Hungary: press freedom undermined

Opposition media are under pressure in Hungary. A number of outlets have had to close down over the last few years, culminating in the closure of the leading opposition daily Népszabadság in 2016. Meanwhile the number of pro-government media outlets is rising steadily. Hungary dropped another two places on the 2016 Press Freedom Index of the organisation Reporters Without Borders.

The front page of the discontinued daily Népszabadság. (© picture-alliance/dpa)
The front page of the discontinued daily Népszabadság. (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Hungary's leading opposition paper Népszabadság was shut down in a cloak-and-dagger operation in October 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. The law, designed to step up controls over the media, even triggered intervention by the EU Commission. The law obliged journalists working for public media to engage in "balanced reporting” and to "strengthen national identity”. The newly founded state media watchdog was staffed by Orbán-loyal followers, and 1,000 public radio employees had to leave their jobs. The EU Commission lodged an unusually strong protest and condemned the law as violating 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.

In recent years the balance of power among the media has shifted markedly in favour of the national conservative government camp. In addition to the closure of four opposition media organs, officially owing to financial problems, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of pro-government media outlets. Moreover, the country's regional media outlets are gradually being taken over by businesses with close ties to the government.

At the same time some media have renounced their former pro-government stance, for example Magyar Nemzet and news channel HírTV. This came as a result of the bitter feud in which their owner, the influential media mogul Lajos Simicska, has been embroiled with Prime Minister Orbán since 2015. Before this the two men had been close friends for years. Recent years have also seen the launch of dissenting investigative journalism websites such as 444, Direkt36 and Átlátzó, some of them run by former editors of the two major web portals Index and Origo.

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 connected to the fact that reader numbers have declined dramatically over the past decade and many media have seen their circulation figures plummet.

Press Freedom Rating:
Reporters Without Borders: 71st place (2017)
Freedom House: 78th place – status: partly free (2016)

Updated: May 2017
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