Lack of press freedom crucial to Orbán’s victory

Jeppe Bjerre Trans is a Danish journalism student, finishing off his Bachelor degree at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in June. He was in Hungary in the beginning of April to report on the elections in the country, as part of his studies at the International Europe in the World program – a journalism program focusing on European politics. We are very pleased to feature his in-depth report in the Hungarian Free Press.

Jeppe Bjerre Trans. Photo by Morten Fauerby/ Montgomery.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán once again won the recent Hungarian elections by a landslide. This might not have happened if it wasn’t for his powerful media-owner friends, whose news outlets have printed uncritical government propaganda to support his victory, according to Hungarian media experts.

“Another dark day for media freedom in Hungary”.

This is how Hungarian economist and media expert Ágnes Urbán describes 10th of April this year. That day, the owner of Magyar Nemzet, the biggest opposition newspaper in Hungary, announced the closure of the media outlet.

The closure came as a shock for a lot people in Hungary, happening only days after the parliamentary elections in the country where the sitting prime minister Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz won a landslide victory.

Already before the elections and the closure of Magyar Nemzet, international and domestic observers had expressed concerns over the state of freedom of press in Hungary – and the closure of the government critical newspaper is just the latest in a serious of events where it might appear like the first and the fourth state power – the government and the press – doesn’t have the separation a free, democratic society demands.

This causes lots of worries in the country, since Viktor Orbán’s massive victory at the elections happened due to an extremely government friendly press coverage, according to Agnes Urban.

“The media coverage – which primarily was government friendly propaganda – was absolutely crucial for the result of the election. It was the one thing that generated this huge majority for the government,” Mrs. Urbán says.

The lack of press freedom in Hungary is one of the key explanations for prime minister Viktor Orban’s recent success at the Hungarian elections. Several sides criticize the Hungarian press for being non-critical of Orban and his cabinet. Photo: flickr.com.

Her view is backed up by the Hungarian Press Union’s Executive co-chairman, László M. Lengyel.

“The Hungarian Press Union and I personally, am worried about the current situation. That is more than natural,” Mr. Lengyel says.

“The question is: does real, authentic and relevant information reach the public? The answer is definitely no. The government’s and the ruling party’s messages dominate the media contents. The biggest part of the society is in this way deprived of the information which it can make rational and expedient decisions on.”

Both László M. Lengyel and Ágnes Urbán are very worried about the current media development, happening after the recent elections, where not only Magyar Nemzet, but also the government critical online news portal , have shut down.

“There is no good news about the freedom of press in Hungary right now. It’s hard to imagine that the situation can be much worse than it is now – but I’m afraid we haven’t seen the worst yet,” Ágnes Urbán says.

Orbán’s friends in charge of media

The reason why most media in Hungary are keen to keep Viktor Orbán in power, is according to Agnes Urban, that most of the domestic media is owned by rich tycoons with strong connections to Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party.

“The problem is that the media market is extremely concentrated. There is only a few media owners and they are all friends with the prime minister”, says the media expert.

This media ownership structure causes a democratic problem, because the owners interfere with the editorial line of the newspapers and makes them publish content that supports the ruling government, explains Urban.

“The recent election campaign in the media was not balanced at all. Media in Hungary was practically only doing government propaganda messages because most of the media are owned by pro-government Hungarian investors”, Mrs. Urbán says.

She mentions the second largest commercial tv-channel in Hungary, TV2, as an example of a TV-media, that have been very uncritical towards the ruling government.

“TV2 is owned by an investor named Andy Vajna – who has very close ties to the government and the Fidesz party. This means that their news coverage of the elections has been heavily biased towards the government”, Urban says.

Hungarian TV2 has refused to give a comment on the editorial line of their coverage of the recent election.

Controlling regional media

According to Ágnes Urbán, the biased media coverage of the elections in favor of the government was especially clear in the rural parts of Hungary, where Fidesz and Viktor Orbán is extremely popular – like Euroviews previously has described in this This might have a connection with the fact that all of the regional newspapers in Hungary is owned by friends of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, according to Mrs. Urbán.

“All of the regional newspapers are owned by pro-government investors which means that the government has a high influence in the rural areas. A lot of people here don’t have a high general news usage, which means that these people are easy to influence,” the media expert says.

