20 Years in Making – Media Market and Policy in Hungary between 2002-2022

Hermann Kern (1838-1912): A gentleman reading a newspaper (1891) // Public Domain

The role of the media is more important in politics than it was 20-30 years ago. Political parties and politicians are using the media all around the world to promote themselves, their ideology, and their aims. These actions made media post objective, which means that almost every media outlet is close to a political party, which, of course, doesn’t mean that they’re making propaganda.

We can hardly find free and independent medias around the globe, just think about the Fox Broadcasting Company in the US, which is a well-known expanded part of the Republican party, and on the opposition side there is CNN, which is close to the Democratic party. The Hungarian media market is no different, but the gap in representation between the governing party, Fidesz-KDNP and the opposition is enormous. In this this article I’ll talk about how the media market and media policy changed during the left-sided governments in Hungary between 2002 and 2010, and how it changed after 2010, under the Fidesz-KDNP governments.

In 2002 Fidesz-KDNP lost the general election, MSZP and SZDSZ formed a left-liberal coalition. Péter Medgyessy was the elected prime minister, under his governance there were some changes in the management of TV-Channels, Radio stations and newspapers. Therefore, Viktor Orbán, who was in opposition, realized that he had to do something to balance the media market, so he’s started to build a media empire. The right-wing set up Tv-channels (such as Hír Tv) and newspapers (such as Magyar Nemzet). These medias’ audience and readership weren’t so great compared to public broadcasting, but this has since changed, more on that later.

After Péter Medgyessy’s resignation Ferenc Gyurcsány became Prime Minister. Under his governance, television was the primary information source, followed by the newspapers and lastly, the internet. Talk shows were broadcasting on TV with text messages from the viewers. It helped spectators interact with each other and discuss public affairs publicly, and to criticize anonymously. Also, blogs became famous in the 2000’s, at the time, Ferenc Gyurcsány himself had a blog, where he wrote about his daily life and routine. Tabloid medias became more and more popular, and politicians found it very useful and an effective means to reach their target audience.

Meanwhile, in the public service media, things were almost the same as under Péter Medgyessy’s governance, the governing party had great influence over the public service media and the media market, but the difference in representation between the opposition and the governing side weren’t as big as currently in Hungary. The opposition politicians were occasionally guests of the political talk shows and debates, there were prime minister candidate debates in 2002 and in 2006,  and it is widely considered that Viktor Orbán lost both of them.

The former status quo in Hungarian media, however, was broken after the notorious Öszödi speech. It was a leaked audio file after the 2006 winning election, in which Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about how they were lying to the public during his governance. The recording was played in the Hungarian Radio and on many Tv channels. After the speech became public, a riot started at the Hungarian Radio building, and the crew of Hír Tv (close to Fidesz-KDNP) channel broadcasted the protesters who were attacking the Hungarian Radio building.

A media-war started after the Öszödi-speech. Whenever the prime minister spoke publicly, the right-wing medias were accusing him that he is not telling the truth. The left-party politicians were always in the crosshairs of the right-wing medias, and thanks to their persistence, they became more and more popular.  Overall, between 2002-2010 the left-coalition governments’ media policies were almost the same, but after the Öszödi-speech a media war started between right and left sided medias and it changed everything.

After the 2010 winning election, Fidesz-KDNP was in its prime. Viktor Orbán wanted to continue to expand the right-wing media empire, and they started by reconstructing public service media and changing the Media Law, therefore The National Media and Telecommunications Authority (NMHH) was founded.

This Organization is responsible for the evaluation of radio frequency applications and to impose fines of media products. The head organization of the NMHH is the Media Council, the director of which must report to the parliament and who is appointed by the prime minister. This means that, this position is greatly influenced politically. After the 2010 change of government, foreign investors started selling their media portfolios. These portfolios were bought by pro-government investors. The biggest pro-government investor was Lajos Simicska, whose portfolio already consisted of 2 radios, 3 newspapers and one Tv-channel.

In 2010, on the Hungarian media market there were more opposition medias than pro-government ones. In 2014, the media market was very similar, but from the viewer rating perspective, we get that, on the newspaper market the pro-government papers had twice bigger readership than the non-government papers and their daily radio listener numbers were almost 4 times bigger than opposition radio audiences; and this pattern continued in TV-channel ratings, too. Only online media usage was higher in the circle of non-government websites than the pro-government websites.

In the 2014 election Fidesz-KNDP won again, and all the regional and town-papers were bought by a pro-government investor, therefore a big slice of the Hungarian media market changed sides. Later it turned out that the buyer, Mediaworks, is owned by one of the most notorious Hungarian pro-government entrepreneurs, Lőrinc Mészáros.

In 2015 came the since (in)famous Orbán vs Simicska conflict, which caused a break in pro-government media, since all of Lajos Simicska’s media stake went from pro-government to non-government. This resulted an awkward situation: Hír TV was not pro-government for almost 4 years. This was as weird as it would be for the Daily Telegraph to change sides and become associated with the Labour party. Some mediums also had to close, usually these mediums are non-government owned, some of them were Metropol newspaper and Class FM radio. Class FM (and later Klub Radio, which is still available online) had to close, because the Media Council didn’t renew their tender for their radio frequency.

Even though after Lajos Simicska’s conflict with the prime minister, the gap between the reaches of pro-government and non-government mediums became smaller, numerically there were already more mediums on the pro-government side than on the non-government side. In 2018, Fidesz-KDNP won the Hungarian parliamentary election for the third time, in September that year, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) was founded, and many of the pro-government media investors simply gave away their mediums to this organization for free, and now this organization is the biggest media owner in Hungary.

This would have been competition abuse, but the government apprised it as a primary investment, so there was no chance to initiate an investigation by the competition authorities. The representation gap is growing between the two sides, and the moves that the governing party made in the last 12 years are for controlling the majority of the Hungarian media market. This means they deliver their messages to more and more people, while the opposition has decreasing chances to do the same.

If we look at the differences between the left-sided governments and the Fidesz-KDNP government, we can see that Fidesz’s strategy is to dominate the Hungarian media, while under the left-sided governments this was not the primary goal. In both eras the governing party dominated public broadcasting, but under Fidesz it became increasingly one sided.

In the 2022 parliamentary election campaign the opposition parties only had 5 minutes of screentime each to talk about their program in the National Television-Channel (M1), while Fidesz candidates were regulars on M1. Also, during the election campaign, public broadcasting channels were all supporting the governing party, and tried to compromise the opposition prime minister candidate, Péter Márki-Zay and other opposition politicians. We can say that media in Hungary is free, which means there is free speech in Hungary, but fair and equal opportunities are not guaranteed, because the market competition is limited.

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