Friends abroad keep asking whether there is censorship in Hungary. But outright censorship is so last century. Autocrats have also evolved since the 1930s and the tools they use today are not so comfortably obvious.
Firstly, you have to make a clean distinction between the Fidesz-controlled media (state-run or crony-owned) and the independent media. The first is a centrally managed zombie-media. The second is under existential threat to become such zombies.
Sinking press freedom rankings
The Hungarian press has been only “partially free” since 2011, according to the Freedom House’s press freedom index, and the situation has been steadily deteriorating ever since.
As the 2017 Cato Human Freedom Index reports, journalists are not killed or jailed in Hungary. Access to the internet is not curtailed either. Yet, when it comes to government influencing the media landscape, Hungary is only partially free now. The means of control are sneaky, indirect and all perfectly legal. Economic tools are leading the way, alongside targeted laws and hostile, targeted taxation.
Although the media landscape is nominally dominated by private companies, it doesn’t mean independence. While the political leanings of certain media outlets are not a problem, the government exerting direct or indirect control over it by legal, economic and political means is.
The state-controlled chunk of the media is running under strict, central management. Content, talking points, phrases to be used are centrally distributed, following Fidesz campaig needs. The enemies are named, the words to be used for them specified. Memos have been leaked about the public broadcaster that was not allowed to show female or child refugees (lest someone takes pity on them) and had to call them “migrants” consistently. Fabricated stories and made-up statistics are routinely broadcast – and that is also the case at nominally privately owned media outlets. A handful of Fidesz-cronies and Orbán-friends have accumulated most of the media during the last three years and Orbán is waging an open war to complete the job.
The independent (read: non-Fidesz) part of the media is shrinking and feels the pressure. Mérték Média conducts a survey (2017, pdf) among journalists every year to rate press freedom on a scale from 1 to 10 (where 1 is the worst and 10 is free). In 2012 they gave an average score of 4.8. By 2016 the score declined to 3.8.
The numbers show even more pessimism when we look at answers about the strength of political influence on the news media.
In 2017, 75% of journalists said that there was ‘very strong’ political influence, strong enough to curtail press freedom. Another 18% said that the political influence was ‘strong.’ 56% said that they personally experienced political interference and 48% said they experienced interference from business actors (which may not be entirely separate under politically supported oligarchs). 33% said that they have decided not to publish certain pieces of information in order to avoid possible disadvantages. 28% admitted to self-censorship last year.
But there are even more obvious problems. Take Népszabadság, the biggest and oldest broadsheet daily.
Népszabadság – The overnight closure of the biggest broadsheet daily
When the editors of Népszabadság, Hungary’s biggest broadsheet daily arrived at the paper’s offices one morning in November 2016, they found the doors locked and access to their email accounts blocked. Even the more than five decade long archive disappeared. The paper’s ownership first went to a previously unknown Austrian businessman before landing at PM Orbán’s top oligarch – a deal they have denied for a few days.
For those who wanted an explanation, the government prepared one: it was not profitable. That, however, can be told of almost all types of media in the age of Facebook, especially on such small language markets as the Hungarian. It still doesn’t explain why the 50+ years of archives had to disappear.
What explains it, however, is that the paper kept leaking the antics of the central bank governor and the scandal was getting uncomfortable.
Journalists losing jobs as independent media shrinking
It also sent a signal to journalists everywhere. If the oldest daily can be discontinued and its journalist scattered, seeking jobs in the ever-shrinking market of non-government media, so can yours.
The chilling effect cannot be neatly quantified. Why would any individual choose to risk his livelihood, his family’s jobs, his children’s status, just to dig up the corruption of politicians? It is an important public service – yet it is not appreciated as such, and the government is cracking down on you.
Anyone is free to make that calculation for themselves, but being a journalist became a supremely altruistic job for the public interest – that the public doesn’t appreciate anymore and authorities do not act.
So few investigative journalists – so many “public tenders” and relatives of Orbán
There is also a bandwidth problem. The few remaining investigative journalists should be going after so many scandals, they simply lack the bandwidth to keep up. Especially if we consider the years of litigation (and millions of money) a freedom of information request takes to be fulfilled. If at all, because the ruling elite makes a joke of these requests.
The “abusive use” of freedom of information requests
…is when journalists try to use it. The term “abusive use of freedom of information requests” was one of the excuses authorities can refuse to fulfill them. On top of that they can charge for it and enjoy various, vague exemptions. And when journalists take the long and arduous route to sue, and all the courts options have been exhausted, authorities can simply refuse to fulfill court orders. Do courts have tanks to send? No? Then we don’t do it – became the standard approach to verdicts of unruly judges.
According to Freedom House “amendments to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act approved in July 2015 allow public bodies to charge for vaguely defined labor costs, potentially making fulfillment of an information request very expensive. The changes allow state bodies to reject claims if the requested data is “preparatory,” meaning that it could be used in future government decisions; or if it is copyrighted by a third party; or if the petition is a repeat request—even if the initial request went unanswered. A 2016 law exempted the Hungarian Postal Services from the Freedom of Information Act, thus preventing members of the public from inquiring about its contracts and other operations.”
After so much trouble – how long would you keep trying? And when would you accept that resistance is futile?
And once you accepted, how long before you start to rationalize it away and argue that it is not your cowardice, not resignation – it is actually better this way because a repeat request for the same public information is abusive and pesky and journalists are annoying people so why should they be accommodated? Every crackdown will make your conviction harder.
But wait until you hear what is going on inside the Fidesz-controlled media. Stay tuned!
Featured image: Luis Quiles Tumblr