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.

In April 2018, 80 years after it was founded, the conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet was closed down. Since 2019 a pro-government paper has been published under the same name.
In April 2018, 80 years after it was founded, the conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet was closed down. Since 2019 a pro-government paper has been published under the same name.
Media that are critical of Hungary’s government have been under pressure for years. Several have had to shut down for lack of funding, while others have been taken over by entrepreneurs with close ties to the government. In October 2016, Hungary’s leading daily, the centre-left Népszabadság, was closed down. When the editors arrived at the paper's offices one September 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.

It soon became apparent that Népszabadság was just the beginning: a year and a half later media magnate Lajos Simicska announced the closure of Hungary's second-largest traditional newspaper, the conservative Magyar Nemzet, immediately after the parliamentary elections in April 2018. In 2015 Magyar Nemzet and the news channel Hír TV, which also belonged to the Simicka group, had abandoned their pro-government line after Simicka, a close friend of Orbán’s for decades, fell out with the prime minister. When in 2018 Orbán once again won the election, Simicska abandoned his media company. Magyar Nemzet was discontinued and the licence went to new owners with close ties to the government, who then relaunched the newspaper as a pro-government paper in early 2019. The news channel HírTV also passed into the hands of close allies of Orbán, and some 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.

Orbán had already drawn 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.

The public service broadcasting network has also become a mouthpiece for the Orbán government. In Hungary there are no radio licence fees, meaning that the public media outlets are dependent on funding from the state budget, which is determined by the respective government and its preferences.

As far as the private media are concerned, 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.

In recent years, a number of websites that are critical of the government and rely on investigative reporting, such as, Direkt36, Átlátszó, Mérce, Válaszonline, and even a new weekly paper, Magyar Hang, have emerged. However, the financing options of these media outlets are very limited. Paywalls are still relatively uncommon in the Hungarian media market.

Hardly any of the international media groups that came to Hungary after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 remain in the country today. The withdrawal of companies like the Finnish Sanoma group and the German Funke Media group in 2014 was clearly also prompted by the slump in readership figures over the past decade. There is often no current data available on the sales of newspapers that don’t voluntarily publish their circulation figures.

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

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 89 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020
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