The Takeover and Colonization of the Hungarian Media

If we accept the view that democracy is founded on the ability of well-informed public opinion in possession of the necessary information needed to take decisions about the fate of a political community, then we can say without fear of contradiction that in Hungary even the basic elements for the functioning of democracy are lacking. For the relationships in the media as they have now evolved make the existence of a well-informed public opinion patently impossible.

One of the most important demands during the change of the regime in 1989 was the dismantling of the monopoly on the dissemination of information operated by the communist dictatorship. Twenty-six years after the change of regime we are but a hair’s breadth away from being able to speak of the construction of a new seamless media monopoly that maximally serves the interests and the expectations of the powers that be.

By the time of the change of Hungarian government in 2010, the well-developed right-wing media empire with links to Fidesz (serving as the fist of the party and aimed at everyone from the extreme left to the uncommitted center) confronted the crumbling liberal and left-wing press with shaky economic foundations and in constant struggle for resources. At the time of the elections, the right-wing-to-extreme-right-wing media operated by Fidesz had already gained a significant political edge, while the majority of the political positions in the public media were gradually taken over by the right-wing party.

After 2010, the government’s media policies focused on reinforcing the foundations of the media empire established earlier, the seamless siphoning off of public funds from state advertising, the complete political and economic occupation of leading positions in the media market and the public media, as well as efforts to deliberately dry up and wreck left-wing and liberal organs’ sources of income. What was necessary in order to develop a “central force field” was not autonomous media but a loyal propaganda machine in the service of the party, and a mechanism that poured public funds into the media empire closely aligned with Fidesz.

Ownership relations in the media became inextricably intertwined with political relationships, and ownership of the media was overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of oligarchs working in close cooperation with the powers that be. Fidesz technically governs in coalition with the minority KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) and more than 90% of the media concerned with issues of civic life and politics was directly or indirectly in the hands of owners linked to these two parties. The number of independent outlets, in any case already marginalized, was diminishing by the day. Viktor Orbán and his colleagues have understood well the nature and workings of the media and quickly learned that the way to cripple the operation of open democracy and press freedom is not by re-regulating the legal framework but rather by crudely restructuring the ownership relations that have developed in the media and advertising market. The very few organs that remain independent of those in power have had their life made impossible by the manipulation of the advertising market.

The Situation of Press Freedom

Of the international human rights organizations analyzing the position of press freedom, it is the assessments of the US-based Freedom House that are cited most often and it is perhaps the most comprehensive and most trustworthy source in this field. According to its six-monthly rankings the quality of democracy, and in particular the position of press freedom, has suffered a drastic decline in Hungary. While the freedom of the press in Hungary was ranked 23rd in 2010, this figure has been sliding downwards every year, declining no less than 55 places to 78th position by 2016. Whereas in 2010 the institute regarded the Hungarian press as free, we have now declined into the ranks of those authoritarian countries where it regards the press as only partially free.

The other major international journalists’ organization, Reporters without Borders, has also recorded that freedom of the press has declined in Hungary every year: Hungary has slid 42 places since the change of government in 2010. This organization ranks 180 countries according to the degree of their press freedom: while in 2010 our homeland was ranked 23rd, in 2015 it was in 65th place.

Nor is Hungarians’ own view of their press any better. According to representative nationwide polling by the Publicus Institute in October 2016, 59% of the population thinks press freedom is severely curtailed and the same percentage are of the view that the media maintained out of public funds inform the public about issues of political and public life in a prejudiced, one-sided, and biased manner. To two-thirds of the public it is also evident that the media market is dominated by the government parties, and nearly half even of those who normally support the latter gave the position of press freedom in Hungary a mark of C or worse.

The Toolkit of Monopolizing Techniques

Over the past few years the toolkit of media regulation has been significantly rejigged. While following the 2010 change of government the newly governing parties sought to make the media serve their own political and economic goals primarily by restructuring the legal and institutional frameworks according to their taste and installing government party placeholders in the institutions regulating the operation of the media, today they are achieving this primarily by economic means: through brainwashing and money-laun-dering carried out under the direction of oligarchs nominated by the powers that be. The luminaries of power rapidly realized that economic pressure is simpler and more effective than the hassle of legal procedures, not only to achieve their desired goal but also because it was more appealing since it could better shield that process from the glare of international judgement. For while the fact that some new legal instrument violates a freedom is something the international organizations can quickly appreciate, it is much more difficult to spot the process of manipulating the media market by economic means. Legal and media experts could easily establish that the media laws introduced by the Fidesz government breach EU norms, since they limit freedom of expression; however, it is hard to demonstrate to an international audience the nature of the political and economic pressure being exerted on market players.