Furthermore, the national so-called public service media have been very supportive of the government, according to Urban.

Magyar Nemzet opposing

Magyar Nemzet was closed by the owner Lajos Simicska – apparently because of poor economy. According to Ágnes Urbán, Lajos Simicska was previously one of Viktor Orbán’s close allies and therefore the Magyar Nemzet was until recently a newspaper supporting the government.

This changed after a disagreement between the two former allies.

“Simicska had a conflict with Orban three years ago and this conflict changed the editorial line of the Magyar Nemzet in the last three years. So it became a government critical newspaper”, Mrs. Urbán explains.

Magyar Nemzet kept on being critical towards the government all through the election campaign, but after Viktor Orbán’s landslide victory at the elections, Mr. Simicska had no other choice than to close it, according to Mrs. Urbán.

Magyar Nemzet was not big enough or strong enough and it was unable to survive on just commercial grants from its owner. It just generated losses for Mr. Simicksa and he financed the losses in the last three years – but in the end he the made a rational business decision, which was to close it. After this election it simply made no sense to finance Magyar Nemzet anymore,” Ágnes Urbán explains.

Fidesz may change media laws

The closure of Magyar Nemzet is only the latest of closures of government critical newspapers. The biggest opposition newspaper, Népszabadság, after being bought by a new owner, who is known to be a supporter of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.

The lack of press freedom in Hungary has also sparked criticism from the outside world – for example by Freedom House who states that the freedom of press in Hungary is only “partly free”. Also, a report from the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom made for the European Union expresses concern over the media situation in Hungary.

“The Hungarian media environment poses high risks to media pluralism. (…) Media pluralism is declining due to government influence over the market”, the report concludes.

According to Ágnes Urbán, the people who worry about the media situation in Hungary might not have seen the worst yet. This is seen in the light of the results of the recent elections where Viktor Orbán with his super majority can change the media laws in Hungary, harming the media pluralism even more.

“It is for example possible to increase the tax rate for media companies in Hungary. If this tax will be increased most of the independent media – which is already struggling now – will be closed. And there are several other possibilities to somehow kill the independent media. My imagination is not good enough to picture what the government could do in this sense,” Mrs. Urbán says.

It has not been possible to get a comment from the Hungarian government for this article.

USA interfering

Also the United States of America is worried about the situation in Hungary, according to . This has made the country launch a journalist program worth 700.000 US dollars to help training journalists to be more critical and independent.

“There are still independent and opposition media outlets here that are able to practice journalism with broad editorial freedom,” Chargé d’Affaires from the US Embassy in Hungary David Kostelancik said at a journalism conference, according to Reuters.

“However, their numbers are dwindling, and they face challenges in the advertising market that the pro-government outlets do not. They face pressure and intimidation… as a result, fewer and fewer Hungarians are exposed to the robust debate and discussion that is so important – in fact fundamental – to a representative democracy,” the Chargé d’Affaires added, according to Reuters.

EU-sanctions may be needed

Due to the many problems connected with press freedom in Hungary, Ágnes Urbán is looking towards the the EU and its member states to try and find a solution for the suffering media pluralism.

“If the European Union can put any pressure on the Hungarian government it might help. The role of Germany is very important in this sense because most of the investors in Hungary are from Germany,” the professor says and continues:

“I’m not too optimistic about this pressure actually happening”.

On the EU Commission’s , it is expressed how important a value, free and independent media is for the Union.

However, the EU Commission is hesitant to interfere with the media landscape in its member states.

“Media freedom, pluralism, and the protection of journalists are at the very base of a free and democratic society. The Commission stands for these values and is supporting them strongly. However, this is the responsibility of Member States to protect media freedom and pluralism within their respective country”, says EU Commission spokesperson Nathalie Vandystadt and continues:

“The Commission supports media freedom and pluralism within the scope of its competences – which are limited – and through different initiatives. While media freedom and pluralism are enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Charter applies to Member States only when they are implementing EU law.”

László M. Lengyel is also skeptical about the interference of EU in the press situation in Hungary.

