The liberal 444.hu website provided a very useful service in the first days of the new year: it created a map depicting just how extensively interests close to the governing Fidesz party control the most important publications in Hungary, namely the county-level and local dailies and weeklies. It’s worth noting that in Hungary, regional papers are much more widely read than national political publications, the largest of which currently is the conservative Magyar Nemzet with 22,000 print copies sold per day. The left-centre opposition Népszabadság daily, prior to being shut down in October 2016, sold 38,000 print copies. In contrast, the country’s regional daily newspapers sell 257,121 print copies each day, and the largest of these are the Zalai Hírlap (39,266 copies) and the Napló (Journal) with 32,270 print copies sold. Both publications are owned by Mediaworks–the formerly Austrian firm that shut down the country’s largest opposition daily precisely two weeks before selling off the entire company, with its large portfolio of regional papers, to business interests tied to Lőrinc Mészáros, the billionaire Fidesz mayor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tiny hometown of Felcsút (population 1,668).
On the map below, the red counties represent those where publications owned by pro-Fidesz Mediaworks dominate. The two counties where a firm called Lapcom Zrt. dominates the media scene (namely Győr-Moson-Sopron and Csongrád) may also be acquired by business interests aligned with Fidesz in the next few months.
With all areas in red already in direct Fidesz control, with the blue likely to end up in government hands and with government dominance of national media based in Budapest, the only areas remaining is Nógrad county in the north, where there is almost no information online about the dominant Nógrád Hírcentrum publishing firm, and three counties in the east, where a company called Russmedia continues to dominate. Russmedia is an Austrian publisher that has been present in the Hungarian regional media market since 1991. The company is also present in Germany and Romania, and employs some 1,500 people. The firm also develops mobile apps, including the first German-language newsportal app for Apple iPads.
One of the most bizarre stories tied to the changing media landscape in Hungary was that of a Christmas interview with Prime Minister Orbán appearing in a regional paper owned by the now pro-Fidesz Mediaworks. An unknown individual sabotaged the interview’s text before publication without anyone noticing it. When the Fejér Megyei Hírlap publication appeared in print, it attributed the following to Mr. Orbán, in connection to the failed anti-migrant referendum of October 2016: “We asked the people for their opinion, even though it was of no interest to us.” The paper also claimed that Mr. Orbán had said: “The accusation of corruption, as a tool of political character assassination, has become completely customary. We use it too.”
Mediaworks fired five editors employed at its various publications the day after the “hacked” interview appeared in print.
It is quite widely believed that the Christmas interview with the prime minister was not hacked by a pro-opposition editor or journalist, but rather by someone close to Mediaworks who wanted to use this an opportunity to purge the company and its papers of those not seen as fully loyal to the government.
2016 was a terrible year for independent media in Hungary. And I fear that 2017 may not be much better.