Distortion and Propaganda in Hungarian Media – an Interview with Sándor Orbán
Lorenzo Berardi 28 March 2019

On 16th December 2018, thousands of Hungarians gathered in central Budapest and marched for seven kilometers in the freezing cold to reach the district of Óbuda. There, among rows of gaudy socialist style apartment blocks, is where the headquarters of Hungarian public television (Magyar Televízió, MTVA) moved in 2012. The protesters rallied against their government, demanding an independent state broadcaster. While they were picketing public television building M1, the first channel of MTVA informed viewers that the Capital Circus of Budapest had joined a charity event. The morning after, an opposition MP was kicked out of the MTVA headquarters by security guards, while the virtues of eating pigeon meat were discussed on a program on M1.

The annual Freedom of the Press reports published by the independent watchdog Freedom House show how the Hungarian press turned from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ in 2012. The situation has worsened in the period since. On a scale from 0 to 100, where the latter means the least free press environment, Hungary’s score worsened from 21 in 2009 to 44 in 2017. This major shift has been confirmed by the NGO Reporters Without Borders. In their 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Hungary is ranked 73, a drop of fifty places since 2010 when Viktor Orbán’s second term as prime minister began. That year was a turning point when the current media law was passed. Coming into effect on January 1st, 2011, the law is widely seen as having undermined both freedom of speech and of the press.

Sándor Orbán – no relation to the prime minister – manages the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and sits on the advisory board of Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative journalism outfit that reports on abuses of power. The CIJ is an NGO established in Budapest in 1995 that supports fact-based, ethical, quality journalism. It doesn’t produce or publish content, but focuses on training and research (provided free of charge), giving grants to help reporters follow their stories.

 In a recent interview, Sándor Orbán spoke with Reset DOC on the difficult situation Hungarian journalists have been facing under the current government. A lightly edited transcript of the conversation follows.

What are the main challenges for independent media outlets operating in Hungary today?

The first problem we’ve been facing—and that has become enormous—over the last two years is the complete distortion of the advertising market, which has really influenced the media. What happened in Hungary is that the state has become the most important advertiser. This distorts the entire system because it channels advertising to media outlets that are friendly to the government and starves those that are critical toward it. This ongoing situation means that many private companies depending on the state or on the current political environment at some level will not advertise on media outlets that criticize the government. That’s why it’s extremely difficult for independent media outlets to survive in this distorted market.

Last year, Hungarian media owners voluntarily ceded control of a total of 476 media outlets to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), directed by Gábor Liszkay, a former newspaper editor and a childhood friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. What’s the story behind this pro-government media concentration and what made it possible?

I wouldn’t say that the Hungarian media scene was always good, but it used to be very diverse — certainly much better than now. In the 1990s, foreign ownership was predominant in the Hungarian media, but then the 2008 financial crisis happened and it was a disaster for mainstream media in many countries because the advertising market collapsed. The traditional business model folded and most of the foreign companies involved in small media markets of fewer than ten million people — like Hungary and the Czech Republic — rushed for the exits. These companies wanted to depart Hungary as soon as possible, so they sold their media assets to Hungarian oligarchs. For example, we have 18 regional newspapers in this country and all of them used to be owned by foreign companies, but within the year leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections, they were purchased by local oligarchs close to the Orbán government. Now all these newspapers out of Budapest publish pro-government propaganda and in December 2018 they were also transferred to KESMA. This pro-government foundation now groups approximately 80% of Hungary’s media outlets. That’s what has been killing independent media and press freedom in this country.

How has the remaining 20% of Hungarian media outlets been coping with and reacting to this difficult environment?

The challenge for independent media that are criticizing the government — such as Direkt36, Atlatszo, or Index.hu — is that they operate in a ghetto. They reach only those who are already unhappy with the status quo, mostly in large urban centers. They do not reach the rest of the Hungarian population who live in the countryside with limited access to diverse media — thus 99% of what these people consume is pro-government propaganda. This means that if there were a major shift or a political earthquake within the government it would be very easy to keep it hidden from most Hungarians for quite some time. And all of this happens with Fidesz having just 30% popular support. And yet, even with just three Hungarians out of ten voting for them, our government can control 99% of the media scene. Viktor Orbán is a much smarter politician than Erdoğan in Turkey or Putin in Russia because he has been pursuing the same goals, but without implementing actual censorship or putting people in prison. We don’t have any actual censorship in this country and, in that respect, Hungary is not Russia. However, there is a different and more subtle kind of control here.

Do you foresee any forthcoming threat for the few independent media outlets left in Hungary?

Today the portal Index.hu is facing a major threat and it might well be the next victim of the government. I hope it won’t come to that, but I guess Viktor Orbán will try to shut it down because it’s the most important and the most influential independent media platform in Hungary. However, while Index.hu is the largest independent media in the country, it still only reaches well-educated people living in urban areas and not the Hungarians residing in smaller towns or in rural regions.

And yet, anti-government demonstrations have arisen. In December 2018, many tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Budapest and other Hungarian cities to protest against the so-called ‘slavery law’ on overtime work. One of their requests was an independent public television station. Is the current situation with MTVA so worrisome?

Today there’s no good public service media in any post-communist country. However, we used to have decent public service media in Hungary, but it has become 100% government propaganda now. I lived in Serbia for a while and I can say that Hungarian public television today is worse than the Serbian one and I think it might be worse even than Russia’s when it comes to propaganda. Mtva is not very popular and doesn’t have a high level of credibility, but in some areas of the countryside and within certain age groups it’s still the leading source of information. This proves how Viktor Orbán has a very clear strategy on how to dismantle democracy and how to hack the system through the media to reach his own goals.

Has your center in Budapest already been targeted, directly or indirectly, by the Hungarian government?

The environment right now in Hungary is quite unfriendly for our center, but at the moment we’re off the government’s radar. I don’t feel any direct pressure or any direct intimidation to my work, but obviously I know we might be targeted in the future because we’re an association that gets most of its funding from abroad. This means that we have to report to the court that we get income from foreign sources. Also, all our financial reports for the last 15 years are available on our website so that everyone can see who our donors are. We’ve always been extremely transparent about our financing and no recent legislation has forced us to disclose anything new in that respect.

Speaking of which, has the so-called anti-Soros law approved last year affected the CIJ?

That law did target many NGOs operating in Hungary but didn’t change our own situation. The government used the anti-Soros law for propaganda against NGOs, but mostly against those which deal strictly with advocacy and civil liberties, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. The government targeted these organizations because they’ve been helping migrants or promoting human rights. Since we’re a different kind of organization dealing with journalist training, our visibility is lower and our activities are more indirect. This is the main reason why we’ve not been targeted yet, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be targeted in the future. You never know where this authoritarian system can move to.

In this unsteady environment for NGOs and journalists alike, does your center provide legal support and advice to Hungarian journalists?

We do that whenever they ask us for help with libel suits and protection of sources. I must say Hungarian investigative reporters and independent media outlets are very good at accessing to and making the best use of freedom of information acts. Therefore, we don’t teach journalists how to use the law but provide legal advice whenever it’s required. The problem is that justice in this country has become slower as courts have to classify absolutely everything and it’s a lengthy process. Hungarian courts are still somewhat independent, but the government has been trying to change that, just like has happened in Poland.

Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP

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