Media Freedom in Hungary

A Nuanced Perspective

In parts of the international press, there seems to be a widespread view that free media in Hungary under Viktor Orbán has been greatly reduced, and that the remnants are under immense political pressure. The truth is more complicated when we take in a full view of the media, and the reading habits of present day Hungarians.

In a nutshell, after the collapse of communism, the post-communist elites were able to hold on to their networks and influence in what had been up to then the media of the Communist Party. Fidesz later acted to counterbalance that disadvantage. However, even now, media opposed to the government of Viktor Orbán clearly dictate the themes of the national conversation. As for suppressing free media, that is impossible. The legal guarantees for press freedom and simple market dynamics ensure that that can never happen.

After the regime change of 1990, the media market was liberalized up to a point, but in essence remained a political market, with very little bona fide independent journalism. This had a major impact on the political trajectory of the country. Hostile media coverage contributed to the defeat of the first freely elected, conservative government of József Antall and his successor Péter Boross, after only one term in power, in 1994. It was also one reason for the electoral defeat of the first Orbán government (1998–2002).

Orbán had believed that if he governed well (meaning, if most people were better off thanks to his policies) the media would not matter greatly. After all, he had won the 1998 elections despite a media environment favourable to the socialists. He did govern well, the economic parameters looked good, opinion polls saw him in front—but he lost by a very narrow margin. The media, still dominated by left-wing editors and journalists, had positioned themselves overwhelmingly against Fidesz. In Orbán’s mind, that was what cost him the election. When he returned to power in 2010, he set out to do something about this.

Paradoxically, the low point in terms of media support for his government was reached in 2014, four years after his electoral victory of 2010. He fell out with a former ally, businessman Lajos Simicska. Simicska owned large parts of the Fidesz-allied media, such as existed at the time. He was the owner of the conservative daily Magyar Nemzet, (it was anti-Nazi from its foundation in 1938, and remained a voice of moderate centrist dissent even under communism) considered until then the mouthpiece of Fidesz. Simicska also owned the conservative weekly magazine Heti Válasz. Both increasingly turned against the government, in addition to the traditionally critical left-wing media.

The Role and perception of Journalism in Hungary

It should be said at this point that the perception of the role and function of journalism is quite different in Hungary—indeed, in all formerly communist countries—from that generally held in the West. For Westerners, journalism is the ‘fourth power’ of democracy. It seeks to keep politicians honest. Free, independent media acts as a check and balance to political power. Independent journalism makes politics transparent and informs citizens in an objective way, so they can make informed decisions when they elect a new government. That is the theory. In reality, the credibility and honesty of modern journalism have become a subject of debate even in the West.

This, in any case, is not how most Hungarians view the media. Even many journalists themselves do not believe this. Certainly, no politician does. For them, journalism is not a check on power. It is an instrument of power. No matter whether they help the government or fight it, the media outlets are seen as weapons in the political power game. How else could it be, after the collective experience of media under communism?

Most political journalists choose sides. When I agreed to lead the media school of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in 2020 (an institution viewed by most as being pro-government), my one wish was to hire journalists (as teachers) who were connected to no political camp, and who were universally regarded as neutral, objective, and fair-minded. All colleagues I sounded out on this matter agreed that no such person existed in Hungary. That says something about the journalistic culture of the country.

After Orbán lost to the socialists in 2002, the media landscape became more slanted to the left than ever before. On the conservative side, the primary organ was Magyar Nemzet, the aforementioned daily broadsheet owned by Orbán ally and businessman Lajos Simicska. It was in financial difficulties. Companies wanting to advertise in it were led to understand that this was not a wise move if they wanted to do business with the socialist government. At the time, no one in the EU or the USA agonized about this state of affairs. No one was worried that a one-sided media landscape failed to provide an ‘even playing field’ for free elections. After all, it was only conservatives who were having a difficult time. But when things began to change, there was a public outcry. An OSCE observer mission called the elections of 2018 ‘free, but not fair’, on account of a politically warped media market beholden to the government. 1ICDS_Analysis_Free_But_Not_Fair_Elections_in_Hungary_Andras_Racz_April_2018.pdf

Hungarian media 1990–2010

Before I describe how Fidesz and Orbán embarked on their strategic counteroffensive to try to flip the scales, let me briefly summarize how the left was able to retain its influence over the media after the collapse of communism.

