly content from national broadcasters has been glaring and the government had to fend off allegations last year that Hungary would not take part in Eurovision 2020 because “it’s too gay.”

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At the same time, the protection of the social majorities is stringently enforced.

The oversight body fined a channel this spring for broadcasting a segment that showed the liberal mayor of the capital’s 7th district, Péter Niedermüller, saying that if “we were to peel off” groups to be hated in the country – citing migrants, Roma, and others – what “would remain is this horrifying formation in the middle, these white, Christian, heterosexual males”, as well as females.

Similarly, Coca Cola was fined last year for running a banner ad campaign showing kissing gay couples, because the posters had the potential to “impair the physical, mental, emotional, and moral development of children and adolescents.”

Moreover, signs of self-censorship are also present. In 2014, RTL Klub, Hungary’s largest independent channel, owned by the German RTL Group, was reported as having cut out scenes of two young men kissing from a teenage drama series.

Last year, a study conducted by Urbán for Mérték, estimated that pro-Fidesz outlets covered 77.8% of the entire news and public affairs segment of Hungary’s media market,

RTL Klub, the last large independent commercial broadcaster with a news segment that reaches a wide audience, has previously played an important role in portraying the diversity of the Hungarian society.

In early 2000s, RTL was deliberately trying to show a more diverse picture of the Hungarian society. Its soap opera, Barátok Közt (Among Friends), on air since 1998, has portrayed Roma and gay characters, drug addicts and persons with disabilities.

Even so, Romani people are still underrepresented in Hungarian media.

For instance, Roma do not appear as anchors on commercial or public television, and if they are mentioned by mainstream media, it is more often as “a societal problem to be solved,” according to Urbán.

One exception is talent shows, where skilled Roma musicians are portrayed positively, but even that can reinforce stereotypes, if they always only show up in such talent shows, Urbán said.

How did we get here?

After the fall of communism, it seemed that Hungary was on course to develop a Western-style diverse media market. Big German media giants like Axel Springer, ProSiebenSat.1, Funke Mediengruppe entered the country, accompanied by the Swiss Ringier and Finnish Sanoma.

“What was a worrying sign is that pretty quickly it turned out … that these companies do not operate in Hungary according to the same professional standards as in their home countries,” Urbán told EURACTIV.

“In fact, they treated these Eastern European markets, or at least Hungary, as a market activity from which dividends can be taken, but they did not really deal much with what was happening in the profession,” she said.

“In retrospect, it is clear how much of a mistake this was, and how much it actually ruined the Hungarian media market.”

She said the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory environment, coupled with global trends like loss of advertising revenue to tech platforms, created fertile ground where it was “surprisingly easy to bulldoze various editorial offices. There wasn’t really resistance from companies, I wouldn’t even say there was resistance from consumers.”

Journalists themselves have put up significant resistance, with mass resignations from Origo in 2014, in 2016 and most recently, from Index.

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By now, all of the international media groups have exited Hungary, with the exception of RTL and Ringier Axel Springer, which was created as a 50-50 venture between its namesakes for their activities in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, Ringier Axel Springer provides little coverage of current public affairs, and focuses more on tabloids, lifestyle and entertainment.

“From the point of view of the Hungarian public, it is as if they have withdrawn” from the market, Urbán pointed out.

“I really think it’s the shame of the foreign investors that, in fact, a commercial channel [RTL Klub] is the only one that counterbalances the propaganda media of the Orbán government,” she added.

Critics say the strongest tool in the EU hands to intervene in the Hungarian media market is competition law, because the market is dominated by the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), an Orbán-ally conglomerate comprising nearly 500 media groups.

In 2016, the Mérték think tank and former MEP Benedek Jávor have raised a complaint with the European Commission alleging excessive funding of public broadcast media in Hungary, but the executive is yet to respond.

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In October, EU competition boss Margrethe Vestager said that “it’s not the state aid rules of the EU that will guarantee media plurality – it should be the member states safeguarding this.”

Urbán believes the bloc also needs to secure more direct financing for independent reporting, investigative projects and exchange programmes for young journalists to gain experience in outlets abroad.

In addition, the economist said, “it is absolutely key” how advertisers, car factories, retail chains, and other foreign commercial companies present in Hungary spend their advertising budgets.

“Essentially, the survival of independent media depends on whether they will enrich government media or consciously pay attention to ensuring that independent actors also receive advertising money,” Urbán said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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