When it comes to the freedom of the press, a casual observer may ask whether there is censorship in Hungary. Some may add that self-censorship can also be a problem – when the media pre-emptively select their stories and censor themselves to avoid legal or political repercussions. Currently, in Hungary, a certain degree of censorship is indeed present, legally or in the form of political or economic pressure. But the cloud of its presence is probably larger than its reality – giving credit to the abovementioned self-censorship concerns. Nevertheless, the relevance of (or rather, the threat of) censorship pales in comparison to that of economic tools that curtail the freedom of the media.
The political, legal, and economic spheres of society are difficult to disentangle even at the best of times. But autocracies make it even harder – with their manually steered economies, state-fed oligarchs, and by shaping the law to better serve political will and the interests of the ruling power.
This article focuses on the economic restraints on the Hungarian media and the tools that help the ruling power to curtail freedom of the press in their own favor. These measures, however, are almost impossible to disentangle from the subtle (and not-so-subtle) political and legal tools that are designed to serve the same purpose.
Beyond Mere Censorship: Hungary’s Ranking in Press Freedom Index
Hungary’s position in press freedom rankings has been steadily declining since 2010, when the Orbán government came back into power after eight years in opposition. The changes in the country’s constitution in 2011 were only the beginning, and they were followed by new institutions and the much-criticized media law that tightened government control of the broadcast sector and extended regulation to print and online media. It consolidated media regulation under the supervision of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), whose leader also chairs the Media Council.
But the worst hit on the independent media was an economic one: the consolidation of media outlets in the hands of two powerful oligarchs, which was greenlighted by authorities, whereas non-allies were blocked in their similar efforts. Consequently, the Hungarian press has been only “partially free” since 2011, according to the Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2017, and the situation has steadily worsened since – most pronounced in the economic environment of the media (but also in legal and political conditions) (Figure 1)1.
1Freedom House (2017) P”ress Freedom’s Dark Horizon,” [in:] Freedom of the Press 2017. Available [online]: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2017