The war for the media is approaching its end. Here is a timeline of casualties.
The list is split in two parts. The first set of media outlets were bought or taken over by Orbán’s men and then gutted and turned into propaganda zombies.
2010 – Public broadcaster
It goes without saying but to keep things in order I must start with the public media. Of course Orbán used the state funding of public broadcaster to turn it into his own mouthpiece, it has a long tradition in this country. Ideas of “neutral” public broadcasting are turning out to be naive even in the UK, where the concept came from.
The takeover of the public media happened in multiple stages. It started with Orbán’s new media law in 2010, when even the term “public media” was replaced by “state media”. It continued with the propagandization of content and opening stupefyingly lavish, new channels that no one is watching and couldn’t get the name of the days right on the weather report.
The word “migrant” has been flourishing on all public channels since 2015, setting the tone for the vile and relentless propaganda offense against public sanity, rational thinking, and humane behavior.
To best describe the situation of the public media and its workers, I would like to nominate this employee who talked to Al Jazeera about his work at the Hungarian public broadcaster – about censorship, centrally issued directives and talking points, and fear to be found out as critical of the regime. His face blacked out and his voice distorted.
December 17, 2015 – Origo.hu
Origo.hu was one of the two biggest news portals (next to index.hu). Its reporting impeccable, its style conservative – unlike its irreverent competitor, index.hu, another conservative news site.
Origo’s takeover started with the sudden firing of the editor-in-chief. The official justification didn’t make any sense, but it was not meant to be. The fact that they could just get him fired was the message itself and the justification was purposely lame. It told us that they didn’t even need to explain themselves.
But the pressure didn’t end there. Origo.hu was owned by Magyar Telekom, subsidiary of German state-owned Deutsche Telekom, and they happened to decide to sell it to the media newbie, Ádám Matolcsy, who happens to be the little nephew of György Matolcsy, the lunatic central bank president who handles central bank money as his family heirloom and doesn’t hide it. (No, he did not face scrutiny as Bloomberg claims. In fact, they proudly published how they spent the billion dollars and saw no reason to stop it.)
Telekom had a reason to yield. They are heavily invested in the country and were in the middle of negotiations about the wavelength they are using – a thing mobile service providers would rather keep. So that was that. Origo.hu went to the young Matolcsy and the firing/exodus of great journalists started. Some left after pieces were published in their name or in their columns, after investigative reports were blocked from publishing or taken down from the site. Others were fired. Entire departments stood up in protest but the propaganda machine didn’t care. Eventually even the movie section managed to start churning out propaganda.
It took months to turn origo.hu into a mindless propaganda machine, but by the 2018 elections, it published 26 migrant-themed fake news stories a day on average, not to mention political threats in anonymous editorial pieces and blatant brown-nosing. The whole thing would be amusing if it weren’t so blood-chilling and it wasn’t about your own country’s mental health.
Since then, zombifying media outlets takes much less time.
January 3, 2016 – TV2
TV2 was one of the big two commercial TV channels with countrywide reception (the other being RTL, a major sore spot in Orbán’s eyes). It first started shifting towards Orban on its own, which was visible in the amount of government advertising they received – a major tool to keep media alive or to kill them in Hungary.
TV2’s evening news became a butt of jokes long before it was taken over by Orbán’s oligarch (Vajna). In late 2015, the year after Orbán’s former biggest oligarch (Simicska) went on a warpath, TV2 found itself in a takeover war between him and Vajna. After a few murky days when no one knew who owns the channel, legal wrangling ended with Orbán’s victory (to no one’s surprise) and Vajna took TV2. It was turned into the most blatant, manually run propaganda channel, its journalists left, some went abroad, one is driving buses instead, but the central memos running the channel were too much for everyone with the least amount of dignity. Its evening news is naked and vile propaganda, its advertising a tool of Orbán.
April 2016 – vs.hu
A lesser brand but great investigative journalism, vs.hu was taken over secretly by the above mentioned, multi-talented nephew, on central bank money. Even its own journalists had no idea who owned their site until one sued for information. Resignations followed.
30 September, 2016 – Every local print paper
The holding company of every local print publishing was taken over by Orbán’s new front man’s company, Mediaworks. For a few days even the lucky owner didn’t know they were his – proving what everyone thinks, that it is not really his. Half the country is on his name now but no one believes that seriously.
After the takeover every local paper started to run the same stories, with the same text.
They became pro-Orbán, ran the same front pages and fired everyone who wasn’t a reliable comrade. This former editor-in-chief now sells sausages in a parking lot, because that’s what you can do if you spend your life in local journalism and then it is taken over.
As a reaction to the resulting news vacuum some local activists started printing their own samizdat – articles from independent media that should be read – and distributed it door to door. For a while it looked like they get support from the US state department – that is now scrapped. Besides, now that it became clear that Orbán will never let go of power peacefully, it takes more than just guts to keep misbehaving. You must be able to work without hope (and live without income). There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, who would spend the rest of their lives without income, doing resistance legwork – without even a hope that the cloud will one day clear? Such a person would be called crazy and attacked even by his or her own family for rocking the boat. Admit it, you wouldn’t waste your life on such a hopeless quest either.
