People protesting in Budapest about a new Internet tax on data use hold up their smartphones. (Reuters/Laszlo Balogh)
People protesting in Budapest about a new Internet tax on data use hold up their smartphones. (Reuters/Laszlo Balogh)

Mission Journal: Creeping authoritarianism in Hungary

On the Buda side of the River Danube stands the glass and steel headquarters of the thriving German-owned entertainment channel RTL. On the Pest side of the Hungarian capital, tucked in a corner of a converted department store, lies the cramped office of struggling online news outlet Atlatszo.

Little connected these two poles of Hungary’s media world until Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, re-elected for a second term in April, decided to further consolidate his influence and that of the oligarchs who support him over the press.

It is a measure of just how strong and disturbing that influence is becoming that the Committee to Protect Journalists in October mounted its first full advocacy mission to a European Union member state. (The mission comprised CPJ board member and American-Hungarian author and journalist Kati Marton, Europe and Central Asia Coordinator Nina Ognianova, Europe Representative Jean-Paul Marthoz, and myself.)

Brussels, which pumps billions of euros into Hungary’s flailing economy each year, is reluctant to use its leverage to make Orbán’s right-wing administration fully respect the values of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, including freedom of expression and access to information.

That task has fallen to the U.S. where in September both Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton singled out Hungary for criticism for its human rights failings and crony capitalism.

Unusually the barbs may have stung, to judge by the reaction in Hungary. When Lajos Kósa, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, was asked to comment on Obama’s inclusion of Hungary on a list of countries that harass NGOs, his answer was that “Obama is most likely not entirely familiar with current Hungarian affairs.” Another, Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman in the prime minister’s office, told CPJ that in the U.S. it is well known that party funders can get their issues mentioned by the president.

No identities were disclosed but in the coded language of Hungarian politics I took it to be a reference to American-Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros, a critic of Orbán and his Fidesz party.

Orbán, a skillful politician, first came to prominence as a champion of freedom during the collapse of Communism in 1989. But by the time he triumphed in elections in 2010 on a platform of populism and nationalism he had shifted further to the right of the Christian Democrats elsewhere in Europe that he professed to follow.

Some of the first legislation he introduced covered the media. Since then, according to the more than two dozen journalists, academics, media owners, and diplomats interviewed by CPJ, he has sought to curb critical journalism.

For the most part the government has conformed to the letter, if not the sprit, of EU laws and regulations. When parts of the 2010 Media Law were challenged at the EU level the administration changed them.

But overall, the media freedom landscape is shrinking, according to journalist Balazs Weyer, who was forced out as editor of the online news portal Origo three years ago and is now president of the Editors Forum, which has 54 members.

Weyer, through a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke, explained in detail how he was asked by Origo‘s owner Magyar Telekom (whose parent is the German giant Deutsche Telekom) to accept a Fidesz-friendly “consultant” in the newsroom. He resisted. It was all very friendly, nothing hostile, he explained, but the intention was obvious.

His successor at Origo, Gergő Sáling, told a similar story of being asked to accept a consultant. He too resisted but was ultimately forced out. Some 43 of Origo‘s 65 staffers joined him, he said. His “mistake” was to publish a story about overseas expenses claimed by Orbán’s chief of staff Janos Lazar, who denies any involvement in the firing.

Hungarian journalists are not being jailed or murdered. There is no poster child for a muzzled press. The repression is achieved through a combination of regulations and cronyism and a strategy of divide and rule.

The state-owned media are firmly in the grip of the administration.

“The journalism community is divided. Self-censorship in government-supported media outlets is rampant,” said Professor Mihály Gálik, of the Department of Media, Marketing Communications and Telecommunications at the Corvinus University of Budapest.

Among commercial media the administration can count on the support of friendly owners. It also molds coverage through licensing and tax regulations, and the distribution of state advertising.

These tools prove particularly effective because Hungarian media are still reeling from the financial crisis in Europe since 2008 and structural changes in media generally.

The administration has used the placement of state advertising for entities such as the national lottery and utility companies to reward loyal outlets and punish critical ones, according to journalists and media analysts.

“The government is not a big actor in the advertising market but the way the government allocates ads distorts the media market,” said Zsuzsa Mihalszki, of market analysts Kantar Media.