Following the change of government the publicly funded electronic media became unequivocally the tools of government propaganda and cash cows for the oligarchs close to the government. As early as 2011 the governing parties voted to give the state media an unprecedented 72 billion HUF (24 million USD at 2017 rates), which makes a mockery of the ethos of public service and the servile nature of which is surpassed only by its dilettante nature, its operation recalling the darkest days of the journalism of the Kádár period. The suppression, distortion, and manipulation of news that showed the governing parties in an unfavorable light has become just as everyday an occurrence in the state media as it was during the period of the communist dictatorship. And although the viewing figures for all five state TV stations together add up to less than 20% of the population, the average viewing figures for the station M1 have sunk to an all-time historical low of 6 to 7%, and Kossuth Rádió has lost the leading position it has held since the change of regime, it would none the less be a mistake to underestimate the influence of the public media on public opinion.

Even today for a far-from-negligible section of the population—primarily those living in smaller settlements—these outlets provide the main sources of information, and even if their entertainment programming is hardly watched or listened to, significant numbers still regard their news programs as points of reference. M1’s peak period Newsnight broadcast regularly attracts an audience of between 400,000 and 500,000 and the same can be said for Magyar Rádió’s Midday Chronicle program. The billions of HUF flowing into the state media help reach precisely those strata of audience that have no other sources of information about the events of political and civic life, are unable to double-check the information they obtain from these sources, and take what they learn from these centrally controlled organs as the truth.

In 2010, parallel with the political takeover of the publicly funded media, has also begun the homogenization of service content. The decision to make the services of MTI (Hungarian News Agency—the monopoly supplier of news to the Hungarian media) free of charge was such an attractive proposition to those in the media market struggling as they constantly were with financial problems that few could resist it. As MTI is under the sole direction of the government parties, its selective and biased news are manipulated and dominate the Hungarian public sphere. Although after 2010 there was an attempt to establish an alternative news agency, this private initiative foundered after a few months, being unable to compete with the state news agency financed exclusively out of public funds and offering its services free of charge. Using techniques perfected in the Kádár era, MTI not only manipulates the news for those making use of its services by suppression, delaying tactics, and deliberately misleading coverage, but also fabricates lies on political orders. The root-and-branch transformation of the structure of the state media was also assisted by the homogenization of content, as a result of which all the programs broadcast by publicly funded media can be run by the state television and radio stations from a single center, MTVA (Foundation for Funding and Supporting the Provision of Media). This is where all the assets of what were earlier the public service providers (including the incalculably valuable archives) are concentrated, and this institution exercises power over the workers’ rights of state media employees and orders the programs from outside suppliers. The leaders responsible for the homogenized content are, to a man, political censors loyal to the governing parties. The MTVA, in addition to supplying the state media, also supplies a proportion of the commercial radio services; the firm owned by a former spokesman for Viktor Orbán supplies 27 commercial radio services with uniform compilations of news, which these channels are obliged to broadcast unchanged. These news broadcasts, chosen according to strict political criteria, reach almost half of Hungary’s population.

Orbán and His Oligarchs

While the construction and operation of the entire Fidesz-linked media empire before 2010 was associated with a single oligarch, after the elections it became clear that the prime minister had decided to diversify and extend the press empire built up around the party. It was this that led to irreparably damage to his relations with the county’s number one oligarch, Lajos Simicska, who was until 2015 the most influential figure in the entire media market and the owner and ruler plenipotentiary of the entire pro-Fidesz media empire. Prior to 2010 nothing could happen in the Hungarian press without Simicska’s approval. After the rupture, Orbán and co. embarked on the construction of a completely new media empire independent of Simicska. Viktor Orbán is making his oligarchs, fattened on public funds, establish new media organs and making them buy up the opposition media that they had ruined earlier, turning them into mouthpieces of the government or degrading them into tabloids. Andy Vajna, controversial entrepreneur and Viktor Orbán’s film czar who has made vast profits from gambling, will have the task of constructing the party’s new radio and television services, while the prime minister’s other favorite, Árpád Habony, is investing the surplus profit gained from the overpricing of public utilities and EU procurements in the printed and Internet media.

Radio broadcasting has become a government monopoly. In a regression to the conditions prevailing prior to the 1989 change of regime, not a single countrywide commercial radio broadcaster remains today. Using a battery of legal techniques and resorting to political machinations, the government has managed to ensure the closing down of the two commercial radio channels that came into being as a result of frequency privatization of 1996, and now also has complete control over regional and local radio channels. The last non-governmental radio broadcaster standing, Klubrádió, has since 2010 been deprived of all 10 of its local frequencies and even in the capital it is much more difficult to receive than previously. The media authority, totally taken over by the governing parties, had tried earlier by varied means to completely suppress this last independent radio broadcaster, but in this case failed when the still relatively independent judiciary refused to support its complete bankrupting. And parallel with the closing down of Klubrádió’s frequencies in the countryside, the media authority withdrew frequency licenses from all those regional and local radio stations that did not belong to the magic circle of the governing parties. The frequencies taken away from the independent outlets were without exception passed into the hands of radio stations linked to the governing parties or to the churches. The openly government-supporting Lánchíd Rádió’s broadcasts can now be heard virtually anywhere throughout Hungary, Katolikus Rádió and Szent István Rádió have in recent years acquired 17 new frequencies and the Reformed (Calvinist) Church-linked Európa Rádió 6 through tenders advertised by NMHH (National Media and Infocommunications Agency), while Mária Rádió, another broadcaster of religious programs, now reaches more than twice as many listeners as before.

