The Poor Mental State of Fidesz Media

Orbán Wants the Rest of the Media

In a cozy TV interview with a friendly party member, PM Orbán announced his plans to take the rest of the Hungarian media “into Hungarian hands”. So far he only aimed at a majority stake in the media, but 1) elections are coming in 2018 and 2) he has no reason to start practicing self-restraint now.

“…it is my personal conviction that it is part of a country’s sovereignty that the majority of a media system working in a country must be in national hands.”

“And I don’t want to hide that I want even more than that. I would like it if the media in Hungary would be in Hungarian hands to the same proportion that it is in German hands in Germany, American hands in America. This is the level that must be reached. We are proceeding, but we are not there yet.”

— PM Viktor Orbán, 2017. december

Banking, media, energy and retail” are the four sectors in which Orbán declared to aim for a majority stake to go into Hungarian hands. But that was in 2014. In 2016 he declared victory in all but one sector – banking proved to be slow to sell out, despite the punitive extra taxes and hostile political environment. By 2016, Hungarians held 60% of ownership in in media – but it wasn’t enough.

Last week, in a TV show PM Orbán declared that not even the majority is enough when it comes to the media. He wants as much of the Hungarian media going into “Hungarian hands” as much the Germans have in the German media, and Americans in the US media. Whatever that might be, because ethnic listing of ownership is not common practice in Europe – at least not since the end of WW2.

media share hungarian

Ownership by nationality in Hungarian media (2010-16) BLUE: Hungarian, RED: foreign, YELLOW: mixed Graph: index.hu Data: Bisnode

The real damage of the 2010 media law is not censorship (directly or indirectly). It is allowing oligarchs to attain near-monopolies – while stopping foreign or independent owners from buying stakes or expanding. 

This is how TV2, one of the two major nationwide commercial TV channels, have been bought by Andy Vajna, Orbán’s film and casino czar. And this is how the biggest and oldest daily newspaper was bought (and shut down overnight) by Orbán’s new top oligarch, Lőrinc Mészáros. He also bought every local newspaper. All these deals were green lit by the media council and the competition authority, and generously bankrolled by state-controlled or state-owned banks such as Eximbank.

Foreign owners, however, are not treated as nicely.

  • Class FM, a radio channel was stripped from its frequency when it went to an American owner, while
  • RTL was banned from buying a 30% stake in Central Media Group.
  • In 2015, Magyar Telekom (subsidiary of the German parent group) had sold Origo.hu, one of the two biggest online news portals to government-friendly owners. They were kindly incentivized to do so because their mobile communication frequencies were at stake.

Orbán wants RTL

Everyone knows that Orbán’s sore spot is RTL, a countrywide commercial TV channel owned by the German parent company that refuses to make propaganda news these days – unlike its competitor, TV2.

  • We now know that the purchase of RTL came up in a conversation between Orbán and his then top oligarch, Lajos Simicska in 2014. In that conversation Orbán let it slip that the Russians (Rosatom) could buy RTL for him – according to Simicska, who then broke up with Orbán and has acted as his sworn enemy ever since. (Hence the gossip leaking.)
  • Orbán’s fallout with Simicska also seems to be the reason why Index.hu, the biggest online news portal remained independent. Before the fallout, Simicska already acquired buying options for Index.hu’s publisher. But after the divorce, the option went to live with him. He called his option but appears to refrain from interfering. For now. But it’s still a delicate and unhealthy situation.

Populists have invented media sovereignty. 

Orbán claims that if the US and Germany can have “locally-owned media”, than so can he. But in real economies ownership structure is more of a result of organic development than central planning.

But this is a de facto one-party state now. The kind of one-party state Orbán has fought against when he was young and not yet disillusioned.

“…it is my personal conviction that it is part of a country’s sovereignty that the majority of a media system working in a country must be in national hands.”

“And I don’t want to hide that I want even more than that. I would like it if the media in Hungary would be in Hungarian hands to the same proportion that it is in German hands in Germany, American hands in America. This is the level that must be reached. We are proceeding, but we are not there yet.”

— PM Viktor Orbán, 2017. december

According to media workers, nationality of ownership has little to do with the independence of journalism – independence does. Yet, it is telling that Orbán thinks that a domestic national is more acquiescent and better fits his purposes.

Foreign owners are harder to manipulate. But they can still be made to sell if their businesses are hit by punitive taxes or with loss-making regulations. Worked in the utilities sector. They can be penalized and eventually whipped into line by regulatory or tax tools (they are constantly under attack), but it takes time and patience. But after eight years on power with every-decreasing constraints on his will, Orbán’s patience is getting thin. Today, he hardly even tolerates symbolic setbacks, let alone attempted legal resistance.

Polish government has also talked about limiting foreign ownership in the media to 15%, but they are not there yet. Outside of Europe, Russia has a 20% limit introduced last year.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Orbán Wants the Rest of the Media

  1. Pingback: Two More Orbán-critical Media Outlets Shut Down 2 Days After Fidesz’ Election Victory | Meanwhile in Budapest

  2. Pingback: What Happened to the Hungarian Media? | Meanwhile in Budapest

  3. Pingback: The Media Landscape and the Last Remaining Independent Outlets | Meanwhile in Budapest

  4. Pingback: Self-Censorship and Political Pressure in the Independent Media | Meanwhile in Budapest

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