The previous socialist administration also channeled its advertising spend to a handful of companies, she said. But the concentration of government spending on the leading 15 media outlets has grown from 64 percent between 2006 and 2010 to 76 percent during the first Orbán government 2010-14. That figure has jumped to 86 percent in the first half of this year.

“The budgets are not allocated by any market rationale,” Mihalszki said. “It’s a good way to put government money in friends’ pockets.”

For news organizations the loss of revenue from state advertising is often compounded by a drop in commercial advertising income, journalists complain. “The private sector sees which organizations are in favor and follows,” Weyer said.

Independent journalists such as Atlatszo editor-in-chief Tamás Bodoky had sought alternative funding from foreign media development agencies but even that source is in danger of drying up since highly publicized police raids in September on several local NGOs funded by Norway.

“We feel the pressure since the Norwegian raid,” said Bodoky. “We don’t know if we can continue without foreign funding.”

The move against Norway, which is not an EU member, drew a stinging rebuke from the country’s minister for EU affairs.

“Orbán wants to build a ‘spiritual Iron Dome’ to protect against foreign influence and break with the dogmas and ideologies accepted in Western Europe,” Vidar Helgesen told the Oslo Freedom Forum on October 20, recalling the collapse of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago.

“He says he wishes to establish an illiberal state. He holds up Russia as a model state. This is not just rhetoric. Since coming to power in 2010, the Hungarian government has tightened its grip on the judiciary. On the media. On art. On the central bank. On its citizens. The Hungarian government is turning its back on shared European values,” Helgesen added.

Atlatszo’s Bodoky is not discouraged by the onslaught however. He intends to continue with investigative journalism and has found an unexpected outlet for some of his stories across the river–RTL.

“RTL are using our work,” he said with a smile. Only a few months ago RTL Klub, the Hungarian subsidiary of the Bertelsmann-owned RTL group, wouldn’t have looked at an Atlatszo story. That was before Orbán slapped a 40 percent progressive tax on media advertising revenue in June, a move seen by the industry as primarily targeting RTL, the country’s most popular commercial TV station.

Neelie Kroes, outgoing vice-president of the European Commission, called the tax an attempt to sink the company, an opinion shared by many independent media owners who believe the purpose is to drive down the value of the channel so that it can be purchased by Fidesz sympathizers. After the idea of a tax first surfaced last year, RTL’s main rival, TV2, was sold by its German owners, ProSiebenSat1, to two TV2 executives.

RTL, however, has fought back. Not only have company officials said the group has no intention of selling, but a channel not famed for its hard-hitting reporting has turned into a snarling news watchdog. It also filed a complaint with the EU Commission this month calling the tax discriminatory and a threat to a free press.

“The government expected us to be quiet,” said a RTL source, who declined to be identified. “But we had a change in tone and attitude after the offensive of the government,” the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said.

Reports on government spending and corruption and on the wealthy supporters of Fidesz are now staples of RTL’s output, local journalists say. The channel ran a rare profile of publicity-shy media mogul Lajos Simicska, a college roommate of Orbán. It has even put its archive up on YouTube so that viewers can easily view back stories.

“They have started to be violently anti-government,” said international spokesman Kovács, who defended the advertising tax as a fair distribution of the tax burden. He denied that the tax represented an assault on freedom of speech.

Barely a week after we left Budapest the government floated plans for another tax, this time on the Internet. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the proposal to levy a 62-cent tax on every gigabyte of data used, a move they said was aimed to restrict access to information and stifle critical media. Some protesters were quoted as saying the timing of the tax proposal was designed to divert attention from the chill in relations with Washington, which imposed a travel ban on several Hungarian officials over allegations that they had solicited bribes from U.S. companies. The ban, announced during our mission, is unprecedented for an EU member country.

Generally, however, Orbán seems to shrug off Western criticism. His blend of populism, nationalism, and Christian social conservatism seems to play well in a country where two out of five people live below the poverty line.

“Orbán doesn’t care about the outside world. He’s playing to the domestic gallery,” said Corvinus professor Gálik, lamenting what he called his generation’s failure to deliver on the promise of establishing a liberal democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then with an attempt at Hungarian humor he mused on the state of his homeland.

“The situation is hopeless but not serious.”