Hungary: press freedom eroded

The news came one day after the parliamentary elections in April 2018: the influential media mogul Lajos Simicska announced that he was shutting down the newspaper Magyar Nemzet after eighty years in print. The move was an expression of his deep disappointment at the re-election of Viktor Orbán.

A man reading the last edition of the daily Magyar Nemzet on 11 April 2018. The newspaper was closed down after 80 years in print.
A man reading the last edition of the daily Magyar Nemzet on 11 April 2018. The newspaper was closed down after 80 years in print.
Magyar Nemzet and the news channel HírTV, which also belongs to the Simicska group, had renounced their formerly pro-government line in 2015 after Simicska, a close friend of Orbán’s for decades, fell out with the prime minister. When the latter once again won the parliamentary election, Simicska turned his back on Magyar Nemzet and the long-standing conservative paper was discontinued. There were also layoffs at HírTV and Simicska’s radio station Lánchídrádió was closed too.

Hungary’s opposition media have been under pressure for years and a number have been discontinued for lack of funding. The most contentious closure so far was that of the leading opposition daily Népszabadság, which was shut down in a cloak and dagger operation one October night in 2016. When the editors arrived at the paper's offices one morning they found the doors locked and access to their email accounts blocked. The owners defended the move saying that the paper's losses were too high; employees and observers, however, called it a coup. They accused Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government of wanting to silence an unwelcome voice. The paper was one of the most important mouthpieces of the left-wing opposition and dissident intellectuals.

The media law introduced in 2011 had already brought Orbán massive criticism in Hungary and abroad. Designed to increase controls over the media, even the EU Commission felt compelled to intervene. The law obliged journalists working for public media to commit to "balanced reporting” and to "strengthen the national identity”. The newly founded state media watchdog was staffed by staunch pro-Orbán supporters. Around 1,000 public radio employees had to leave their jobs. The EU Commission reacted with unusual force, condemning the law and saying it violated the basic values of the EU.

The Hungarian media landscape is marked by the contrast between the two political camps that have emerged since the end of communism: the current right wing-conservative governing party Fidesz on the one hand and the legal successor to the former state party, the Socialist Party (MSZP), on the other. Many print media have come under the influence of these political camps over the past twenty-five years.

Hungary‘s public broadcasting organisation has also had to navigate between these two poles ever since it was first founded in 1990. In Hungary there are no radio licence fees that could go directly towards financing the broadcaster, meaning it must rely heavily on funds from the state budget, which is determined by the respective government and its preferences. Nowadays the public service broadcaster is a mouthpiece for the Orbán government, which dismissed employees on a mass scale and replaced them with others of its choosing immediately after its election victory in 2010.

In other areas too, a marked shift in favour of the national conservative government could be observed in Hungary’s media landscape in recent years. The government began using only pro-government media for its advertisements, which resulted in drastic losses for government-critical media in Hungary’s relatively small media sector. In addition to the closure of many opposition media organs, officially owing to financial problems, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of pro-government media outlets. To make matters worse the country’s regional media outlets have also been gradually taken over by pro-government companies.

In recent years anti-government and investigative websites such as 444.hu, Direkt36 and Átlátzó have been launched, some of which are run by former editors of the two major websites Index and Origo. However, they often have to rely on donations to finance themselves and can employ only a few members of staff.

The website Index, Hungary’s most popular website, and the TV channel RTL Hungary, which has made a name for itself as a critical voice in recent years, remain the two most influential, independent media outlets.

Only a few of the major international media companies that came to Hungary after the political changes of 1989 are still there. In May 2014 the Finnish media company Sanoma withdrew from Hungary, and three months later the Funke media group decided to sell its majority stake in the weekly hvg. The withdrawal of these media companies is probably also linked to the dramatic drop in reader numbers over the past decade, with many publications seeing their circulation figures plummet.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 73 (2018)

Last updated: May 2018
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