There is no space for pluralism in the contemporary Hungarian media market (Dominik Héjj)

Abstrakt

For a decade in Hungary, i.e., since the current Fidesz-KDNP coalition took office in Spring 2010, a policy has been pursued aimed at a management system for media market pluralism. Building the media system from scratch is aimed at subordinating it to the ruling narratives, thus ensuring the mobilization of the electorate that will keep the ruling coalition in power. New economic elites play an important role in this construction – oligarchs involved in the media market, paying off their debt to the government, and benefiting from its actions. Achieving the acquisition of the largest portal, namely Index.hu, two months ago is just one piece of the puzzle.

According to the Hungarian government’s declaration, the government remains neutral towards the changes taking place on the media market, considering any transformations to result from a free market and the freedom to conduct business, including employment policy. According to data from two pro-government centers of public opinion – the Nézőpont Institute and the Századvég Foundation – between 60% and 70% of the media in Hungary remain critical of the government. This result may be surprising as it distorts the actual political profile of the media operating in Hungary. The reason for this state of affairs can be seen in the fact that the opposition media includes titles which the state treasury does not have any shares in.

In 2002, Fidesz failed in the parliamentary elections, while the left-liberal coalition MSZP-SZDSZ won. However, the conservative bloc led by Fidesz ultimately obtained only ten seats less than MSZP-SZDSZ. This defeat was then explained by the lack of a properly created message from the party during the 1998-2002 term, which could be promoted by media favorable to the government. During these four years, Viktor Orbán could only count on the help of state media. Their message, however, depends on which party currently has the majority in Parliament – it also holds positions in the public media. The defeat of Fidesz in 2002, therefore, meant a loss of influence in the state press, radio, and television. The group did not have media supportive of Fidesz. In addition, the party had to find the capital that could be invested in creating new, pro-Fidesz media – the party has not gathered any economic elites around it that would provide adequate funding. It is useful to note that the party has not managed to gain the financial support by elites willing to provide funding.

When Fidesz took power in 1998, the share of former members of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) among the economic elite reached almost 50%. In 2001, this percentage was 26.8%. The privileged position of former members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the economy was explained by the fact that they made a fortune – first in the era of János Kádár, and then in free Hungary – in connection with privatization processes, as well as broadly understood transformation period 80/90s. Depriving these elites of political significance became one of Viktor Orbán’s main aspirations, which was realized.

Changes in Act. After 2002, Lajos Simicska began to create media in favor of Fidesz. He created a media group that included the daily newspaper “Magyar Nemzet”, the news television channel Hír TV, radio station Lánchíd, and the opinion weekly news magazine “Heti Válasz”. These were the titles presenting a critical review of the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government. The importance of these media increased significantly with the outbreak of the protests in Hungary in autumn 2006. They were a consequence of the disclosure of a recording in which the then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that he had lied to voters during the spring campaign. In the local elections on October 1, 2006, Fidesz won, starting an uninterrupted streak of success that continues to this day.

It can be assumed that if at that time there were no media favorable to Fidesz, established by Simicska after 2002, the information space would be dominated by the broadcast of public television (then under the rule of MSZP-SZDSZ), which tried to silence public opinion and downplay the scale of the protests. It was in those weeks that Orbán was able to appreciate the importance of media favorable to his political camp. He continued to enjoy this recognition in the following years.

Undoubtedly, the Simicska media company played a significant part in Fidesz’s victory in 2010 – thanks to him, the party was able to reach a wide audience with its message. It was, and remains, a tool for building a broad electoral base and keeping it highly mobilized. Thanks to Simicska, Fidesz also had the opportunity to criticize Gyurcsány and his government’s attitude in the public forum, starting in autumn 2006. When in spring 2010, Fidesz and its coalition partner (KDNP) won the election and obtained a constitutional majority, one of the most important decisions was to introduce changes in the area of public media.

In December 2010, the Parliament passed the Media Services and Mass Media Act, hereinafter referred to as the Media Act. It should be noted that already in August this year, he introduced significant changes to the old act in force at that time. A body that aroused a lot of controversy was then established – the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság, Hungarian). The President of the Office is nominated for a period of nine years. He also automatically becomes the chairman of the Media Council. To take up this position, however, it is required to obtain a majority of 2/3 of the votes in the National Assembly. In National Media and Infocommunications there are two independent councils: the Media Council (Médiatanács) and the Office of the Media Council. The Media Council is a five-person body, appointed by the Parliament with a majority of 2/3 votes for a nine-year term. The Office has received extensive management powers over the media.

Taking over the media. In 2014, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition won the election for the second time in a row. At the same time, there was an open conflict between Prime Minister Orbán and Lajos Simicska mentioned earlier, as a result of which the government coalition was left without favorable media – the Simicska concern, so far favorable to Fidesz, began to criticize this grouping and support the then biggest opponent of Orbán, namely the Jobbik party.

