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.

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