Government censorship of the media in Hungary: The case of HírTV

Péter Tarr is the deputy director of the right-leaning HírTV cable television news network, which was established in 2003 as Hungary’s first 24/7 news channel. Back in February, the station’s owner, Lajos Simicska, had a very public and profanity-laced falling out with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and after that happened, HírTV journalists and staff, once the media darlings of the Orbán government, collectively became persona non grata in Fidesz circles. They were seen as traitors and enemies, nearly as bad as those independent journalists who the government labels with career-ending markers, such as “liberal” or “left-liberal.” This week, Mr. Tarr shared some insight into how HírTV was forced to make the transition from a station where government officials would intervene on a regular basis in programming decisions and would lecture journalists on how to do their job, to a news network that today is seen by the regime as being a tool of the opposition.

HírTV mugs. Half empty, or half full?

HírTV mugs. Half empty, or half full?

Mr. Tarr spoke to a news site called Kreatív, which focuses on analysis of public relations and media in Hungary. He referred to today’s HírTv as “a little island of freedom,” which stands in stark contrast to what the cable channel used to be, just eight months ago. Mr. Tarr remembers the day in February when the government’s media empire changed forever.

“On that day, without any formal procedure, they effectively fired the 250 people who worked at HírTv from the Regime of National Cooperation,” said Mr. Tarr, referring to the name by which some in Mr. Orbán’s circle still refer to his regime, even though this is now a source of derision in many right-wing quarters. I wonder if Mr. Tarr considered how all those journalists felt over the past five years, who were actually independent and not simply servants of the regime, and who never requested or enjoyed  the support, but not even the basic benevolence of the party for which he and his staff once worked?

Once HírTv fell out of favour with the regime, things moved quickly. Mr. Tarr discovered that Hungary’s public broadcaster, which serves as the blatant propaganda wing of the governing Fidesz party, obtained the names and salaries of all HírTV staff and they began pressuring them to jump ship. “They told our staff that this was a sinking ship and that those who bail will be much better off, because the curtains will soon fall and they will pour salt into the earth where the television once stood,” recounted Mr. Tarr.

Employees at HírTV were given two days to resign, if they wanted to continue working as journalists in Hungary. Along with the ultimatum, they were offered specific salaries and positions with the public broadcaster, which they had to either reject or accept within 48 hours.

Once the dust had settled, Mr. Tarr realized that HírTv had to transform from a mouthpiece of the regime to a conservative-leaning news network that was at arm’s length from the government. That wasn’t easy to do, considering the fact that Fidesz’s communications staff had developed a habit over the past 10 years of showing up in HírTV headquarters and overtly instructing and lecturing journalists on who they should invite, what type of programming they should produce and even the nature of the questions that they should ask.

“After March 15th, I no longer had to ask a government communications officer for permission before I invited someone to our television or what subjects we should explore and how we must go about this. After this point, we were free to decide all of this for ourselves and we now keep ourselves to the so-called BBC principles of professional journalism,” explained Mr. Tarr.

In the past,  Fidesz had apparently barred Jobbik from HírTV and they limited the number of interviews that could be conducted with politicians from the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Democratic Coalition (DK).

Following the conflict in February, Fidesz began boycotting HírTV and the network suddenly lost all of its government advertising revenue. This is how Fidesz operates: the independent media has known this and has felt on its own skin the regime’s singular capacity for revenge against anyone who steps out of line. Now HírTv, a network that once dismissed concerns of the lack of media freedom in Hungary as left-wing fear-mongering, is learning the hard way.

Mr. Tarr indicated that HírTV is slowly recovering and that the refugee crisis has offered it a huge boost, helping it to maintain much of its viewership and attract new viewers as well.

But HírTV’s numbers and income have taken a major hit this year. Mr. Tarr believes that Lajos Simicska, once Fidesz’s most prominent oligarch, is willing to continue funding the station, even if it does not manage to break even next year. Apparently, he is thinking about the long-term future of his media empire (which includes the Magyar Nemzet daily and Lánchíd Rádió) and his political influence as well.

Hungary needs an independent and critical conservative-leaning media presence. The country’s left-leaning publications are all, to varying degrees, able and willing to criticize parties and politicians on their own “side” of the aisle. It’s time for conservative readers and viewers to have media organs that can encourage them to think and dig below the shiny surface of government announcements, press releases and spin.

9 Comments

  1. Charlie London says:

    “……After this point, we were free to decide all of this for ourselves and we now keep ourselves to the so-called BBC principles of professional journalism,” explained Mr. Tarr.

    Unfortunately anyone working at HírTV before they ‘found religion’ or more correctly – integrity, do not deserve to be regarded with any respect.

    A journalist’s ethics are set in stone to inform and enlighten and speak the truth.