At that time, new economic elites had formed around the Prime Minister and Fidesz – the so called oligarchs who built their capital on the basis of public procurement. They participate in tenders for investments financed for EU funds and - therefore - their fortunes increase indirectly with these funds. A dependency developed in which the survival of a small group of beneficiaries of the Fidesz system was fully dependent on the successive successes of Orbán. For this reason, the Prime Minister’s appeal to entrepreneurs to create new information channels favorable to the government’s actions and, at the same time, independent of the public media already under state control, met with a specific response. Soon after that, the newspaper Magyar Idők (the English equivalent of “The Hungarian Times”) was launched. The emergence of this and subsequent titles in favor of the rulers was the payment of the debt to Fidesz by the oligarchs who, thanks to the new power, had the opportunity to get rich.

The most common way of taking over the media was to buy companies that struggled with financial problems. The reason for these difficulties could be explained, among others by reference to the general condition of the media, manifested, for example, in a decline in readership or advertising revenues. At this point, it should be noted that in the last decade, the Hungarian state has become the largest advertiser, financing various government projects, for example, as part of national consultations or campaigns directed against the EU.

The purchased media concerns were (to put it simply) transformed into pro-government institutions. Most often, it happened in such a way that the new owner terminated employment contracts with journalists who were unfavorable to Fidesz (e.g., origo.hu, vs.hu) or ceased activities altogether, as it happened in the case of the largest opposition newspaper, Népszabadság, which closed in October 2016. Each time, the authorities took the position that activities in the media market are a private matter of given enterprises and that the government has no influence over the media market.

The problem, however, is that the media supporting the government do not publish data on their sales, so it is impossible to establish what the minimum sales effort guarantees the effective existence of the media. There is no Radio Track study in Hungary that could report similar data on radio stations. It should be emphasized that one of the methods of removing anti-government broadcasters was not to extend the license for operating radio stations. At the same time, the low audience results, which could not be verified (casus Class FM, which ceased broadcasting on November 21, 2016 or casus Klubrádió in September 2020), were cited.

It should also be mentioned that in 2014, a tax on advertising was introduced in Hungary. Its amount, according to the original assumptions, was to depend on the amount from advertising revenues. This shape of the new levy would mostly affect the openly unfavorable commercial RTL Klub station, hence it is referred to as the “RTL tax”. According to the calculations, it would pay approximately HUF 29 billion (approximately $ 345 million). However, after the reservations of the European Union, the tax was changed to a flat tax.

In one of the interviews in May 2019, a month after Lajos Simicska’s withdrawal from the media market, the oligarch said that in 2015 Viktor Orbán wanted to buy RTL Klub television (which he did not favor) and then close it. Interestingly, the funds for this transaction were to come from Rosatom – the entity that is implementing the investment in the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary.

Consequences. In November 2019, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (Hungarian: KESMA) was established. It is an entity that brings together nearly 500 titles supporting the power of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition. Individual owners included their titles in the Foundation in kind, voluntarily relinquishing their management rights. Formally, it is a concern that is beyond the control of the authorities, but there is no doubt that it is the greatest beneficiary of the government’s information or even advertising policy. It brings together titles that inform the public about the government’s policy in a manner consistent with the interests of Fidesz – they do not undertake any criticism or report any irregularities in the policy of the ruling coalition.

The disruption of media pluralism in Hungary results from the  countless concerns and titles opposing Fidesz’s actions - thus, Hungarians are deprived of their freedom to choose the source from which they get their news. This builds a one-sided narrative that distorts various state policy elements, such as the Hungarian-Russian relations, without informing in any way about the possible consequences of making Budapest dependent on the Kremlin. Some of the leading pro-government titles cooperate with the Russian media (including Sputnik and Russia Today). These websites are also a source of information for Hungarian press agencies. Disturbing the principle of pluralism makes it easier for the Russian side to pursue a disinformation. The media does not provide reliable information about Russia or China’s policies, who are two important political partners of the current coalition in Hungary.

What is happening in Hungary can increasingly be read in non-Hungarian media, which, often leads to distortions in understanding the issues raised. These texts often present already processed opinions and not the source material collected in Hungary.

Building a media conducive to power is a process that will continue as long as Fidesz rules. The new media system dependent on this grouping already has much wider information potential than the opposition media. This is essential when trying to mobilize the electorate. Limiting unfavorable votes to the government cements the sense of success and effectiveness of the government’s actions so far. The state has a wide range of measures that may increase the propensity to, for example, self-censorship, as is the case with the daily Népszava, which criticizes the Prime Minister but does not attack him directly.

By analyzing the media market situation, it would be possible to predict with a high degree of probability which of the subsequent titles will face problems similar to those of the Index.hu portal. In the editorial office, the editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull, who was dismissed, had reported that he was being offered a large sum of money in return for his silence. In protest against the policy of the new owner, over 80 people left their jobs – it can be noted that the supervisory board includes, among others, a KDNP politician. Ensuring the functioning of the portal, however, one can see the absolute silence of the political section – the one that was most criticized by the politicians of the ruling camp. According to information published on social networking sites, the editors of Index created a new Internet medium, namely TELEX. Their slogan is now “legyen másik”, “must be different”. However, the goal of Prime Minister Orbán has been achieved so far, and the editors of the Index.hu portal, who are unfavorable to the authorities, will probably go silent after years of effort.