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Hungary's independent media struggle against economic pressure, intimidation

Viktor Orban was re-elected Hungary's prime minister by Parliament in May. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

"This is a new wave of clampdowns by the government--they want to have another four-year term with even less critical media than before," said Szabolcs, a 21-year-old economics student, one of thousands of people who marched in the streets of Budapest in June, chanting "Free Country, Free Press!" The demonstrations were in reaction to several restrictive measures pushed through by Hungary's re-elected government led by the center-right Fidesz party, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The events leading to the protests started soon after Fidesz won the April parliamentary elections, securing a two-thirds majority for another four-year term.

In one emblematic case, Gergo Saling, the editor-in-chief of leading news website Origo.hu, was abruptly replaced on June 2 after the website published an investigation in May about luxurious expenses claimed by Orbán's chief of staff, Janos Lazar. Dozens of editors and journalists of the newspaper resigned soon after Saling's departure, claiming retaliatory pressure by Lazar on the website's owner, the Hungarian telecom company Magyar Telekom. Lazar denied the allegations.

Next, ignoring a public outcry and a protest campaign by media of various political affiliations, the Parliament hurriedly approved in early June a punitive media tax, signed into law with immediate effect, that threatens the economic viability of several independent outlets. It mainly appears to target leading commercial TV station RTL Klub, which is among the few stations that still airs criticism of Fidesz. The tax is particularly hard-hitting on outlets with strong advertising which can consequently secure relative editorial independence. Due to the progressive nature of the tax, RTL Klub will have to pay the highest ratio of 40 percent on its ad revenue, the station has said.

Also in June, in an unprecedented attack, government agents belonging to the powerful auditing bureau KEHI raided the offices of three non-governmental organizations which distribute funds secured by the Norwegian government, including the not-for-profit Atlatszo.hu, a news website specializing in freedom of information requests and investigative journalism. Fidesz claimed that not-for-profit entities funded by Norwegian grants are politically biased against the government and support the opposition's agenda. The government also said a more politically-balanced way of distributing the funds should be introduced, and that the balance should be overseen by a government agency. The Norwegian government disputed the claims of biased selection and said it was satisfied with the operations of the NGOs currently in charge of the funds' management.

The series of recent attacks on independent press have brought back memories of 2010, when Hungary made international headlines with its deteriorating press freedom situation. Four years ago, international organizations accused the government of using its supermajority in Parliament to curtail press freedom by introducing a new media law incompatible with international standards. Although Orbán somewhat softened the law--mainly in response to criticism from the EU, of which Hungary has been a member since 2004--its repressive nature, including the introduction of an all-powerful supervisory body, the media authority, remains.

Hungary, once a poster child for a successful transition from communism to a market economy, has now become a cautionary tale about a young democracy slipping into authoritarianism.

Some analysts say Hungary is setting an example of a new form of illiberal democracy in Eastern Europe, where political and business interest groups capture the state for ideological purposes or economic gain. The anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said Hungary was in such a state in 2012 and warned several times that attacks against the independent press fit well into this process. The government's response to this criticism is to point to its predecessor--a left-wing government in power between 2002 and 2010, widely seen as corrupt. The current government says it works hard to eradicate corruption, and that concerning the media, its new legislation has brought greater freedoms than before.

Recent general elections proved to be another indicator of Hungary's backsliding on democracy. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pronounced the polls as free but unfair. While Hungary has numerous electronic and print media outlets, many of them are owned or controlled by persons associated, directly or indirectly, with Fidesz. In addition, the allocation of state advertising predominantly to government-friendly outlets undermines media pluralism, the OSCE said.

"I am simply surprised that so many people are surprised about the recent developments," said Gabor Polyak, head of the Mertek media freedom watchdog, which was created in 2011 after the controversial media legislation was passed. Polyak said recent events are the logical continuation of everything the government has tried since 2010. According to Polyak, the legislation served basically to turn the public service broadcaster into a government mouthpiece, and in the case of the private press it has created the framework for monopolizing the media and eliminating critical voices, creating a chilling effect.

In today's Hungarian media landscape, the Internet plays an important role. Big parts of the Hungarian media--print newspapers, radio, and TV stations--are traditionally polarized along political lines, with certain outlets almost uncritically supporting the government, others doing the same for the opposition. They are often owned by business tycoons, who in turn are aligned with different political entities. Since the early 2000s, the Internet has created new opportunities for a younger generation of journalists, for whom editorial independence is important. Web-only news outlets, such as Origo.hu, gained popularity because of their independent-minded coverage. The legislation of 2010 served to intimidate this independent part of the Hungarian media. Before the introduction of this law, content produced on the Web was regulated by the civil and penal codes; one of the most alarming elements of the law was to expand its clout over the Internet.

"It has served as a threat ... which the government did not even have to implement--most of the media outlets simply aligned themselves to the political expectations out of fear of repercussions," said Polyak The all-powerful media authority used its powers to eliminate competition in certain markets (such as nationwide private radio stations, where only one broadcaster remains, with close ties to the government), and it implemented the licensing policy in a way that opposition outlets (such as Klubradio) lost their regional licenses, which were then allocated to stations promoting religious and right-wing content. Since losing its regional licenses in 2011, Klubradio remains popular in the capital. After a long legal battle it could retain its license in Budapest, but it struggles to survive in an environment in which potential government repercussions scare away advertisers.

"During the last four years, the government simply realized that they can much more effectively achieve their goals of monopolizing the media market by business pressure and economic means," said Agnes Urban, a media economist working as a researcher at Mertek. The media freedom watchdog's recent report for the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) showed that soft censorship practices are quickly gaining ground in Hungary, with the government providing state advertising to reward friendly media, and denying it to punish critical newsrooms. There is a growing trend of corporate takeovers of media outlets by business figures close to the government, analysts say. The second biggest commercial TV station in Hungary, TV2, underwent a murky sale to management in late 2013; the financial backers of the deal are not known, but analysts suspect they have close ties to Fidesz.

"It is of no surprise that economic pressure gives rise to self-censorship practices in the mainstream press," said Tamas Bodoky, editor-in-chief of Atlatszo.hu. "Not-for-profit funded journalism is quickly becoming the only available independent source of information in the country." Which explains, Bodoky said, the recent Putinesque government raids on NGOs that finance such journalism.

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