During the so-called ‘round table’ discussions of 1989–1990, where the old communists and new liberal and conservative opposition groups negotiated the details of a soft transition to democracy, the opposition failed to obtain a meaningful restructuring of the state media. The communist-era state television monopoly remained. A radical overhaul would have required a two-thirds majority in Parliament after free elections, in order to pass a new media law. The ‘round table’ had agreed on that formula, in order to make it impossible for any government to regulate the media without the consent of the opposition. But the effect of this was to preserve the state monopoly on audiovisual media and, as a consequence, the continued influence of socialist sympathizers within these institutions. The first freely elected, conservative government did not have a two-thirds majority. But the next government, a left-wing coalition of socialists (MSZP) and liberals (SZDSZ) did. They finally passed a new media law in 1997. Only now was the market opened up for commercial competitors.

The only thing that was agreed at the round table was that the new prime minister would install a new director for public TV and radio. That director could only be dismissed if the head of state also agreed. This quickly led to bitter disputes. In Hungary we call these events of the early 1990s the ‘media war’.

The new, conservative Prime Minister, József Antall, made Elemér Hankiss the director of the state broadcasting company MTV. Hankiss was a widely respected, well-meaning intellectual, an independent spirit under communism. But he did little to clean out socialist-era journalists. When Hankiss refused to air an interview with Prime Minister Antall, arguing that this should be balanced by a similar interview with the President of the Republic Árpád Göncz, a liberal, in order to comply with the principle of political neutrality, conservatives were up in arms. Antall tried to fire him, but Göncz, whose signature was needed for this, refused. The whole debate became a bitter battle between leftists and liberals on one side, and conservatives on the other. János Betlen, a prominent figure at MTV in those years, has been quoted as saying that there was never a chance to develop independent journalism there. ‘We believed that we could, but we were naive. Left-liberals tried to dominate, there were few conservatives, and they felt oppressed. […] Antall felt persecuted by the media. There was some truth to that.’2A médiaháborúktól a szinte teljes hegemóniáig | 24.hu Hankiss finally left in 1993. Not much else changed and the next elections brought the socialists back to power, consolidating left-wing power structures in the public media. The first Fidesz government (1998–2002) was not able to change that, but public media in any case declined in relevance.

Following the new media law adopted in 1997, commercial TV channels appeared: TV2 and RTL. The market share of public media plummeted. As for the printed media, the newspapers’ dominant position on the market (inherited from communism) attracted the interest of foreign investors. Axel Springer Hungaria ended up owning most of the regional newspapers.

The daily newspaper Népszabadság was partly acquired by the German company Bertelsmann, and later the Swiss publishing house Ringier. Népszabadság had been the organ of the Communist Party, which rebranded itself as a ‘Socialist Party’ in 1989. It retained a stake in the paper through a foundation called Szabad Sajtó Alapítvány (Free Press Foundation). With a circulation of more than 300,000 in the first years after the change of regime, Népszabadság remained the dominant paper on the Hungarian market. Here, too, foreign investors were attracted to the money generated by a dominant market position, while the socialists retained political influence on what was published. That influence was protected by the fact that these media institutions were now partly foreign-owned. To criticize them for political bias now counted as bad taste, and an attack on press freedom.

As time went on, the connections between formerly communist but now private media loosened. For instance, the Socialist Party ended up selling its stake in Népszabadság in 2015 (after declining to buy the paper back from its Austrian owner Heinrich Pecina, who had asked them). But all the formerly communist media outlets retained an editorial stance close to the political left—with the exception of Magyar Nemzet, which had been an exception even under communism.3Magyar Hírlap remained left-liberal until it was bought by Orbán ally Gábor Széles in 2005. Conservative-minded media thus faced an uphill battle in a marketplace dominated by ‘traditional’, formerly communist media outlets. In essence, conservative media suffered from a structural disadvantage on the market. That disadvantage remained until well into the 2010s.

The point I would like to make is this: Hungary’s media market was not a naturally evolved, healthy, and independent media environment before Orbán regained power in 2010. It was, to a significant extent, a political market, and that market had been cornered by the left. Such media as existed was as a rule connected to political parties or at least political camps in one way or another. Independent journalism in the Western sense of the term was rare.