“The EU must mind, that the Hungarian people voted for this government. This government and ruling party is popular in Hungary and the EU must be more modest,” he says.

Mr. Lengyel though agrees with Agnes Urban in the severity and complexity in finding a solution for the diminishing press freedom in Hungary.

“A solution would be to change the government, the opposition, the whole political elite, to unite the journalist profession with its classic ethics, to give the society the right and possibility to decide its own fate, and to give the proper information for it through an independent, professional, authentic, institutional media system. But this is impossible in Hungary under the current political, social, professional and other circumstances,” he says.

Jeppe Bjerre Trans

10 Comments

  1. This sure sounds quite different from a Danish student of journalism than what is normally reported by the Hungarian press. But its content rests basically on the expressed opinions of only two named Hungarians. The article repeatedly states and uses the remark that Orban won with landslide victory.

    Now, the closing of some local papers due to the economy is pretty much normal world-wide, due to the power of the electronic media. It has happened around the world. And that is many times more true in a tiny country that is so isolated by their language.

    About the sloppiness and un-professionalism of the Hungarian press,I have previously expressed. So, that’s another reason many are not willing to spend money on the printed media.

    As for the PM having friends among the owners of the media, I am sure he has many enemies as well. Perhaps Hungary might need some “anti-trust laws”, in case the ownership of the media is to limited.

    But losers just love to hang their hats on anything to find an excuse for their loss. I keep repeating that they need to learn from their mistakes, and be realists. The best advise can be lick your wounds and swallow your pride !

  2. This freedom of the media, or lack of, is a lot of garbage. I am an English man, and I have been living in Hungary with my Hungarian wife for the past 9 years, and I have had no problems with the media, through the papers, on TV, or on the Internet. Why people around Europe and even America try to downcry Hungary, beats me.If anyone wants to downcry any country for lack of media freedom, then look at Britain with the BBC, France, Merkels dictator Germany, Brussels, Sweden and so on. Any country in the EU that has Socialist or Liberal connections have media problems. Most of the people in Europe are oblivious of what goes on in their own countries because things are kept quiet and out of reach of the public. So stop running Hungary down. The people in Hungary seem to me as the most open minded race of people on earth, and hold nothing back from each other.

    • Reality Check says:

      Other countries in the EU have issues with press freedom and plurality, but certainly not Germany. Calling Merkel a dictator is way over the top. She just had to struggle to form a coalition with other parties. How is that dictatorial?

      A Comparative Analysis of Media Freedom and Plurality in the EU.
      http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/5713
      76/IPOL_STU(2016)571376_EN.pdf

      • “Other countries in the EU have issues with press freedom and plurality, but certainly not Germany.”

        Wow! Remember the NYE rape & molestations of 1,200 women? How long it took for the national media to start covering the story? They started giving it proper attention on the fifth day! Till then, they closed ranks in suport of the authorities, which tried to sweep it under the carpet. Employees & former employees admitted they felt compelled to suport Merkel’s migrant policies. That is not the portrait of a free media. It is the portrait of a media that is 100% backing a certain ideological line.

        And now we have the social media censorship law, which was designed to encourage private companies to censor with zeal, out of fear of the heavy fines they risk otherwise. Human rights watch described it as follows:

        “It is vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines, leaving users with no judicial oversight or right to appeal.”
        https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/14/germany-flawed-social-media-law

        If this is not a clear attempt at silencing dissent, I don’t know what is!

        As for your link, I lost faith in such studies long ago. It seems clear to me that press freedom perception has become associated with adhering to certain ideological views, not so much with true press freedom.

        BTW, I do have some professional insight in media in Western world. I know for a fact that editorial tends to weed out true, factual but ideologically inconvenient material.

    • Màtè Englishman
      You’ve translated the Orbán propaganda panel pretty well.
      But BS is BS, even in translation.

  3. HFP / Mr. Trans
    Although the few findings here are correct, the study is superficial – not only it based on two interviews only, but Mr. Lengyel is a dubious source too. He often holds “original” views and known to see things a bit wrong, to say the least. Disregarding the record of the 1998-2002 Orban gov record, in 2010 Mr L maintained that the Orban gov with its supermajority could carry out many overdue reforms in many sectors; Mr. Lengyel didn’t see anything of what was coming.
    Mr. Trans should have used the studies and materials showing:
    – the media control, ie. the current state of the media market,
    – the turning of the public mefia into a gov outlet,
    – the financing of the regime’s media,
    – the merger of state and party contents and control,
    – the machinations and intimidation restricting and destroying the independent/critical outlets, etc.

