Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addresses supporters in Budapest after partial results of the country's parliamentary elections are announced on April 8, 2018. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addresses supporters in Budapest after partial results of the country's parliamentary elections are announced on April 8, 2018. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

Independent journalists in Hungary brace for tough times in next Orbán term

As Hungary’s new Parliament holds its first session, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is due to form his third consecutive government after a landslide re-election a month ago, journalists critical of his power will closely monitor his words for hints of what awaits them in the next four years.

The weeks that passed since the election offered an already grim prospect.

Two days after voting day, Lajos Simicska, the owner of the country’s biggest pro-opposition print daily, announced the immediate shutdown of the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, including its online version, and a radio station, Lánchíd Rádio, due to financial troubles. Once an ally of Orbán, the tycoon turned against him and vowed to take him down at this year’s election. After Orbán’s victory, he decided to cut the losses he had incurred since he fell out with Orbán and his media outlets were subsequently stripped of government advertising.

A day after Magyar Nemzet‘s last edition hit the streets, a pro-government weekly, Figyelő, published a list naming 200 academics, civil society workers, independent journalists, and other Orbán critics as “mercenaries of the speculator.” The reference alluded to George Soros, the Hungarian-born, U.S. billionaire and philanthropist, whom Orbán made a useful scapegoat during the election campaign (an attack which critics cite as having anti-Semitic undertones). CPJ emailed the managing editor of Figyelő for comment but did not get a response. In statement emailed to CPJ, Hungary’s ambassador to the European Union, Olivér Várhelyi, said the government “cannot be held responsible neither legally nor morally for the publication of the list” nor for the functioning of the media market.

The same week also saw the sudden shutdown of a small, independent English-language news website, the Budapest Beacon, whose managing editor, Richard Field, said in an interview with one of the site’s reporters that with less and less independent Hungarian-language content, “the severe erosion of media plurality (…) makes it nearly impossible for us to continue publishing a fact-based newspaper of record about Hungary.”

All this only a month after Orbán declared in a campaign speech on March 15 before tens of thousands of supporters, “After the elections we will seek amends — moral, political and legal amends” from his opponents, including journalists. And although none of these events were directly orchestrated by Orbán, all of them are seen as precursors of “amends” to come, a new offensive in his war against independent media which started as soon as he came to power in 2010.

“His first term was about turning the public media into a government propaganda machine, the second about domesticating important private media outlets, and now comes what is left,” said András Pethő, founder and editor of Direkt36, in an interview with CPJ. Direkt36 is a partly crowdfunded investigative journalism outlet, and Pethő himself is on Figyelő‘s blacklist because his organization receives grants from Soros’s Open Society Foundations and has frequently reported on alleged corruption involving individuals close to Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party.

Milestones of the past eight years included the introduction of a restrictive set of media laws in 2010, provoking an international outcry, which–as Pethő argued–might have taught Orbán to turn to different methods to tame critical media. Since 2014, one of the country’s biggest news websites, Origo; the second largest TV group, TV2; and all regional dailies have been bought up–or, like the leading opposition daily paper, Népszabadság, shut down–by Orbán-friendly businessmen. One of the most prominent such leaders is Orbán’s childhood friend Lőrinc Mészáros, a former gas pipe fitter and, until his recent resignation, the mayor of Orbán’s hometown Felcsút. Mészáros jumped to number five in last year’s list by business news website of the wealthiest Hungarians; his fortune is thanks to lucrative state contracts and EU infrastructure tenders, according to an investigation by Reuters.

In his statement, Ambassador Várhelyi said the opposition media reaches a wider public than state media. Without citing a source for the data, he said the proportion of online “government-critical portals is around 80 percent,” adding: “The diversity of the Hungarian media scenery was perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that most Hungarian media outlets actively campaigned against the Fidesz-KDNP alliance ahead of the 8th April elections.”

But according to research by Átlátszó, another investigative watchdog and news website, by this year’s general elections, more than 500 titles were in the hands of oligarchs and businessmen linked to the government, all of them heavily benefiting from state advertising. Of these, only 31 titles were government-allied in 2015, when 21 of the titles did not even exist. State media also followed the government’s campaign against migrants, non-governmental organizations and George Soros, and this uneven playing field was one of the reasons why election observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe qualified the vote as free but not entirely fair.

One of the few remaining critical newspapers was the daily Magyar Nemzet, which after many years of supporting Orbán and his government, turned against him once its owner broke with the prime minister after the 2014 elections. Simicska became Orbán’s staunch opponent and financed the heavy losses his media companies incurred once his businesses were deprived of lucrative state contracts and his media of state advertising.

“We had expected something to happen but the speed of it all was still surprising,” Szabolcs Tóth, lead columnist and former deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, said in an interview with CPJ, adding that the decision of the owner highlighted the fact that the Hungarian media market is so distorted, that “without state advertising, it is almost impossible to profitably operate a media company.” Magyar Nemzet‘s main pro-government competitor, the daily Magyar Idők, is 87 percent sustained by state advertisements, according to an analysis by media think-tank Mérték.

Anita Kőműves of Átlátszó said she believes the trends of the past few years will continue: the owners of the few remaining but struggling critical media outlets might decide to follow Simicska’s footsteps by shutting down their operations or selling if an Orbán-friendly businessman shows up with an offer.

“All this means that the ecosystem in which our investigations could have an effect falls totally apart,” Pethő of Direkt36 said. If the mainstream media do not follow up on stories by these investigative outlets, they do not reach wider audiences, he said.

Harder nuts to crack will be critical media outlets which are still in the hands of foreign owners (like the biggest private TV channel, RTL), or maintain profitability, like independent news site Index, one of the country’s most well-read websites owned by a foundation whose board includes a close Simicska associate. “They will try to discredit us through personal smear campaigns, close us off from interviews and vital information,” Szabolcs Panyi, an editor for Index, told CPJ. Government-friendly and state media regularly target critical journalists with vicious commentary or prepare lists similar to the one published after the election. CPJ tried to contact several pro-government journalists, but none responded.

Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University (CEU) School of Public Policy in Budapest, wrote in a blog post last year that Orbán has gained control of approximately 90% of all media in the country. As for the handful of remaining critical outlets, the only hope, Dragomir told CPJ, is that Orbán has already achieved his goals of controlling the media and its resources, and so it does not make sense to push for more. “He is also fine with just a few free voices out there shouting in the wind, just to maintain a feeling of free press to show when someone from the EU asks,” Dragomir said.