Hungary: erosion of press freedom

Viktor Orbán is now in his fourth term as Hungarian prime minister and ruling with a comfortable two-thirds majority. The pressure on Hungarian media continues to grow as the economic crisis resulting from Russia's war on Ukraine faces them with new challenges.

A demonstration for press freedom in the centre of Budapest following the dismissal of Index editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull.
A demonstration for press freedom in the centre of Budapest following the dismissal of Index editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull.
At the end of July 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, around 90 percent of the staff at Index, Hungary's largest news portal, simultaneously handed in their resignations. This drastic step in such uncertain times was prompted by the dismissal of their editor-in-chief as well as concerns about the continued independence of the outlet.

Editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull had been fired after a confrontation with the outlet's management over reform plans that would affect editorial work processes. He had voiced strong opposition to Miklós Vaszily, a media entrepreneur with close ties to the government who acquired a large stake in CEMP Sales House, the company with the exclusive right to sell Index's advertising space, in early 2020. This was the latest coup in a process in which all Hungary's major newspapers and websites were being aligned with the government.

From friend to foe ... and back to friend again

Just one day after the 2018 parliamentary election, the influential media magnate Lajos Simicska announced the closure of the conservative daily Magyar Nemzet – one of the country's oldest newspapers – in reaction to Orbán's re-election.

Three years before, in 2015, Magyar Nemzet and the news channel Hír TV, which at that point also belonged to the Simicska group, had abandoned their pro-government stance after a fallout between Orbán and Simicska, who had been close friends for decades. When Orbán won the election again in 2018, Simicska decided to abandon his media company. Magyar Nemzet was discontinued and the licence went to new owners with close ties to the government, who then relaunched the daily as a pro-government paper in early 2019. The news channel HírTV also passed into the hands of close allies of Orbán, and some members of its staff were dismissed.

In November 2018, most of the pro-government media companies were brought together under the auspices of the newly established media foundation Közép-Európai Sajtó-és Média Alapítvány (Central European Press and Media Foundation, or KESMA for short). István Bajkai, a member of parliament from the ruling Fidesz party, sits on the foundation’s three-member board of trustees. A number of entrepreneurs with close ties to the government who had bought up daily and weekly newspapers, radio and television stations and online media have now either donated or sold their portfolios to the foundation.

In 2016, Hungary’s leading daily, the centre-left Népszabadság, was closed down. 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 was losing too much money, but employees and observers spoke of a coup orchestrated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Orbán had already provoked massive criticism from within Hungary and abroad with the media law that was introduced in 2011. Among other objectives the law provided for stricter control of the media. It established a new state media watchdog which was staffed with staunch pro-Orbán supporters.

Growing economic pressure

The public service broadcasting network has also become a mouthpiece for the Orbán government. As there are no radio licence fees in Hungary, the public service broadcasters and media are financed by the state budget and therefore dependent on the good will of the respective government. Meanwhile, privately-owned media face the problem that the government advertises almost exclusively in media outlets with a pro-government stance. This has created an uneven playing field in Hungary’s relatively small media market.

Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of investigative journalism websites that are critical of the government, including, Direkt36, Átlátszó, Mérce, Válaszonline, and even a new weekly paper, Magyar Hang. The former Index journalists launched Telex, which has become one of Hungary's most popular news portals. However, the financing options of these media outlets are very limited. Paywalls are still relatively uncommon in the Hungarian media market.

Since 2022, Hungary's independent media have faced new challenges in the form of rising energy and paper prices. The increased costs are, however, also taking a toll on pro-government media. In the summer of 2022 the print editions of several, predominantly pro-government newspapers – including the daily Magyar Hírlap and the business paper Világgazdaság – were discontinued. In the same year, the pro-government weekly Figyelő, was shut down for good, as was web portal, owned by Green Party politician Péter Ungár.

The only truly influential independent media Hungary still has are the web portals, and, and TV broadcaster RTL Hungary.

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders): Rank 72 (2023)

Last updated: December 2022
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