Three fingers of a crippled hand
- Peter Morvay
- World Politics
In January 2007, the Magyar Nemzet published an article that covered an alleged interparty coup in the then opposition party Fidezs. The aim was the removal of ex-prime minister Viktor Orbán and putting the moderate János Áder in his place. The article essentially was Orbán’s warning for dissatisfied party members. Áder got the message and announced the same year his candidacy for the European parliament, leaving domestic politics. He remained in Brussels until 2012 when, after a series of scandals, the Hungarian head of state resigned. Orbán, now prime minister again, decided to make Áder president.
Another matter is much more interesting though, nobody even thought about the fact that a journalist could write such an article out of free will, based on honest journalistic work. Media close to Fidezs simply did not work this way ten years ago and not much has changed since then. They receive straight orders from politicians and are obedient tools of government propaganda. When Fidezs is in power, not only do the media belong to oligarchs close to Orbán are in this group, the same applies also to the so-called public media.
Media run by the government have the overwhelming majority in Hungarian discourse. Another big group of private media carefully avoids all politics, to avoid bullying by public officials, agencies, loss of license or advertising contracts.
Independent and critical media are not only marginalized but are also small in number. This is also one of the reasons why the government basically enjoyed an informational monopoly— for the first time since the fall of communism— before the recent immigration quota referendum.
Hungary was shocked after the most important newspaper, Népszabadság, terminated business overnight. Being the main newspaper of the communist party before 1989, it was partially owned by its successor, the Socialist party. Despite its history though, it became a respected independent liberal leftist medium. For most of the time after 1990, it also was the most read, and also the best, non-tabloid newspaper in the country. Typical for Hungary was the fact that a newspaper on the left was economically speaking much more liberally in economic questions that Fidezs-controlled media who, on the other hand, were all about social populism and massive government interventions deforming the market economy.
On Friday, the last issue of the Népszabadság was published, with the Saturday issue in preparation. That one never made it to the printing press, though. Journalists got a message on Saturday morning that they do not need to come to work and they were cut out of all professional emails immediately. Even the online version of the paper was blocked, as well as the archives.
The Saturday issue was to continue coverage of two cases uncovered by the newspaper earlier. The alleged scandals concerned two government politician’s misuse of power, rapid expansion of their wealth and their luxurious lifestyle. Cases that would speak even to those voters not concerned about limiting democracy and media freedom. And this was exactly why they were so troubling to the government.
The Austrian owner of the paper used economic reasons to argue for the paper to be closed. Other sources tell a different story – after drastic cuts the paper actually was not in red numbers anymore and there simply were no economic reasons for its termination. Closing down the online version and the archive can also hardly be defended on economic grounds.
No wonder the publisher is not trusted by hardly anyone. The Népszabadság simply was a huge thorn in the government’s side. There were rumours going around that one of the government oligarchs wants to take over the paper, together with the publishing house that own another economic newspaper and a few regional tabloids. The drop in price after the termination of the paper sure was good news for him. Even the current owner didn’t have to worry – he would be compensated for his loss by Orbán’s government.
That is another troubling fact. Even if the Népszabadság was a losing enterprise it was not because of the readers’ disinterest. Hungarian media do not work according to market principles. The government actively undermines and weakens independent media. The Office for the Protection of Competition did not allow for a 2012 fusion that would provide Népszabadság with a more stable position. With the concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs, the Office does not have a problem. Media of pro-government “entrepreneurs” are funded with public money and state companies are filling them with advertisements. Private media on the other hand don’t only find hostility from the state. The market with advertisements is owned by Orbán’s oligarchs as well and they decide who gets what. The government is essentially blackmailing private firms, including those with foreign owners, to not to provide independent media with adverts.
Weakened or losing independent media are closing down or bought by oligarchs who are the only ones to afford them. They do not even have to risk their own property. One of the two big private TV channels, TV2, was bought by a state commissioner and former Hollywood producer Andy Vajna, probably financed with a “loan” from a state-owned bank. Since then, TV2 runs state propaganda on repeat.
For Czech version click here.