These are dangerous times for the media. Turkey has jailed hundreds of journalists since the July 2016 coup attempt, abusing anti-terror law to silence critics. The Philippines harasses independent media such as Rappler with costly lawsuits. Pakistan’s politicians whip up public anger at the press, resulting in mobs and death threats against editors. Two journalists have been murdered in the EU since 2017. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump rants on about journalists as “enemies of the people”.
Media freedom is also under great pressure in Hungary where, since 2010, the government has systematically dismantled journalistic freedom and media pluraIism, achieving a degree of control unprecedented in an EU member state – all without the use of violence or the jailing of journalists, and even without much legal harassment of the press.
Instead, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has manipulated the media market so as to engineer the forced closure or effective government takeover of independent media. Over the past 10 years, bending the state’s economic resources and regulatory powers, Orbán has installed pro-government owners at the helm of once-independent outlets, transforming them into state mouthpieces.
The effects of this strategy are remarkable, as we confirmed in the recent press freedom mission to Budapest led by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which I led.
Only pro-government news
Take a drive outside of Budapest, Hungarian journalists, say, and you will hear nothing on the radio but a drum beat of pro-government news (the single independent talk radio station is confined to Budapest after being stripped of its additional licenses). There is just one independent daily left in Hungary, with a circulation of just 20,000. In the television market, the evening news of commercial broadcaster RTL Klub is the only significant source of independent information. The online market is more balanced, with several independent news websites still pulling in significant audiences.
The Orbán government cites these outlets as proof that media pluralism is alive and well in Hungary. But in fact their existence merely reveals the government’s true aim, which is not to completely dominate the media market – the illusion of media freedom is essential for deniability – but to insulate just enough of the public from critical news so as to maintain Orbán’s Fidesz party’s hold on power. Independent studies show that nearly 80 percent of the Hungarian news market is financed by government-controlled sources.
No ideology in Hungary
Those remaining critical media are largely confined to Budapest and are under constant siege. They are starved of state advertising, while even commercial advertisers steer clear for fear of government retaliation. Independent journalists are denied access to publicly held information and excluded from official press events.
As elsewhere in the region, smear campaigns against journalists are present here, too. In Hungary, however, these attacks are non-ideological. Left-leaning and conservative independent journalists alike are branded as political activists, foreign agents or traitors. Unique, too, is that Russian disinformation, such a strong concern elsewhere in the region, is largely absent in Hungary. There is no need, say experts we met: Hungary’s public service broadcaster, now simply the voice of the state, effectively plays this role.
The Hungarian model of market manipulation combined with the de-legitimization of journalists makes this form of assault on media freedom harder to identify and combat. But only to an extent: Ours and other investigations have revealed the methods at work, complete with supporting statistics.
The real question is whether the EU will take action. Thus far, it has failed to use its wide-ranging powers to combat market-distorting practices. A belated rule of law procedure against Hungary is only inching along. If it is serious about defending media freedom in Hungary, it must hurry up: The Orbán model is all too contagious, inspiring other would-be copycats in the region – even here in Austria.