As Hungary continues its progress toward European Union (EU) membership in 2004, a change in government in April led to the appointment of new officials in charge of public television. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s conservative government, defeated in April elections, had previously used its political influence to pressure the public broadcasting service to provide positive coverage of state policies by, among other things, preventing the appointment of opposition representatives to the media oversight board. Orban’s government had also steered advertisements from government agencies and state-owned companies to conservative newspapers, such as the Budapest daily Magyar Nemzet.
Government officials, the ruling right-wing Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Party (Fidesz-MPP), and their sympathizers were highly sensitive to critical media coverage. In January, journalist Peter Kende published a controversial book criticizing Orban. A short time later, the public Hungarian Television (MTV) canceled a talk show that Kende hosted.
Foreign journalists were also singled out for their critical reporting. On January 9, Magyar Nemzet published a list naming Budapest-based foreign correspondents who were allegedly producing biased reports about the Orban government. A March 4 editorial by Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl stating that the Bush administration had refused Orban a “White House visit” because of his highly nationalistic rhetoric caused much debate in the Hungarian media. Hungary’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson strongly criticized the article and denied the allegations.
Although MTV’s coverage of the April parliamentary elections was biased in favor of the Fidesz-MPP, the opposition Socialist Party won the poll and formed a ruling coalition with its liberal ally, the Alliance of Free Democrats. Socialist candidate Peter Medgyessy–a former member of Hungary’s communist-era Central Committee who pledged to reduce poverty, promote an independent judiciary, and support greater press freedom–became the country’s new prime minister.
On May 14, a Socialist Party spokesperson discussed the new government’s plans for media reform, including amending or replacing the Media Law, which regulates public and private broadcast media, reducing funding for the bloated MTV, and calling on MTV president Karoly Mendreczky to resign from his post because of the network’s biased
election coverage. A week later, on May 21, Parliament appointed Socialist and Free Democrats nominees to the public broadcasting service board, ending the era of maneuvering that had kept left-wing representatives off the board. On July 9, Parliament finally amended the Media Law to conform to EU standards, establishing stricter rules for advertising and copyrights.
The new government was shaken, however, on June 18, when Magyar Nemzet published a front-page story alleging that Prime Minister Medgyessy had worked as a communist counterintelligence officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Medgyessy initially denied the allegation and threatened to sue the daily but eventually conceded that the reports were true.
Meanwhile, a panel of judges continued to investigate individuals with direct or indirect “influence on public opinion”–including senior media executives, editors, and journalists–for prior links to the communist-era secret police. At the end of 2001, the panel said it had uncovered 44 executives and 1,400 staff from the broadcast media with such connections, the popular Budapest daily Nepszabadsag reported. In September 2002, the panel prepared to screen some 1,500 print journalists, according to Nepszabadsag. By year’s end, however, the panel had not released any results of its investigations.