    Running with the pack and being a mouthpiece of Orban, Fideszbbik and Simicska – when he was in the tent – means your integrity is permanently corrupted.

    Who would ever know that you have turned again for someone else’s shilling?

    No HírTV is tainted goods.

    Many many Hungarians – and HírTV itself – don’t understand the importance of an independent media – ALL media.

    Beware of the messenger HírTV.

    • Christopher Adam says:

      Charlie,

      I have to agree with you. While I am pleased that HirTV was effectively forced to find its integrity, it’s pretty sad that this only happened out of sheer necessity. We all know that had the falling out not taken place, had Fidesz not decided to boycott them, HirTV would be just as uninterested in independent, nonpartisan journalism as it was for the past 12 years since its establishment.

  2. Miklos Banfi says:

    Absolutely. How can you build up a reputation from the deepest swamp? On top of that now they are seducing and hiring from the other side otherwise reputable journalists, e.g. Veiszer Alinda, even increasing chaos.

  3. “Mr. Tarr indicated that HírTV is slowly recovering and that the refugee crisis has offered it a huge boost, helping it to maintain much of its viewership and attract new viewers as well.”

    Riding on an incline. Not only he, almost everybody, many politicians (not just Orban) the press, all, …anyhow.

    Good for the Hungarians. They are not stupid, they do understand the importance of democracy, free press very well. They just don’t care. They just don’t appreciate it enough to work for it. They have no ears to hear when they are called their name. They’ve got their brain, they just don’t use it. They can’t even do it now even if they wanted. Too late. They’re on the way to nowhere. A poisoned nation with ruined social immune system. A thousand year of painful history and lives squandered for lies.
    Do they need the truth? all they need they daily fresh lies, little wonder Orban has two-third of the votes. The rest, the real majority stayed away even from the election.

  4. Erzsebet Pall says:

    ‘Free media’ is non-existent!! This is an illusion!!!
    I have been living and studying in the UK. Being a politics/journalism student I have to read newspapers with different orientations. I am also watching different TV channels. I have done a research in which I compared their news coverage on the same events. The result was very disappointing and shocking!
    The “free media” in the liberal West in reality is very biased, manipulative and unscrupulous. Journalists frequently ignore the truth and the facts. They are very subjective and emotional. Especially, the BBC which is ‘only in theory’ neutral and impartial. Hungarians are not aware of it, but British citizens do not respect BBC as a ‘reliable source’ of information (but they are being forced to pay £145.50 (approx. 60,000 HUF) TV license fee to keep this organisation alive which lies to them every day. In addition, the media in the West is controlled by both governments and oligarchs. They always make a deal (e.g. Blair and Murdoch).
    Based on my own experience I must say that the Hungarian Government has the right to make laws that curb the media’s abuse of power and prevent foreign political and economic interests to manipulate Hungarians. Every country’s Government does this, so Hungary is not unique in this case at all. Moreover, in Hungary everyone can find news papers and TV channels with different political orientation.
    There are two main differences between the liberal “free media” and the Hungarian Media. In Hungary the Government does not allow hate speeches and does not allow journalists to set people against each others, as it has happened when the socialists governed Hungary.
    The other one is that the ‘free’ thinks it is above the law and can get away with everything without any legal consequences, therefore they can abuse the notion of ‘free speech’.
    Free media is the satellite of liberal corporate fascists in their ‘war against the Hungarian Government’.
    WE SHOULD PREVENT WRONGDOING, CURB THE MEDIA’S POWER IN THE WEST TOO!!!

    • Charlie London says:

      Many many Hungarians – and HírTV itself – don’t understand the importance of an independent media – ALL media.

      Including Erzsebet.

      There’s no so blind as those who can’t see.

    • Hi Erzsebet,

      quite agree what you wrote about the free media in the West. Just two remarks if I may.

      (A)I believe the Hungarians are aware of it, they just don’t know whom to believe and they got totally exhausted.

      (B) I think the media’s power is their owners’ power. Not only in the West. In Hungary, too. There might be changes, though. The Rothschild’s sold off their stake in the Financial Times Newspaper to the Japanese Nikkei group and they have promised the FT will have editorial independence. Also, the Rothschilds now trying to find a buyer for their flagship magazine “the Economist”. There is no other way out for them. Moreover, the efforts of Comcast Corporation to take over Time Warner Cable was blocked for the time being. Owners are competing in Hungary, too.

      I think big things are going on silently in the background. We will see what happens.

  5. Only one thing: There are not independent journalists, there is no independent media! There was not, there is not, there will not be. Never ever. There are interests in the back. One sort or another. Always.

    Who can (dare) decide which opinion is independent?

    Are Hungarian Free Press and Christopher Adam independent? Are they free? Yeah. Free.. of objectivity and empathy. They are antihunitas (hungarian-haters).

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