Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses supporters in Budapest after Hungary's April 3 parliamentary election. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

Hungarian journalists fear Orbán will use election win to tighten grip on independent media

As Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán celebrated his landslide election win on Sunday with jubilant jibes at the European Union’s “bureaucrats in Brussels” and international media, the country’s independent journalists braced themselves for an even harsher media climate during his Fidesz party’s unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office.

Orbán has systematically eroded Hungary’s independent media space since taking office.  Reporters who talked with CPJ recalled how his threats against the media in a speech before his 2018 election win silenced critical voices and consolidated his power through a vast pro-government media empire and state media that act as a propaganda machine. As CPJ has documented, his attacks on press freedom have included the forcible closure or government takeover of  once-independent media outlets, his use of the COVID-19 epidemic to further restrict access to information, and verbal attacks, lawsuits, police questioning and even secret surveillance to intimidate journalists.

Orbán’s grip on the free press played an important role in his election wins since 2010, with election observers saying that voting was free but unfair in 2014 and 2018. In 2022, the uneven media playing field, along with fears over the war in neighboring Ukraine, an economic downturn and rising prices, helped him to an election landslide – spurring further concerns among independent journalists that Orbán would use his constitutional supermajority to clamp down on the remaining handful of critical outlets.

“This landslide victory will just strengthen Orbán’s view that he is on the right track, so conditions for free press will get even worse,” Csaba Lukács, head of independent weekly Magyar Hang, told CPJ. Magyar Hang was founded by a group of conservative journalists after Magyar Nemzet, the critical right-wing daily newspaper they previously worked for, was shut down following Orbán’s 2018 election win.

Lukács, whose weekly is printed in neighboring Slovakia because Hungarian print houses won’t print it for fear of falling out with the government, told CPJ that he expects advertising in his newspapers to decline as Hungarian companies become more reluctant to place ads in a newspaper critical of the authorities. He also fears that distribution of critical newspapers will become even more difficult. “The state-owned Hungarian Post might stop delivering weeklies just like it did last year with dailies, which would be a serious blow to my business”, he told CPJ. (In an answer to CPJ’s questions, the Hungarian Post responded that they are not planning any changes in the distribution of weeklies and other periodicals.)  

Direkt36 investigative reporter Szabolcs Panyi (Photo credit: Mira Marjanovic)

Other remaining free private media outlets could also see their advertising revenue put at risk.  After winning the 2014 election, Orbán introduced a tax that would have stripped RTL Klub, the country’s largest independent commercial TV station and owned by Luxembourg-based international media conglomerate, of over half of its yearly profits. Following an international outcry, the advertising tax was set to zero percent – but only until the end of 2022. (CPJ emailed RTL Klub’s news director, Róbert Kotroczó for comment but did not receive an immediate reply.)

“My concern is that they will revisit their earlier plans to introduce a punitive tax on advertising revenues, which could easily force the remaining few international owners to sell their media assets and these assets can end up in the hands of government-friendly businessmen,” Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative reporter working for Direkt36, an investigative journalism outlet, told CPJ.

While some of Hungary’s independent media do still fund themselves through advertising revenue, most currently support themselves through international grants and readers’ contributions, subscriptions, and crowdfunding. Journalists and media executives now fear that Orbán’s next line of attack on media will be against the revenue streams of these outlets, especially those obtained from donations and international grants.

A 2021 plan, for example, would have required NGOs to publish and report their full list of donors to the authorities, including the microdonations that are a crucial source of funding for most of Hungary’s critical outlets. “This plan would have basically killed critical independent press as individuals would have been more reluctant to donate to media outlets out of fear of repercussions,” Veronika Munk, co-founder of Telex, a partly crowdfunded online publication, told CPJ. Telex was established by dozens of journalists who resigned in 2020 from Index, the country’s biggest private independent online news outlet,after its editor-in-chief was fired amid journalists complained of government interference. Following a damning EU court ruling in 2020, the government was forced to revoke another law requiring NGOs to register with authorities and list themselves “foreign-funded organizations.”

Veronika Munk, co-founder of Telex, a partly crowdfunded online publication

Critics say that both plans were similar to Russian measures against NGOs, and some journalists fear that Orbán might revive these plans after seeing his latest election victory as a sign that  voters support his pro-Vladimir Putin stance. Skepticism is also mounting over whether the EU will be able to block such initiatives in one of its member countries. “The issue of media freedom violations in the EU is usually the first to [face] sacrifice,” Panyi told CPJ. According to Lukács, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will make it difficult for leaders like Orbán to maintain the norms of an EU nation “while winking in complicity to Putin.” Lukács added that it was “wishful thinking” to expect that the EU would aggressively defend Hungary’s media freedom amid a refugee crisis, war and rising infliation.  

Journalists speaking with CPJ agreed that their access to public information will remain highly restricted after Orbán’s election victory. “It is already as bad as it gets,” Blanka Zöldi, editor-in-chief of Lakmusz, a newly created fact-checking site, told CPJ. Zöldi said that independent journalists’ questions routinely remain unanswered, they are often denied access to public information without explanation, are sometimes excluded from official events, and that public officials connected to the ruling party largely refuse communication and interviews with independent journalists.

According to Lukács, the communication of the government and state institutions is “controlled almost with military discipline.” The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation when the government introduced strict rules to limit press access to public health facilities,  but Lukács says the government’s grip on information works even without formal legislation. “It is nowadays basically impossible to interview a local hospital manager or a local police chief. They would look first for the ministry’s prior approval, people are simply afraid to talk to the press,” he told CPJ.

Zöldi also expects that the growing trend of abusive defamation or privacy lawsuits against individual journalists by state institutions, state and private companies close to the government will continue. “These cases directly affect the lives of journalists and consume their precious time collecting documents and preparing for these lawsuits, instead of reporting,” she said,

Péter Erdélyi, editor for independent online news site 444 (Photo credit: Tamás Botos)

Journalists speaking with CPJ believe that intimidation of individual journalists and publishers of independent outlets will worsen too. They have been already increasingly subject to smear and delegitimization campaigns, hate speech by government politicians and pro-government media outlets, are often vilified as “traitors”, “foreign agents” or “Hungary-haters” and some, like Panyi and Zoltán Varga, the owner of an independent news site, were targeted by government-orchestrated phone surveillance. (In reply to CPJ’s questions, Zoltán Kovács, the Hungarian government’s international spokesperson sent one sentence saying that the elections results “proved that Hungarian press freedom is well alive and thriving.”)

“One cannot underestimate the psychological effects of these campaigns on individual journalists and their wider deterring impact, especially for younger generations of journalists who might altogether give up pursuing this profession” Péter Erdélyi, editor for 444, an independent online news site, told CPJ.