Hungarian press freedom in jeopardy
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is close to owning majority stakes in most of Hungary’s major publications, which could seriously undermine Hungarian press freedoms, media insiders report.
“When Hungary took over the European Union Presidency in January 2011 it made itself an opponent of press freedom by adopting a Draconian media law criticized by the European Federation of Journalists and all major press freedom groups and European institutions including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Commission and Parliament,” Renate Schroeder, Director at the European Federation of Journalists, told CEE Insight.
“Due to international pressure, some minor changes have been made. But many problems remain including the ways of nomination and appointment of the president and members of the [Hungarian] Media Authority and Media Council, and their power over content in the broadcast media, as well as the prospect of very high fines that in fact has led to self-censorship among journalists,” added Renate Schroeder.
An item published in July 2013 in the Hungarian daily Index stated that based on the daily’s research, Orban and Fidesz continue to dominate the news coverage in Hungary. Research shows that the ratio of broadcasts covering Fidesz, compared to the opposition, is about 70 percent to 30 percent, which suggests that Fidesz is holding an iron grip on the media.
Orban began accumulating media assets in the 1990s through his business connections and people loyal to the Fidesz party, a source told CEE Insight. By 2010, the daily national newspapers Magyar Hirlap and Magyar Nemzet, radio station Lanchid Radio, Hungarian weekly Heti Valasz, and TV news channel HirTV, which jointly constitute some 40-50 percent of all Hungarian media, were already 100 percent-owned by oligarchs associated with Fidesz, the source claimed. The party also took possession of Hungary’s two free-of-charge dailies: Metropol (earlier: Metro) through Karoly Fonyo, a close ally of Lajos Simicska, and Helyi Tema through Tamas Vitezy, also an oligarch with ties to the Fidesz party.
“During the past few years, privately owned media in Hungary – print, electronic and on-line – has been bought up almost in its entirety by four business families (or oligarchies) closely aligned with Orban’s political party, the nationalist-conservative Fidesz, [Magyar Polgari Szovetseg; Hungarian Civic Union],” a written manifest issued by the Canadian-Hungarian Democratic Charter in October 2011 stated.
“The oligarchs, who are the prime financial backers of Orban’s party and are heads of the business empires that control Hungary’s privately owned mass media are, in alphabetical order: Karoly Fonyo, Gabor Liszkay, Kristof Nobilis, Zsolt Nyerges, Lajos Simicska, Zoltan Speder, Gabor Szeles, Istvan Torocskei, Tamas Vitezy,” the manifest stated.
It is important to emphasize that almost all local newspapers are now being subsidized by local governments, led by the Fidesz party, which has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament.
Furthermore, as indicated in an article by kreativ.hu, most Hungarian economic newspapers, such as Napi Gazdasag, Vilaggazdasag, Portfolio.hu, Penzcentrum.hu, are either partly or entirely owned by Orban supporter and head of FHB Bank, Zoltan Speder. Although one can still see items published in these newspapers, which criticize the government, there are many reported cases of the owner’s political views being reflected in the articles.
Following a victory in the 2010 elections, when Fidesz fully seized the power, more than 500 journalists were fired from the national state-financed media and were replaced by journalists loyal to the Fidesz party and Orban. A number of Hungarian publications point out that, after the 2010 elections, the independence of the different public media outlets – the Hungarian State Television (MTV), the Hungarian News Agency (MTI) and Hungarian Common Radio (MR), is over. All of these outlets were merged into the centralized Hungarian Media Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA).
The merger de facto disabled the MTI and the MR as they were no longer able to make their own news because they were subject to publishing news through the centralized MTVA. The government then made MTVA news a free-of-charge service, causing many privately-held national news agencies to declare bankruptcy. Needless to say, the MTVA is controlled by the government. As a consequence, it has been estimated that a vast majority of the Hungarian media is partly or totally controlled by the government.
Research conducted by the Corvinus Corruption Research Center in Budapest and published in April 2013 suggests that following the 2010 elections, the independent media outlets including HVG.hu (owned by the WAZ Media Group, one of the leading publishing companies in Germany), Népszabadság daily (owned international media enterprise Ringier), Magyar Narancs, 168 óra, Népszava, had severe cuts because companies did not dare advertise in them.
International observers point out that the low percentage of truly free media publications in Hungary may be key in positively manipulating the public perception of Fidesz and negatively manipulating the perception of other parties, in the upcoming 2014 parliamentary elections.
Observers also indicated that this situation may affect the business world. If investors cannot trust the media to gather intelligence and counter investment risk on the Hungarian market, they may have to hire specialized risk consultancies, to get a better insight into what is really going on in Hungary.