Where is the Freedom of the Hungarian Media?

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The non-partisan or opposition media in Hungary is in decline as the influence of the government increases, since the populist governing party owns a large part of the local media. The government takes more and more drastic steps to silence voices of dissent by centralizing the domestic media, and closing down press outlets which are not compatible with the government’s views.

The Internet remains the last free sphere for the press, with online news portals such as Index, HVG, etc. However, the Hungarian government did successfully buy up some of these sites through proxy businesses (Origo, VS etc.). The oppositional voices are gradually disappearing from the radio, television, and mostly from the printed media. Moreover, the government can easily put restraints on independent journalists, when massive parts of the media are already under its influence.

On October 8, 2016, Mediaworks Hungary Zrt., a Hungarian media corporation owned by businessmen close to the government, suspended both the print and online editions of Népszabadság (a daily national newspaper) overnight. Previously, the paper unmasked some of the government’s unpleasant businesses. The journalists of Népszabadság organized demonstrations on Kossuth square, but the paper was terminated permanently.

Mediaworks’ excuse for the closure was the paper’s financial difficulties and the supposed decrease in the number of sold copies. Many were skeptical of this reasoning, mostly because Népszabadság was terminated immediately after it radically raised voice against the government activities. Almost everyone in Hungary and in the world press regarded this action as the restriction of the freedom of the press.

Népszabadság has served liberty and democracy for 26 years since the Hungarian transition in 1989. The paper was so open-minded that many right-wingers and pro-government politicians had also published in it regularly.

This was not the only example of the government’s expansion in the media: they also blocked several radio channels. The Hungarian Media Council shut down the Class FM, which was the property of Lajos Simicska, who is involved in an ongoing personal feud with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. One of the reasons was that in one of the radio’s humorous morning shows a few jokes were aimed at some cabinet members. The channel’s frequency was given to the pro-government Andy Vajna’s Rádió 1, which became the only private radio channel with national coverage.

There are similar tendencies regarding TV channels. One of the country’s two biggest commercial TV channels, TV2, was also bought by the loyalist Andy Vajna. Ever since, the channel’s content was adjusted to fit the government’s needs. Now, its shows are all devoted to manipulatively discrediting opposition politicians. Just in one year the TV2 channel reached a professional rock bottom.

Maybe the cherry on top is that the government’s influence can reach over the borders. Among the Hungarian minorities living beyond the borders the Orbán-government is highly popular. Only a smaller part of the minority is mistrustful towards the Hungarian prime minister. However, their careful criticism is also unacceptable for the Hungarian government. Therefore, PM Viktor Orbán with the help of the RMDSZ (Romanian Hungarian Ethnic Party) closed or ideologically reshaped the media outlets criticizing the Hungarian government. This happened to Transylvanian Erdélyi Riport portal, the operations of which were suddenly suspended. They also reformed the most visited Transylvanian Hungarian portal, Új Magyar Szó.

It is formidable that the Hungarian government could manage foreign newspapers, and foreign businesses, spreading its influence over the countries’ borders without any regards to democratic values of the freedom of the press.

Dora Boldizsar
Free Market Foundation