Press Freedom Crisis of Hungarian Countryside: Trap of One-Sided Information

H. A. Brendekilde : While Reading the Newspaper News (1912) // Public domain

In the past few years, there have been significant changes over the Hungarian media market, more and more media outlets are owned by government-friendly companies, often spreading misinformation to serve political agendas. Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary led to the centralization of several public sectors in order to secure its power over the past decade.

In this article I am going to examine a small, but significant portion of the leading political elite’s assets, the control of press in rural areas, under which I mean all settlements except the capital city, Budapest. This distinction might seem odd, because rural areas give 80% of the population, but it is necessary, because the capital is significantly bigger than any other city in Hungary and has a great economic weight, which allows more independence from the government than in rural areas where options are more limited, and government policies can make a huge difference.

Printed press is losing its relevance and online news sites are taking over according to global trends, but in Hungary, daily printed papers are reaching 15% of the population. The most popular ones are the county newspapers, which are supposed to be about local issues, development projects and some significant national news, but they became the mouthpieces of government propaganda.

The editors have little latitude to change the content of the papers or phrase any type of criticism against the Orbán regime; if any type of problem identification appears, the local government is said to take care of it soon or the problem is claimed to be separate from the current government. The Fidesz (Viktor Orbán’s party) media takeover for the past six years has lowered the number of daily newspaper copies twice as much as the unfavourable media trends and the pandemia together, which clearly shows how much the propaganda affected the news outlets quality.

But how did this happen? In most rural cities, even before the peaceful democratic transition of 1989 newspapers appeared which were critical of the socialist regime and independent from the government. In the 1990s, several of them were discontinued because of financial reasons, and many of them became under the influence of the local political powers, but they thrived in places where political competition was more balanced.

Around the 2000s many rural online newspapers started and several blogs were writing about local civil issues, but over the last 10 years their number also declined. In the 1990s, during the press privatization era, foreign owners came to the scene and in order to increase profit, they used tabloid journalism and created friendly ties with local powers in order to sell advertisement places.

From the start of the second Orbán government after the 2014 elections, the centralization of the local media market increased. For example, all foreign investors left the daily county newspaper market in Hungary, because the Fidesz-friendly enterprises consumed them one by one, along with local radio stations and television channels. Mediaworks Ltd., their main holder, has become the largest media company in Hungary while being connected to the biggest Hungarian oligarch, Lőrinc Mészáros.

In 2018, the local papers owned by government friendly corporations (so almost all of them) became part of KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation), which didn’t buy them, they were offered for free to the foundation, while being worth EUR 83.5 million. This was obviously against competition law, but the government signified the transaction as being part of the national strategy, so it could avoid prosecution by the Hungarian Competition Authorities.

The independent online newspapers, which don’t receive money from the government, are largely based in Budapest, though there are a few exceptions in bigger rural cities like Szabad Pécs. However, their resources are scarce and local reporters are needed to write good coverage on the issues of the rural counties.

Some of them recently started a project (Helyközi Járat) trying to reveal the issues of the countryside, but these initiatives won’t be able to balance out the government’s prevalence and resources, which cannot be matched by independent newspapers financed by advertisements and crowdfunding.

Media being the fourth pillar of democracy is bound to be free in order to preserve the democratic system. People have the right to be informed without the censorship and the restraint of the government. In Hungary’s case the options are getting scarcer and scarcer, especially on the printed press front.

If you lived in a rural town in Hungary, the chances are your local or county paper is owned by a government friendly foundation, they all contain the same headlines, because they serve as a propaganda tool. The free public radio and television stations are also singing the same tunes, thankfully not all of the stations are government controlled, but as we can see there is a strong initiative to limit the options people are informed by.

Of course, this trend didn’t go unnoticed, in 2019 the Council of Europe voiced it’s concerns about the retailoring of the Hungarian media market in favour of the leading party, and the obstacles the independent media faces. Some, on the other hand, see these changes as a result of a successful strategy, Poland’s ruling party (PiS) has already embraced the Fidesz government’s media policy publicly. Austria’s former Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Cristian Strache, has also been caught saying he wants the same media conditions Orbán has in his country in 2017.

What the Future Holds

In Hungary the most obvious solution to this problem would be an opposition government, which could revive the public media, but sadly it’s more complicated than that. For example, KESMA, which controls more than 400 media companies in Hungary, isn’t legally owned by the government, but by the leadership’s close circle, so changing the county’s government wouldn’t necessarily mean the collapse of the Fidesz media empire.

In 2019, the share of KESMA, public media and government friendly, but not KESMA companies were 77.8% of the news and public life segment in Hungary. The space for independent sources is scearse, a new Hungarian leadership would have to make sure that the competition laws are correctly applied in the media, in order to stop KESMA and it’s centralization efforts.

As I stated at the beginning, the rural settlements are more exposed to the one-sided flood of information, which can be observed best on the state of the local press outlets in the countryside. Opposite opinions are rarely broadcasted and they largely serve the interests of the local government and the leading party. This trend is continuing in the online space and stretches over the country’s borders to other Central European leaders.

It is almost impossible to be informed about local issues in the countryside, without trustworthy sources, different candidates in local elections cannot be  represented  equally to the community. The ones in power own the rural media, so their accomplishments are highlighted and their failures are overlooked by the newspapers.

How could voters make a responsible decision then? They can’t, even though printed media is on a decline, it is still a prevalent force in the Hungarian countryside, that’s why serious action should be taken to restore the freedom of the press in Hungary.

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Anna Tavaszi
Republikon Institute