  4. Máté Pál says:

    Reality check, do you really know anything about Merkel? Merkel was born in East Germany in the times of Communist rule. In her teens she became the leader of the young communists. Later she moved to West Germany to study, and later became known for her idealist forms of Communist Politics. She is now a member of the so called Christian Democrat Party, but, she is neither a christian or a democrat. She is strongly recognised as a Liberal Socialist, and works with Soros to bring down Europe by bringing in thousands of illegal migrants. Her aim is to turn Europe into a Socialist continent by amalgemating all Europian countries becoming THE UNITED STATES OF EUROPE. She is not a DICTATOR!!! Wise up. Merkel is one of the most dangerous people on earth. There is no freedom of press in Germany, thanks to Merkel, thats why the ordinary citizens do not know what is going on in their own country.

    • Reality Check says:

      Ok you’ve established you have been brainwashed by the Fidez Soros propaganda. You have made several factual errors. She was not the leader of the young communists. Just a member as was anyone who wanted to get a chance to study at a University. Orban was also a member of a communist youth organization and later accepted a scholarship from Soros. You must really hate him. Merkel did not study in the West, and received her PhD in the east. Her policies have been center right and not in anyway communist. And tell me wise one, if there is no freedom of press in Germany how do you know she wants to create a Muslim dominated euro state? Where do you get this secret information from? Your tinfoil hat?

    • MP
      Your Merkel story suggest your brainwashing may have gone too far inflicting irreversible damage.

  5. Máté Pál says:

    No, Reality Check and Observer, I have not been brainwashed by Fidesz/Soros propergander. Every country usually have well educated ones, like professors and Political scientists, ones who make it there job in their professions to know what is going on in the politcal world. Hungary is the same. This is why I originally said that Hungary has press freedom, and true media cover. If anyone in Hungary is interested in what is going on in Hungary or anywhere in the world, all they have to do, like myself, just have to listen and watch any of the many TV channels, read the right newspapers, or go on the internet. Everything is there. So why has Hungary not got freedom of the media? It is through these freedom outlets that I get my information and truth. I used to watch channels like CNN and BBC news from England, and some of the TV channels from Germany, but I found them quite missinforming, and full of unessesary propergander. I mentioned Germany before, because I lived in Germany for ten and a half years back in the 60’s and 70’s and saw quite a change in the political views of the people, and followed up to this day. Merkel of today is a dictator and a distroyer. If she thought anything about her people she would do what is right and ask what they really want. But no. Off she goes with her head in the cloud flooding the country with lies and illegal migrants, and not telling the popular just what she is doing. The media, as pointed out, do not even inform the popular what is going on with the rapes, sexual crimes, killings and robberies that are quite prevalent of late. WHY? Surely the popular are important enough to know what is going on in their own country, concerning their peace and safety. This is all lacking in many countries in Europe and needs amending. There was a lot of propergander, lying and dissorder in Hungary prior to 2010 when Gyurcsány was in power with his Socialist, Communist party, but Orbán Viktor took over and set out to change the system. He was and is a people man and lives and works for his country, which is also my country now. Hungary has become a freedom country where people are asked what they want, and can talk with freedom about what they want to, without being picked up by the police because they have said something against something the country doesn’s like. Where do I get my information about Soros and what is the real truth about what is going on around us, from the experts and the educated ones who really know. The only ones who hold back the truth are those who call themselves the opposition leaders like th Liberals and the Socialists who are onece again trying to dominate and run peoples lives how they want to without giving a damn how they feel, the people, I mean. No, I’m not brainwashed, and believe me, I do know and understand what is going on in Europe, and Europe/America. There is also the possibility that Europe is on the verge of being swamped by 500 million migrants from Africa in the not too distant future, did you know? For what is going on in this world, I feel sorry for the youngsters of today, no matter where they live.

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