The real damage done by the new media law in Hungary is not mere censorship – although it exists in a very subdued, informal way. No, not even self-censorship although that certainly exists as well. It is allowing the accumulation of the media into crony hands.
Hungary’s spot in press freedom rankings has been steadily declining since 2010, when the Orbán-government came back into power after eight years in opposition. The changes in the constitution were only the beginning. They were followed by new institutions and the much-criticized media law that tightened government control of the broadcast sector and extended regulation to print and online media.
The media law consolidated media regulation under the supervision of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), whose leader also chairs the Media Council.
The worst hit on the independent media was economic: the consolidation of media outlets in the hands of a few powerful oligarchs, that was greenlighted by NMHH, whereas non-allies were blocked in their similar efforts.
Although the media landscape is nominally dominated by private companies, it doesn’t mean independence. The political leanings of media outlets are not a problem. It is in their liberty to take a political stance. But it is not ideological side-taking we are talking about. It is the government exerting direct or indirect control over the media by legal, economic and political means. The pro-government media scene has expanded since 2010 – thanks to the friendly regulatory environment and limitless financial resources available to oligarchs. Public media has also seen increased funding, while loyal oligarchs were allowed to buy up entire sectors and regions – both in the media and elsewhere.
To further confuse the casual onlooker, a high number of media takeover transactions in 2016 contributed to the confusion about the ownership of many outlets, leading the rest of the independent media guessing what was going on behind the scenes – and investigative journalists had to resort to painstaking legwork to prove what everyone knew: the consolidation of media outlets in the hands of Orbán’s closest allies.
The investigative journalists at Átlátszó worked themselves through an avalanche of data and created a visualization of how the Hungarian media went to government and Fidesz-friendly oligarchs.
Some outlets were bought by oligarchs, on generous loans by state-owned banks, such as TV2, after a legal battle over ownership between to oligarchs – one former and one current Orbán ally. TV2 used to be one of the main sources of news, especially in rural Hungary.
Ever since the takeover, TV2 became a basket case of subservient incompetence and spineless propaganda. Its journalists left, some emigrated or drive buses instead, and they were hastily replaced by non-journalists and loyalists. The once strong commercial channels is now a butt of jokes for headlines, such as “Soros would have killed his own mother” and rampant migrant-themed fearmongering, as part of the government’s two-year campaign against things like George Soros, Brussels, migrants, and other “existential threats to the Hungarian way of life”.
We have recently learned that Soros wants us to eat bugs – after elaboration it turned out he is going to achieve his evil plan by (surprise) settling millions of Africans and Middle Eastern people in Hungary, who eat insects and such. Someone also specified that the hordes of lesser humans would be housed in military barracks – if not your own bathtub. This is now normal from a TV, and from government propaganda.
As of the local media, the situation is similarly dire. And not just in editorial content. Advertising spending by the government is part of the problem.
Influence by state advertising
The government has been busy spending an ever growing avalanche of taxpayers’ money on “public service announcements” that stoked fear and hatred against migration, George Soros, Brussels, and some more.
State and state-dependent advertisers only ever buy advertising space in pro-government media, and many private companies have followed suit, helping to fuel the expansion of pro-Fidesz media. If you fall out with the government, not only do you use their hate-mongering (but well-paying) adverts – even private players will stop advertising on your pages.
In 2014 the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers—in cooperation with other international media monitors—released a report on “soft censorship” practices in the Hungarian media, alleging that the state’s biased advertising spending influences editorial policies. State advertising continues to distort the market by, among other things, keeping afloat pro-government outlets that would otherwise not be able to operate.
This is an avalanche of money, and gives the vast majority of these outlets’ revenues. The rest comes from private (or not-so-private) entities, or genuinely private companies that just happen to know how to spend to please the regime.
Influence through taxation
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 sore spot of Orbán to this day. 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.
The role of the media council
The real damage of the 2010 media law is not censorship (directly or indirectly). It is the NMHH and the Media Council allowing oligarchs to attain near-monopolies – while stopping foreign or independent owners from buying stakes or expanding. The Freedom House press freedom index has also noted the decreasing levels of foreign investment in newspapers and other news outlets. “The current government dominates all elements of the media value chain. It has used political influence to allocate digital, terrestrial, and cable frequencies on the basis of political criteria, and offers financial support to pro-government media through advertising contracts, while squeezing critical media out of the market. The government’s tax policies toward the media have also generated controversy over the past few years for disproportionately burdening middle-sized, domestically owned outlets.”
The NMHH’s major role in creation of the current media landscape was its power to block or facilitate takeovers and acquisitions.
When German-owned RTL wanted to buy Central media Group, NMHH found it a risk to information pluralism and blocked it. When the owner of its competitor, crony-owned and thus government-controlled TV2 announced its intention to buy the publisher of a major tabloid paper (among other titles), NMHH greenlighted the deal in record eight days in simplified procedure, without explanation.
Similarly simplified permission procedures preceded the acquisition of every regional publications by Orbán’s new top oligarch and the consolidation in his newfound media empire in his company, Mediaworks (including television channels, radios and printed publications) – or the takeover radio channels’ that went to Orbán’s film and casino tsar, and owner of TV2. When pushed the NMHH claimed that every county was treated separately – not sure how that was supposed to make the dominance of Mediaworks less pronounced.
Working for the non-government media
…became most unpleasant in the meantime. Delayed paychecks and and ever-shrinking pool of positions send the chill through the spine of the profession. 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.
In 2017, 93% of journalists said that there was ‘strong’or ‘very strong’ political influence. 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.
The situation is even more dire in the countryside, where local journalists’ papers have been overtaken by Mediaworks overnight – giving journalists the choice to stay and write economic propaganda and migrant scaremongering – or find a new way to earn a living. This guy, for instance, was the former editor in chief of Dunántúli Napló and 8 other local papers. Today, he is selling sausages in a parking lot.
No censorship there – defenders of the government will be quick to point out. In fact, believers of Orbán cannot stop arguing that the pesky and continued existence of government-critical outlets is proof that all is fine. Even though they would really like these outlets to stop existing.
Autocrats have new, and less obvious tools at their disposal these days. Their criticism also needs to get up to date with these development.
Featured image: Till Nowak, Tumblr