Orban’s influence on the media is without rival in Hungary – no matter what the government says. From Telex.hu.

Over the past few weeks, the state of Hungary’s media has become the focus of intense public debate both domestically and across Europe. Since the Media Council, run by members of the ruling Fidesz party, revoked the opposition-linked Klubradio’s frequency for bureaucratic reasons, the freedom of the Hungarian press, alongside that of the Polish and Slovenian press, has once again come under scrutiny in the European Parliament.

Several Fidesz leaders have touched on the issue. Deputy Prime Minister and current Finance Minister Mihaly Varga stated, “Hungary’s legislation, including first and foremost the Constitution of Hungary, completely guarantees the freedom of the press. The media is a market-based industry, and the government has neither the right nor the intention to interfere in its affairs.”

However, this statement is inconsistent with what Prime Minister Viktor Orban has communicated regarding Hungary’s media situation in recent years.

Since assuming office in 2010, Orban has identified four sectors from an economically strategic point of view where he aimed to have the proportion of Hungarian ownership to “by all means exceed” 50 percent. In addition to energy, banking, and retail, the target group included the media sector and its related industries. According to Orban’s latest communication in February, the goal has been reached in the media sector: in 2010, the figure was 34 percent, whereas it is now at 55 percent.

Varga’s claim that the government has no intention of interfering with the media landscape is thus readily refuted. Orban himself earlier commented about how he would like to restructure ownership relations and has since talked about how the process was playing out. In 2017, the prime minister even spoke of how he was aiming for more than 50 percent: “I would like for the media in Hungary to be in Hungarian hands in the same proportion as it is in German hands in Germany and American hands in the U.S. This is the level that we have to reach. We’re making progress, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Considering the relatively low percentage of foreign capital in the German and American media industries (rather, it is media from these countries that expand abroad), Orban’s goal may be for roughly 80-90 percent of the country’s media sector to be Hungarian-owned. The prime minister didn’t identify a specific percentage, and his press secretary didn’t respond to Telex’s inquiries.

The prime minister’s breakfast reading, 14 April 2020. Image via Viktor Orban’s Facebook page

The Central European Press and Media Foundation

Orban’s use of the phrase “Hungarian ownership” may seem like a relatively neutral notion. However, looking at the trends over the past decade, it appears instead to refer to acquisitions made by business circles aligned with the government. That is, just how the government decides to relate to a given publication is not determined by its owner’s nationality but whether the publication is viewed as an ally or an enemy. Similarly, the government mainly offers state advertisements to Fidesz-friendly publications, rather than according to some Hungarian vs. foreign logic.

In fact, Hungarian ownership may be a vulnerability. There have been examples in recent years of Hungarian owners (e.g. Zoltan Speder and Lajos Simicska) handing off their entire media portfolios to government supporters as a result of political and economic pressure. Still, multiple cases have demonstrated that foreign proprietorship doesn’t necessarily result in greater protection from government influence either.

In 2015, Orban also commented in a pro-government TV interview that he encouraged businesspeople in his political community to set up media publications. As a result of this process, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) was established in 2018, with a portfolio of nearly 500 media products. A media holding of such proportions have not been seen in Hungary since it was a socialist republic, and there is no other example in Europe that even comes close to such a quantity of publications wielded by a single entity.

As to what extent the formation of KESMA is in line with the government’s intentions, it was perhaps most candidly revealed by Zoltan Kovacs, state secretary for international communications and relations. In 2019, he stated that by that time,nearly 50 percent of the Hungarian media were already “conveying the government’s position.”

A Government Thumb on the Scales

Although a significant part of Hungary’s media landscape has come under direct government control in the past few years, Orban and his political associates have recently been talking about how it is actually highly diverse in comparison to the media landscapes in Western Europe, and further, that the proportions of right-wing and left-wing media are roughly balanced at present. The way the administration’s calculations work is based on a preference to lump together all media outlets that aren’t tied to the government and label them all as opposition voices or as supporters of opposition parties.

In order to break down media ownership patterns, it is relevant whether the calculation is made based on revenue, outreach, or circulation. Still, no matter which approach you choose, one conclusion is clear: at least half of the news media are directly controlled by the government. (What’s more, Orban’s comments about this balance of powers, i.e., the 50-50 ratio, were made before his business associate Lorinc Meszaros annexed the Index.hu news outlet once and for all.)

Of course, among the government-independent media outlets, there are a handful that are politically or financially associated with opposition parties; there are also those explicitly dedicated to opposition propaganda. Finally, there are also platforms that openly convey left-wing values and support left-wing political candidates.

So, whereas half of the Hungarian media is centrally orchestrated to facilitate Fidesz’s political goals (as affirmed by State Secretary Kovacs), opposition parties can only point to a very small number of their own, fragmented media publications.

It is precisely due to this asymmetry that the administration’s communications tend to slap the “opposition media” label on media outlets which are independent of both the government and opposition parties but at the same time are critical of power and have significant audiences (RTL Klub, Telex, 24.hu, Hvg.hu, 444). However, this reasoning doesn’t hold water in several respects.

For one thing, nonpartisan media outlets report on issues touching all political organizations. Just how much attention is given to a particular issue is determined by how relevant it is to the public interest and to what extent it appeals to readers. Secondly, politically independent publications operate according to a logic that is dictated not by party interests (i.e., to help or discredit politicians intentionally) but by readers’ needs and curiosity.

Finally, whereas political actors can dictate the content and direction of politically affiliated publications, no political force has any say, be it direct or indirect, in the operations of autonomous newsrooms.

Tamas Fabian is a reporter for Telex.hu, a publication started by journalists from Index.hu who quit en masse last July, 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 article to conform to its editorial style. Translated by Dominic Spadacene. Reprinted by permission.