In Hungary, privately held major newspapers include 10 national and 24 local dailies. Hungary has five national public radio stations and two main private stations. The two terrestrial commercial television stations, TV2 and RTL Klub, remain the principal source of news for most Hungarians, along with a growing number of cable channels.
TV2 has gone to a government-friendly oligarch in 2016, while RTL is regularly under regulatory or legal attacks. Online media news is dominated by a handful of portals (Index.hu, origo.hu, hvg.hu, 24.hu, 444.hu) – origo.hu also having been taken over by a government ally.
The access to alternative media (not controlled by the government) or to foreign news sources is more or less free – but in practice, it became rare. Outside urban areas, where local printed press and terrestrial TV channels still rule the public opinion, the government’s control is near 100%.
Where do people get their political news?
According to the survey The sources of political information in Hungary – The state of the media structure in the time before and after its transformation, conducted by Mérték Media Monitoring in November 2016:
- “there is a small minority of the population below 10 percent that shows a very high level of interest in public affairs, nearly two thirds show medium or low interest, while some one third of the population keeps a distance from these topics.”
- “The vast majority (82 percent) of the adult population deems the time that they spend informing themselves too little and 40 percent of them think that this amount of time has even decreased in the past few years.”
- “the number of those who do not inform themselves at all… can be regarded rather low, a mere 8 percent.”
- “The aversion of, or the distance kept by young people from public affairs has been detectable for many years.”
Rural voters and from lower educational backgrounds tend towards television and local papers still dominate.
“…among the adult population in dictatorship-era 1986…28%…regularly or sometimes tunes in to a foreign, “hostile” radio station… Currently, not even half of this ratio get their information from alternative news sources not directly or indirectly controlled by the government.” – wrote Mária Vásárhelyi about the absorption and influence of Fidesz-controlled media in Hungary in 2017. *
RTL’s credibility as an information source is the highest among the population, even among Fidesz voters.
It is not surprising that RTL is the sore spot for Orbán. It wasn’t always like that. After 2010, when Fidesz came into power, RTL quickly fell into line and started making news without politics – to avoid a misstep and stay in the good books of the king. Outside observers may have been surprised by Orbán’s power grab, but those who lived here weren’t. And RTL was shrewd. But voluntary compliance didn’t save them.
In 2013, the government proposed a controversial, progressive advertising tax that critics charge was intended to deter TV2’s potential foreign buyers. The final version of the tax, adopted in 2014, disproportionately impacted TV2’s main competitor, the market leader RTL Klub. The station filed an official complaint with the European Commission, and the government eventually backed down and replaced the progressive tax with a flat tax of 5.3% in May 2015.
And then they started making actual news, giving their journalists permission to go after Orbán’s corruption, his family’s eye-watering enrichment, and produce infographics abut the state of the economy.
PM Orbán didn’t take it easily. According to an interview with his former top oligarch, Lajos Simicska, Orbán let it slip that the Russians (specifically Rosatom) could buy RTL for him. The interview describes Orbán’s appetite for more media control and thinning tolerance for dissent – as well as the nature of his collaboration with Russia. But the takeover hasn’t happened yet.
Teh case of Index.hu is similar. After the 2014 re-election, the above mentioned oligarch fell out with PM Orbán – hence this gossip. And that 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, and after the divorce, the option stayed with him. He called his option but appears to refrain from interfering. For now. But it’s still a delicate and unhealthy situation.
Apart from RTL and index.hu, Orbán now controls all major media outlets through only a handful of oligarchs. On the market of tabloid papers, local newspapers and billboards, there is no competition left. To the point that some activists had enough and decided to print their own samizdat – and hand-deliver it to people’s postboxes.
And to give an idea of how much of a problem the one-sided propaganda became in Hungary, the United States announced a funding opportunity for the support of “objective media in Hungary.” The USD 700000 fund would fund rural media outlets in Hungary to help train and equip journalists in defense of an independent media because they are, once again, subject to political pressure and intimidation.
According to the official explanation, the need was especially strong in rural Hungary, where government-controlled public media and a handful of outlets friendly to the ruling Fidesz party are the only news sources most people get.
“The program should improve the quality of local traditional and online media and increase the public’s access to reliable and unbiased information. Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms.” U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
“The Department of State… seeks a partner for the United States Government who will help educate journalists and aspiring journalists on how to practise their trade,” a State Department official told Reuters about the grant. “The United States has publicly and privately expressed our concerns about the status of the free press in Hungary on multiple occasions,” he added. The program offers technical and financial assistance to media outlets, as well as increased local and international exposure, small grants and other tools. They can use the funds after May 2018, possibly to evade the accusations that the grant was meant to interfere with the Hungarian general elections in April 2018.
The Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) is normally not involved with European countries, especially not members of the European Union.
*Vásárhelyi, M. (2017). The Workings of the Media: A Brainwashing and Money-Laundering Mechanism. In Magyar B. & Vásárhelyi J. (Eds.), Twenty-Five Sides of a Post-Communist Mafia State (pp. 491-526). Budapest, Hungary; New York NY, USA: Central European University Press.