Reports from the corners of the pantry
Journalist Attila Mong reports on how government politics dominate the media landscape in Hungary, while independent media has become increasingly marginalized.
Attila Mong is a Hungarian journalist. He has been working mainly with investigative journalism in the fields of economics and press freedom. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Pulitzer memorial award.
“In 2011, when I left the public media and said to myself, okay, they occupied the living room but we can still work freely in the kitchen, so let’s go to the private media and let’s go to the kitchen. A year later I left an online publication because of pressures from business oligarchs, and I said to myself, okay, they can occupy the kitchen but we still can work in the pantry, it’s still free. So, I went to work for an NGO, (an investigative journalism website) Atlatszo.hu. And now we are working in the pantry, and they are knocking on our door, they are coming” – that was how I characterized the shrinking space of independent media more than three and half years ago, in September 2014, when I was asked to speak at a hearing at the European Parliament. Following up on the same analogy, by now, a mere handful of independent media outlets are trying to work in a tiny, relatively free corner of that imaginary pantry. The rest of the flat is ruled by party propaganda serving the interests of Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party.
By 2014-2015, Orbán reorganized the public service media thanks to a set of media laws approved in 2010 against which I protested with a one minute of silence as the host of the morning news magazine of the national radio. As I described in my previous article for PEN/Opp, the public service media, which is financed by taxpayers' contributions, was turned into a mere mouthpiece of the government.
The dramatic change which has happened during the last three-four years affected the private sector, where we have witnessed a systematic occupation of the market. According to a recent study, in 2018 the government friendly media empire consists of more than 500 titles, which are in the hands of oligarchs and businessmen linked to the government. Almost 400 print newspapers, including all the regional dailies, 96 news sites, 20 TV stations, 11 radio stations and 3 billboard companies. Three years ago, only 31 of these more than 500 titles were government allied and 21 did not even exist.
Just a few highlights of this media offensive. In 2014, the editor-in-chief of the biggest news portal, Origo.hu was removed because the site investigated the corruption cases of a government minister. In 2015 the portal's powerful German owner, the Deutsche Telekom sold its stakes, clearly because owning a newsroom under the Orbán government has become an uncomfortable asset for a telecom company. Origo.hu now belongs to a government friendly oligarch, its news coverage subserviently following the government line.
In 2016, the largest circulation quality newspaper, Nepszabadsag was suddenly shut down, again only days after the daily broke several corruption stories. The official explanation for the closure was that the newspaper was producing significant losses, but the timing of the decision signalled that the Austrian owner made a backroom, political deal for which the shutdown of the opposition daily might have been just the precondition. Days after the closure, the whole portfolio of the Austrian holding consisting of a network of valuable regional newspapers was sold to Lőrinc Mészáros, a former gas fitter and a childhood friend of Orbán. He is by now one of the biggest players in the government friendly media empire, and some suspect that he is only a front man for Orbán, acting on his behalf.
All these titles echo Orbán's views day by day. In this media empire, there is no independent journalism: only rare acts of civil courage remain, strangely reminiscent of communist dictatorships. One such example is the Christmas interview of Orbán in 2016 in one of the regional newspapers. The text of interview, which appeared in the print edition of the newspaper the day before Christmas under the title “We are making the country victorious” was mysteriously altered and contained unauthorized statements making fun of Orbán, and intending to suggest that the prime minister is a hypocrite. The senior editors of the daily were very soon sacked.
By the beginning of 2018, Orbán managed to completely redraw the media market: if someone is not actively looking for alternative information on special websites or small circulation outlets, the one and only perspective one gets is that of the government`s.
In 2014, the OSCE qualified Hungary`s election as “free but unfair”, mainly due to the biased media coverage and the government dominance in the media market. In a couple of weeks, in April, Hungarians will go to the poll again. Looking at the changes of the media market, it is questionable whether we can speak of any free and democratic election this time.