December 2016 – Figyelő
Figyelő (“Observer”) was a very important investigative outlet. Due to the untenable situation of the media (worldwide – thanks, Facebook) Figyelő ran into financing troubles and ultimately ended up in the hands of Orbán’s crony and top culture warrior, Mária Schmitt, whose institute recently invited Bannon and Milo.
The Pulitzer-winning journalists and editors left and the news room was filled up with something else. Today, they publish nameless threats, blacklists of non-aligning enemies and traitors, such as “Soros agents”, non-aligning judges and academics, etc.
August 1, 2018 – HírTV
As the Orbán-Simicska war ended with the oligarch’s total capitulation, his TV channel went to Orbán’s loyalists. The day it was taken over all political programs were immediately scrapped, Orbán’s speech went on loop all day, and they got their first memos from above.
The channel wasn’t simply taken over – it had to be punished. These journalists chose Simicska’s side in 2015 so a precedent must be made. Despite being a right wing channel, HírTV’s journalists will have to suffer. It is not about ideology or principles. It is about loyalty to the top boss.
The second group of media outlets suffered a more brutal (albeit perhaps more dignified) end. They were shut down.
June 14, 2016 – Metropol
The single biggest daily publication was a free paper countrywide. It was replaced by Lokál, the paper of Árpád Habony, Orbán’s least inhibited spin doctor and creator of hate campaigns. Lokál is now famous for its bloodthirsty reporting and xenophobia.
October 8, 2016 – Népszabadság
The biggest, oldest daily broadsheet paper was shut down overnight, its five decades of archives deleted immediately. It’s journalists weren’t allowed back to their desks. The immediate cause of the bloody revenge was that Népszabadság was publishing a series about the central bank governor’s lunacies and they were desperate to find out who was leaking. The journalist who had the story promised to keep posting about it on his own after the paper was shut down. Then he fell silent.
But the takeover has been planned for a long time. The ownership went to Orbán’s new top oligarch – only for him to shut it down immediately. I don’t know about you but I always buy expensive companies to shut them down immediately. It is the way of making money – this guy became the second most wealthy man in Hungary this way.
Foreign defenders of Orbán’s autocracy used various, disturbing excuses to whitewash the indefensible move. Some clung to financial excuses – but he archives weren’t deleted because the paper was making a loss. Others barfed that the paper was established by the communists (like everything back then) so it was an anti-communist move. Like that’s an excuse. Anyway, the court ruled the shutdown to be illegal, but that is no help after the fact.
April, 2018 – The day after the elections: Magyar Nemzet and Lánchíd Radio
Once the shocking election results were out and it became obvious that no one knows how to attack them, Simicska let go of two of his media outlets. Magyar Nemzet was an 80-year-old broadsheet daily, but who cares. The radio will keep broadcasting music until October because it is legally obliged to fill up the air time until then.
They were both solid, right wing media outlets.
August 3, 2018 – Heti Válasz
Solid, right wing weekly, shut down the same day HírTV was taken over – and for the same reason. It belonged to the oligarch Simicska and he capitulated against Orbán.
Lately, it became the paper of “disappointed Fidesz voters” who for some reason still believed that Fidesz has anything to do with ideology, principles – and thus, conservativism. It hasn’t.
At this point it is easier to list the remaining independent outlets that are all at-risk of being shut down or taken over.
Furthermore, it is not just local journalists that find it hard to find a job. The remaining few outlets cannot soak up the people who lost their jobs when the cronies took over, not even in Budapest.
Another consequence is that journalism suffers from a manpower problem. Scandals, even if someone unearths and breaks them, cannot be followed through. There is no bandwidth for it, neither from the journalists nor the audiences. There are simply too many cases of blatant theft, corruption, political scandals – they overwhelm the system. Freedom of information litigation itself keeps plenty of manpower occupied endlessly.
As of consequences for a scandal that still becomes well-documented? There aren’t any.
What’s even more scary is that even though the public money theft and the cronification of the economy is gaining momentum, articles about it are drying up. The few cases of journalist intimidation can explain why no one wants to risk their livelihoods anymore for something that doesn’t make any difference anyway. There are entire fields, topics and families that cannot be touched.
Needless to say there is an abundance of public money and government advertising going to Orbán’s outlets – and not even the private sector dares to advertise with independent ones. Facebook’s global crush of media revenues didn’t help, but it was amplified by political crackdown in this small media market.
But the gods of state advertising won’t be kind to every loyalist and forever. Once complete victory is secured, their utility for the lord will diminish. Many pro-Orbán outlets appear to forget that – or maybe there is nothing they can do about it. The next chapter of the media war will be their infighting for the diminishing amount of crumbs.
The list is based on the compilation of Mérce.hu but it is not exhaustive.
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