A close look at official press briefings in Hungary shows just how much preferential treatment pro-government outlets get. From Telex.hu.
Regardless of viewership, popularity, or readership, the Hungarian government gives preference to pro-government journalists and their media outlets during its regular press conferences. Critical media outlets, such as Telex, are left standing at the back of the line. This became clear when we carefully looked through all the government briefings in 2021 and noted the order in which the politicians leading the events addressed the journalists present.
In Hungary, the newspapers, TV channels, and radio stations that have no connections to politics or politicians and do not belong to a government-affiliated group of shareholders, such as KESMA (the Central European Press and Media Foundation), find themselves in a relatively difficult situation when it comes to getting answers from the government to important questions of public interest.
There are hardly any opportunities left in Hungary for journalists to freely and publicly ask government officials about anything. But the government briefing, an event held on average once every two weeks, is one of them. It takes place on Thursdays, and in 2021 there were 32 such sessions. Most of the events were led by Gergely Gulyas, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, and government spokesperson Alexandra Szentkiralyi.
We were curious: Does the government have a preferred calling order among media outlets? Whom do they like to call on first at government press conferences?
That’s why we have carefully reviewed all the government briefings in 2021 and noted the order in which journalists were called on for all 32 occasions.
The calling order is important at these occasional government briefings because every newspaper and TV station has different information, which they like to inquire about in a particular way (e.g. as a “softball” question or in a critical manner, bringing up many points of view).
The graphics below illustrate the average order in which media outlets were allowed to ask questions at government briefings in 2021. The figures include media organizations that showed up to at least 10 of the 32 government briefings last year. M1, Magyar Nemzet, which has a readership in the tens of thousands, and Origo lead the ranking [Ed. Note: M1 is a public television channel that has been accused of strong political bias; Magyar Nemzet is a pro-government newspaper; and Origo is a once independent news website that turned pro-government after a takeover in 2015.] At the bottom are Telex, 444, HVG, Azonnali, and Magyar Hang [Ed. Note: media not in the government camp].
At these events, journalists from the media present can ask several questions, and they can keep the floor for as long as the politician leading the government briefing allows them. In 2021, there is a clear majority of pro-government publications in the top 10 places with respect to the order in which they are called on.
Any journalist permitted to attend the event is allowed to ask questions, and it’s rather unusual for someone not to get called on. However, it is also true that some people are simply not allowed in. In 2021, there were several occasions in which the staff of the civic weekly newspaper and web portal Magyar Hang registered in vain, as they were ultimately denied entrance. On the other hand, journalists are often told that the politician holding the event claims to be unqualified and cannot (or does not want to) respond – which is problematic simply because this is the only event where the media that aren’t pro-government are free to ask questions. If they don’t get an answer at the government briefing, the outlets are left with reaching out to the authorities by email or by phone and asking questions, and the government is rather erratic about responding to these requests.
Last year, we wrote about an interesting example that happened with Telex. During the first hundred days of Telex’s existence, we sent a total of 52 different requests to Hungarian ministries, and only received a response for nine of them. In all the other cases, they didn’t even consider us worthy of a reply.
According to the latest report by the international journalists’ organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Hungary’s media space is highly polarized due to political influences. The state of press freedom in Hungary continued to deteriorate over the past year. In 2021, Hungary was ranked 92nd in the world, down from 89th in the previous ranking. In the European Union, the state of the press is worse only in Bulgaria, while European countries such as Albania, Moldova, and Northern Macedonia are ahead of us.
Veronika Munk is head of content development at Telex. Ferenc Bakro-Nagy is senior social media manager and a data journalist at Telex. Translation by Dominic Spadacene. This article was originally published on Telex, a news website started by journalists from Index.hu who quit en masse in July 2020, citing government pressure. Telex is now Hungary’s largest community-funded news source, supported almost exclusively by readers. Donations can be made via Telex’s site. Transitions has slightly edited the English translation to conform to its editorial style. Reprinted by permission.