Independent journalism under increasing threat in Hungary


While the democracy watchdog Freedom House ranks Hungary’s press as only partially free, for the country’s journalists, the situation feels far worse.

Since the introduction of a new Media Law in 2010, the Hungarian media has been subject to the legal requirements of ‘balanced reporting’.

Failure to abide by the government’s interpretation of something that is a basic tenet of journalism results in heavy fines, proportional to the popularity of the media outlet.

Curiously, as of 2013, half of the complaints for unbalanced reporting were brought by the far-right Jobbik party, which had the majority of its claims upheld. Complaints for alleged anti-Roma coverage, on the other hand, were all dismissed.

The Media Law also forces all new media organisations to register with the authorities within 60 days of launching.

In addition, this year civil society NGOs, including independent media organisations operating with this status, have come under government scrutiny over their ties to foreign donors.

Yet Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national conservative Fidesz party, which was reelected for the second time in April 2014 with 44.87 per cent of the vote, retains widespread support at home.

In addition, the situation in other countries in the region tends to obscure the worsening situation for critics of the government in Hungary.

“When I meet Ukrainian colleagues, they ask me whether any journalists have been killed here over the past 10 years, and I have to tell them that none have,” explains Attila Bátorfy, editor at the Kreativ magazine.

But just because journalists haven’t been killed on the job it doesn’t mean journalists don’t face other threats.

A poll by the media policy research institute Nézőpont Intézet revealed that 48 per cent of Hungarian journalists claimed they had been forced to act contrary to their professional convictions at least once in the past 12 months.

“The situation is bad for us, but it can’t be on EU decision-makers’ minds every day,” says journalist and activist Attila Mong, who left Hungary and eventually settled in Berlin after the 2010 legislation.

Although a Constitutional Court ruling in 2011 required the government to revise the most contentious provisions of the Media Law (such as the requirement for journalists to reveal their sources), other elements, such as the powers of the politically-appointed Media Council still exist.

According to Open Society Foundations(OSF), the Council has a mandate to interfere with editorial decision-making.

The OSF report claims that the power of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, the broadcast media arm of the Media Council, is “absolute” and “unprecedented in other European democracies.”

László M. Lengyel, chairperson of the Hungarian Press Union, adds that recent labour legislation, adopted four years ago, has further weakened the bargaining power of journalists’ union.

“This is not because of the economic crisis, but because of legislation and government policy,” he told Equal Times.

The Orban government recently moved to introduce a new Advertising Tax, imposed to curb the profits of privately-owned media organisations.

News of the tax came on the back of a statement from the European Commission earlier in June, which urged Hungary to phase out sector-specific taxes.

Judit Acsay, vice-president of the Association of Hungarian Journalists, recounts that the German-owned RTL Group is particularly threatened by the progressive tax, and this is one of the reasons why previously tabloid-news-oriented group suddenly adopted a watchdog role against the government.

EU Observer reported that even traditionally pro-government media outlets voiced concerns over the tax. Television and print media receive the lion share of advertising revenue.

But multinational companies are increasingly unwilling to get into trouble with the government.

Origo, the largest news site owned by Deutsche Telekom, was shaken up after the editor-in-chief was fired and 20 journalists left following the publication of an article which criticised the spending of government officials.

According to Mong, who was an editor at Origo until 2012, many foreign investors are fleeing the country, which leads to further concentration of ownership amongst the Hungarian business elite.


Removing the last lifelines

For a while civil society organisations were able to create some ‘breathing space’ for independent journalists, trapped between government pressure and profit-oriented investors.

But these organisations are no longer safe.

In June, the Hungarian Government Control Office started an investigation against NGOs receiving financial support through the European Economic Area and Norway Grants, a financial mechanism aiming to help civil society in less prosperous European economies.

The list of grantees were publicly labelled as politically biased due to the inclusion of a green-liberal party among the grant recipients. The investigative journalism portal was also raided as a grant recipient.

The move has drawn criticism of Transparency International, Human Rights Watch and other international bodies.

According to the website of the Government Control Office, they will be auditing data from 2010 onwards in the name of transparency. However, the EEA fund has its own Board of Auditors.

Meanwhile, government-friendly media organisations continue to enjoy generous advertising revenues.

The state spends over €16 million on advertising, according to estimates quoted in the New York Times last year, much of which involves EU-funded development projects, thus distorting the media market.

Whereas until 2010 the majority of newspapers and magazines were left-leaning, since then a conservative media grouping has emerged, which includes the daily newspapers Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, the weeklies Heti Válasz and Magyar Demokrata, the radio station Lánchíd Rádió, and the cable news television channels Hír TV and Echo TV.

In 2010 the ruling party amended the constitution, removing the government’s obligation to prevent media monopolies.

No wonder then that Freedom House recently reported that four government-friendly individuals, owning 15 media companies, saw their profits increase sevenfold from 2009 to 2011.