Hungarian Media 2010–2021

The first bitter complaint about Orbán’s rule came when his government introduced a new media law in 2010 as one of its first measures.4Mttv. – 2010. évi CLXXXV. törvény a médiaszolgáltatásokról és a tömegkommunikációról – Hatályos Jogszabályok Gyűjteménye (jogtar.hu) Within months the foreign press, and especially the German media, began to describe Hungary’s media landscape as gleichgeschaltet, a word usually reserved for describing the erstwhile Nazi media policy. There was talk of ‘censorship’, and that democracy was in danger. One report by the German news agency Deutsche Presse Agentur stated that the new media authority would be able to punish media outlets for ‘unbalanced reporting’, with fines of up to 90,000 euros. 5ZEIT ONLINE | Lesen Sie zeit.de mit Werbung oder im PUR-Abo. Sie haben die Wahl. Mainstream newspapers like the respected liberal weekly Die Zeit believed this and published it. ‘Hungary introduces censorship’ was the headline. The report was untrue, as it turned out. The media authority does not and cannot impose fines for ‘unbalanced reporting’. But the perception remained.

Another complaint concerned the centralization of public television and radio. By 2010, these reached only five per cent of the population, but were controlled by four different institutions with 150 staffers. That was now reduced to just one central authority with thirty employees. In itself this was a sensible move, and financially rational. The centralized public media now also included the national news agency MTI.

Public media in Hungary had always been quite loyal to the government of the day. It can be said, however, that under Fidesz a much closer relationship between the now centralized public media and the government developed. For example, opposition politicians tend to get less air time than government politicians. Public TV and radio often follow the strategic narratives of the government’s political communication. For instance, during the migrant crisis, the subject was approached mainly from the point of view of national security and public safety.

Criticism reached an apogee when, in 2016, the biggest political daily, left-wing Népszabadság, was discontinued by its Austrian owner Heinrich Pecina, who then went on to sell the rest of his media empire, called Mediaworks, to Lőrinc Mészáros, a businessman close to Viktor Orbán. Mediaworks includes most regional newspapers. Népszabadság had been a drain on Pecina’s finances, but many critics claimed that its closure was politically orchestrated by Fidesz. The next turn of the screw came after Fidesz won the elections in 2018. Magyar Nemzet and the weekly political magazine Heti Válasz disappeared. Magyar Nemzet had been right-wing, and Heti Válasz liberal-conservative. But both had become critical of the government after their owner, former Orbán ally Lajos Simicska, fell out with Orbán after the elections in 2014. When Fidesz won again in 2018, Simicska gave up. He closed both papers.

Népszabadság, Magyar Nemzet, and Heti Válasz had been Hungary’s most important political papers. Reading all of them usually gave a pretty good picture of what was going on in the country. Now all three were gone.

In the meantime, the pro-government wing of the Magyar Nemzet staff had founded the daily Magyar Idők, which then reclaimed the Magyar Nemzet brand name after Simicska folded it up. Válasz went into online production and became a rallying point for conservatives critical of Viktor Orbán.

The next outcry came in 2020, when Hungary’s biggest news portal, Index.hu came under the influence of a businessman reputedly close to the government. Most of the journalists left, however, and founded a new portal called Telex.hu. It quickly became one of the biggest competitors on the market, consistently scoring third or fourth place in digital media rankings on most days.

Describing the media market as being fully dominated by the governing party gives a very incomplete view of the story. The Hungarian media landscape has remained pluralistic, critical voices remain influential, and the spectrum of published political opinion remains broad. The biggest TV channel, German-owned RTL, is critical of the government. So is the biggest daily tabloid, Blikk, owned by Swiss publishing house Ringier, whose online edition ranks among the top four in digital ratings on most days. The biggest political weekly magazine is independent Hvg. The biggest political broadsheet is left-wing Népszava. Of the four biggest news portals—apart from Blikk—two are very critical of the government (24.hu and Telex.hu). Index.hu, under its new owners, has become more government-friendly, but not a propaganda instrument. Only Origo.hu is a decidedly pro-government news portal.

