Three Years of War Waged by Orbán against Hungarian Media Pluralism

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We have reached the end of a three-year-long war in the media waged against Hír TV – the biggest anti-government television broadcaster in Hungary. The main battle took place between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and oligarch Lajos Simicska, the owner of Hír TV, right before the TV conglomerate was conquered.

Hír TV, a formerly strongly pro-Orbán medium, after the three years of conflict goes back to its roots. It may seem that nothing has changed over this three years but the truth is that amidts the war Orbán built his own media conglomerate. Because of that, the annexation of Hír TV further decreased media pluralism in Hungary to a level lower than before the medium turned against Orbán.

In July 2018, businessman Lajos Simicska, one of the wealthiest people in Hungary, sold his companies and investments to his long-time business partner, Zsolt Nyerges. Formerly, Simicska was one of the closest friends of PM Orbán, but their alliance broke on February 6, 2015, on the so-called “G-day” (G is a reference to the Hungarian word for semen, because this is how Simicska referred to Orbán).

After G-day, Simicska’s media turned from pro-government to anti-government. These were the radio stations Class FM and Lánchíd Rádió (Chain bridge Radio), newspapers Metropol, Heti Válasz (Weekly Answer), and Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), and the abovementioned television channel Hír TV (News TV).

For many years, Simicska was one of the most important figures of the current governing party Fidesz and a close ally of its leader, Viktor Orbán. During Orbán’s first administration Simicska was the head of the tax authority and helped Orbán a lot to regain his power after the defeat of Fidesz in the 2002 parliamentary elections by creating a strong media background with connections to Fidesz.

Simicska bought the daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet and created Hír TV. Moreover, he acquired several other media outlets. In 2014 the tensions between Simicska and Orbán started to grow because Orbán saw that Simicska is gaining more influence in Fidesz. This rivalry led in 2015 to a rift that emerged between the two.

After that, Simicska’s media conglomerate, which was previously supportive of Fidesz, became increasingly critical of the government and Viktor Orbán. At the same time, it started to get closer to Jobbik, a radical far-right party, which is currently the biggest opposition party in Hungary.

Nevertheless, the most radical changes occurred within Hír TV. The managing editors gained the right to choose their topics freely, they recruited Olga Kálmán (who is a popular left liberal commentator), and gladly hosted on the air figures with ties to Jobbik and other opposition parties.

Meanwhile, the Fidesz politicians boycotted Hír TV and Simicska’s other mediums. Media pluralism increased due to the rift between Orbán and Simicska. The change of heart of former propaganda newspapers and TV channel gave a boost to the freedom of the media in Hungary.

Orbán started to build his own media conglomerate that was supposed to be a response to the one owned by Simicska’s.  Orbán wanted to create an entity that would be loyal to him personally. Yet, the first steps had been made long before the conflict with Simicska emerged.

Thanks to the supermajority Fidesz achieved in 2010, the Hungarian parliament passed a new media law that has put the public media under the control of the government. This was the time when the public media started to operate as government’s mouthpiece. They made room for far more governmental advertisement than ever before and ensured that the news or interviews were favorable of Fidesz. 

In 2015, after G-day, Orbán created his own Hír TV by totally changing the profile of the main channel of the public television M1 to a news channel and than dispersed the other mediums between several oligarchs (such as Árpád Habony, Andrew Vajna, and Lőrinc Mészáros). Orbán combined his political influence with his oligarchs’ economical power to gradually bring Simicska to ruin, just like Simicska did with Orbán’s enemies before.

Since 2015, Simicska’s companies failed to obtain any public procurement, tenders or other contracts with governmental institutions. Governmental advertisements started to disappear from his media, which resulted in huge financial losses for Simicska.

The first casualty within Simicska’s conglomerate was the free daily newspaper, Metropol, which could not survive without the advertisements paid for by the state. The newspaper was replaced with Lokál, which is also a free daily newspaper, but one owned by Orbán’s close ally, Árpád Habony, who is also Orbán’s advisor.

In 2016, the state took down the frequency of Simicska’s radio station, Class FM. In 2017, the Hungarian tax authorities started to investigate Simicska’s billboard companies – Fidesz even passed a law on banning billboards, which was supposed to make it harder for Jobbik to conduct a successful campaign.

Before the 2018 parliamentary elections, Simicska had mentioned several times that if Fidesz wins again, he will be no longer able to operate his media conglomerate. Two days after the victory of Orbán’s party for the third consecutive term in office with a two-thirds majority, Simicska shut down Magyar Nemzet and Lánchíd. He also announced several budget cuts that would affect his other media outlets, including weekly magazine Heti Válasz and Hír TV.

At the beginning of summer 2018, Heti Válasz was also shut down. In July, Nyerges announced that he had bought Simicska’s remaining media outlets, including Hír TV. After Simicska’s conflict with Orbán, Nyerges remained Simicska’s partner and led some of his companies. Still, he remained on good terms with Fidesz.

On August 1, Nyerges summoned the Hír TV staff to the channel’s offices. After the meeting, the management announced the immediate termination of contracts and they fired editors who were openly critical towards the government, including Olga Kálmán.

This was the day when Hír TV again turned pro-government. And while many journalist and politicians with the ties to Fidesz addressed the retrieval of Hír TV in their utterances, it seems that the media pluralism and the freedom of the press is at a much lower level than ever before.

Csaba Fuzfa
Republikon Institute