The television market has also undergone significant restructuring since 2010. It was Viktor Orbán’s long-cherished wish that at least one national TV frequency should be closely associated with his governing party. In 2015 this, too, came to be. Andy Vajna used credit from a state bank to buy channel TV2, which has since then become quite openly the number one forum for government propaganda. Apart from tabloid-type programs of poor quality the channel’s current-affairs programs employ the most extreme manipulative techniques of the Kádár period to falsify news, from suppressing material to discrediting political opponents by the shabbiest means Vajna’s media empire is also continuously expanding in the sphere of television: in recent months he has launched 10 thematic channels. The overwhelming majority of regional radio and television broadcasting is in the hands of local authorities led by Fidesz politicians, hence these serve as the instruments of government propaganda in the same way as the national channels financed out of public funds do.

Business circles are acquiring ever greater influence not only over electronic media but also the market in political dailies. The highest circulation left-wing political daily, Népszabadság, first became the property of an oligarch closely associated with Fidesz, and then, when this proprietor, for reasons still unknown, fell out of favor with government circles, it was taken over by a straw man from overseas, a puppet of Fidesz. Then when Népszabadság printed a string of investigative articles extremely unfavorable to the governing parties about abuses committed by their politicians, the owner discontinued publishing this highest quality Hungarian daily, which had been in continuous publication for 60 years.

It was also at this time that Viktor Orbán’s third biggest oligarch, the mayor of the village where Orbán was born, acquired control over the majority of county dailies, which taken together enjoy a readership greater than that of all the national political dailies added together. Prior to this, the government filled the vacuum left by the daily Magyar Nemzet, owned by Lajos Simicska, by launching its own daily, Magyar Idők, financed exclusively out of public funds. And although the paper proved a spectacular flop at the newsstands, it nevertheless continues to attract large state advertising revenue as well a s subscriptions from public bodies.

The government also deliberately destroyed the daily Metropol, a paper previously owned by Lajos Simicska, and distributed free on public transport. From one day to the next the public transport company terminated its contract with the owner to distribute the paper and signed a new contract with the firm of Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s closest adviser, to distribute his newly launched free daily, Lokál.

In recent years oligarchs close to the government have also made substantial efforts to restructure the internet market. After 2010, new websites began to surface one after the other; no one—not even the journalists working for them—knew how these were financed. It was only when the scandal involving the MNB (Hungarian National Bank) broke at the end of 2015 that at least a proportion of the new websites were revealed to have been financed—directly or indirectly—by the MNB’s reserves, just as it was with funds from this source that a company close to Fidesz had purchased the biggest internet news portal of all, Origo, which has since then been downgraded to a tabloid. The oligarchs close to the government also launched a number of new websites which are all devoted exclusively to denigrating the political opposition and are maintained by income from state advertising.

Untold quantities of advertising orders from state institutions have poured into media close to the governing parties, but multinational and private firms keen to promote good relations with the government have also been generous with their advertising spending. The tendentious placing of the state companies’ advertising budget, independently of the de facto state of the market, significantly distorts the latter’s structure, especially if we add to this the support from public funds which reaches the governing parties’ media in the form of sponsorships, barter deals, or in other ways. The scale of these cannot even be estimated, however, many hundreds of millions of HUF of public funds in total must be flowing through such unseen channels into these media, and they in turn function as the government parties’ propaganda machine.

Private companies close to Fidesz also help to considerably fatten up the propaganda machine through their advertising, of which the most striking evidence is that in many cases the private firms advertising in rightwing media are those that public bodies and especially the state is likely to invest in (Közgép, Swietelsky, etc.) and therefore they have no market interest whatsoever in spending millions to advertise their activities in media consumed by private individuals. At this point in time, in every segment of the market, media associated with the government are the sole beneficiaries of state advertising revenues. More than 80% of the entire state spending on advertising has been channeled to media owned by oligarchs close to Fidesz, while opposition outlets have been completely shut out.

A new development in the field of the monopolization and centralization of the market is the establishment of NMÜ (National Media Agency— not to be confused with NMHH mentioned above) with the help of which all the advertising expenditure, sponsorships, and other support provided to the right-wing media empire by other legal means will be brought under one roof and complete state control. Although the public funds spent in the media were already basically under the informal supervision of the Fidesz oligarchs, this new institution, which will be directly controlled by the government, will bring under its complete political control the political funds flowing into the media market, a development without parallel in international practice.

Mária Vásárhelyi

Mária Vásárhelyi is a sociologist, born in 1953 in Budapest. She graduated from the Karl Marx University of Economics in 1976. She is a Candidate of Sociological Sciences, and a Senior Research Fellow at the HAS. Her investigation is centered on public opinion and media research. She is author and editor to several books and chapters, her articles have been published in the journals Élet és Irodalom and Mozgó Világ.

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