These are the most recent statistics: in September 2021, the most-viewed news site was the independent, politically critical portal 24.hu with almost 3.6 million real users. 6toplista-2021-09.png (806×1848) (ibb.co) Second, third and fourth were centrist Index.hu, pro-government Origo. hu and the foreign-owned, politically independent website of the Swiss-owned tabloid Blikk, each with around 3.3 million real users.

Even if we accept the view that Index.hu, as a consequence of its change of ownership, has come under government influence, the result is still a politically balanced digital media market with 6.9 million real users for 24.hu and Blikk (independent of the government, with a critical stance) and 6.6 million for Index. hu and Origo. hu. Somewhat further down in the Top 20 we mainly find news portals that are vehemently critical of the government. Hvg.hu (7th place, 2.5 million real users), Telex.hu (11th place, 2.3 million) and 444.hu, a portal initially financed by liberal activist billionaire George Soros. It has announced that it will start a new fact-checking unit with the support of the European Union. The 444.hu
website had two million real users in September 2021, ranking 17th. Two pro-government tabloids were among the top 20 websites: Ripost.hu (9th place, 2.4 million users) and Borsonline.hu (20th place, 1.9 million users).

In total, among the Top 20 websites audited by the private agency Dtk.hu in September 2021, websites supporting or not hostile to the government counted 11 million real users, defined as people at least 15 years of age who had visited a site at least once. Internet outlets independent of, or even hostile to the government had 13.7 million unique users.

It is true that most regional papers have been friendly to the government since 2016, when Mediaworks was bought by Orbán ally Lőrinc Mészáros. Also, in the countryside public TV is a main source of information for elderly citizens. Most radio stations can also be considered close to the government. Still, the most dynamically growing and politically influential segment of the media market, news websites, is dominated by media critical of the government. So is the commercial sector, with market leaders Blikk and Hvg (print) and RTL (TV). Young citizens generally do not watch television, and do not read the papers. They get their information from the internet. Polls show that media consumers read conservative and liberal or left-leaning publications in equal proportions, meaning that Hungarians want to get the full picture by looking at both sides of any story. It also means that meaningful media pluralism still exists.

Altogether, the media market of 2021 is less politically one-sided than that of, say, 2005, when the eight-year socialist–liberal era of 2002–2010 was at its apogee. Hungary’s media continues to make life difficult for any government in power.

The simplest reason for this is Hungary’s legal guarantee of press freedom, enshrined in the constitution as well as in the media law of 2010. This legal guarantee duly reflects the political mentality of a country that liberated itself from communist totalitarianism in a peaceful revolution in 1989–1990. The very practical consequence of this is that the market will always move to satisfy the demand for critical reporting. There is always demand for media that is critical of the government of the day, whoever may be in power.

If some critical media outlets disappear, the market share of other publications which satisfy that demand will grow. For instance, the circulation of left-wing daily Népszava tripled to more than 20,000 after the former market leader Népszabadság was closed by its foreign owner. When the news portals Origo, and later Index, stopped being vocal critics of the government, another critical portal, 24.hu, rose to the top of the internet rankings, while a new website, Telex.hu, quickly ascended to the top ten.

It is true that Fidesz has tried to rebalance the media market, though not through direct political intervention or censorship. No journalists have been harassed for their views in the last eleven years. No media outlet has been closed down for criticism of the government. The fact remains that, to a significant degree, large parts of the media remained under the political influence of the left after the regime change in 1990. This led to resentment on the right.

All told, public attitudes in Hungary would not tolerate the abolition of free media. The country that suffered four decades of communism will not allow free speech to be suppressed.

  • 1
    ICDS_Analysis_Free_But_Not_Fair_Elections_in_Hungary_Andras_Racz_April_2018.pdf
  • 2
    A médiaháborúktól a szinte teljes hegemóniáig | 24.hu
  • 3
    Magyar Hírlap remained left-liberal until it was bought by Orbán ally Gábor Széles in 2005.
  • 4
    Mttv. – 2010. évi CLXXXV. törvény a médiaszolgáltatásokról és a tömegkommunikációról – Hatályos Jogszabályok Gyűjteménye (jogtar.hu)
  • 5
    ZEIT ONLINE | Lesen Sie zeit.de mit Werbung oder im PUR-Abo. Sie haben die Wahl.
  • 6

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