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Hungary: Investigative media Átlátszó targeted in latest smear campaign

Hungary: Investigative media Átlátszó targeted in latest smear campaign

IPI analysis: Few remaining independent media face increasing hostility over funding sources.

In January 2023, Hungarian investigative media outlet Átlátszó and its editor-in-chief, Tamás Bodoky, became the target of the latest smear campaign in pro-government news outlets aimed at discrediting what remains of the country’s independent media.

 

In the latest escalation of this pressure, Átlátszó and its journalists faced accusations in pro-government media of “betraying” the nation, attacking Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries, working for foreign interests and being a national security risk, due to their collaboration in a cross-border investigative project.

 

The unsubstantiated attacks were made in a series of articles published over consecutive weeks in media owned by allies of the Fidesz government, including the Magyar Nemzet daily, which is part of the pro-government KESMA conglomerate.

 

These texts about Átlátszó’s non-profit funding model included allegations that Átlátszó was receiving “Judas money” and being a “criminal association” involved in treason and anti-national activities. In a second defamatory article in Magyar Nemzet, Bodoky was directly referred to as a liar and a “national traitor”.

 

In a common pattern, these initial media smears were echoed by a pro-government foundation and then amplified in what appear to be a coordinated manner by the national news agency MTI, public broadcaster Magyar Televízió and dozens of regional media outlets which are part of KESMA, spreading them to a wider audience.

 

“It reminds us of the methods of Putin’s Russia and hints at a coordinated campaign, when first the government newspaper attacks us, mentioning a foreign agency and national treason, and then the government’s favourite pseudo-civilian organization urges intelligence intervention”, Bodoky said in response to the attacks.

 

Átlátszó and Bodoky were targeted over the media outlet’s role in a cross-border investigative project called “Hungarian Money” (hungarianmoney.eu), which was conducted in 2020 and led by Átlátszó Erdély, a Hungarian-language investigative outlet based in Romania. Five editorial teams from five European countries, including Átlátszó, investigated how the Orbán government spent at least €670 million in Hungarian minority organizations in neighbouring Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia over the past decade, and how it uses this “soft power” to exert influence abroad.

 

The project received funding from Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU), which is coordinated by the International Press Institute (IPI). IJ4EU supports cross-border investigations of public interest in the EU. It is financially backed by the European Commission and other donors but operates independently.

Wider pattern of discreditation

While the smear campaign was denounced by Átlátszó’s investigative partners in a joint statement and multiple journalists expressed solidarity with its team, concerns remain that these kinds of articles continue to act as an incitement of hostility and distrust towards Átlátszó and its journalists.

 

Far from being an isolated incident, in the past year Átlátszó and other of the country’s remaining independent media, including most recently Telex, have continued to face persistent attacks in government-aligned news outlets smearing them for receiving funding from abroad.

 

In recent months, the new buzzword in this strategy has been “dollar media”, accompanied by accusations that media are in the pocket of U.S or other unspecified foreign interests or of Hungarian-born billionaire businessman and philanthropist George Soros.

 

This follows a wider pattern in Hungary, outlined in a 2022 IPI report, that media critical of the government are smeared in an intertwined network of pro-government media as organs of misinformation spreading “fake news” in service of political opposition or foreign governments. These attacks often act as a signpost for online abuse and harassment of journalists. However, so far this harassment normally takes the form of insults from trolls rather than serious intimidation or death threats.

 

Economic asphyxiation of independent media

The focus on the recent ire on foreign funding sources also points to another phenomenon in the Hungarian media ecosystem: that under successive Fidesz governments, critical and independent media outlets have been systematically drained of state advertising funding, forcing some to seek project grants financed from abroad to stay afloat while also retaining their editorial independence.

 

This economic isolation is part of a wider campaign of media capture undertaken by the Fidesz government over the past decade, which has involved the coordinated exploitation of legal, regulatory and economic power to gain control over public media, concentrate private media in the hands of allies, and distort the market to the detriment of independent journalism.

 

In this captured media ecosystem, Fidesz has calibrated the market in its favour by rewarding alignment with its narrative while starving critical media of lucrative advertising funding from ministries and other state institutions. This carrot-and-stick approach has seen independent media excluded from advertising and other subsidies altogether, with public money channelled to finance Fidesz’s media empire. Many of these media in turn serve political interests by acting as the attack dogs of the government against its critics at home and abroad.

 

In the face of this economic climate, grants from foreign donors and the European Union have proven to be a lifeline for what remains of Hungary’s shattered independent media market. Set against the backdrop of the coordinated erosion of media pluralising recent years, is little surprise then that this financial support has been firmly placed in the crosshairs of the Fidesz media machine.

This article was originally published by IPI as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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How the European Media Freedom Act could affect Hungary…

How the European Media Freedom Act could affect Hungary and Poland

Meanwhile, the EU has existing tools to defend media pluralism and freedom

By IPI contributor Anna Wójcik

The European Union’s institutions are well aware of the concerted, structural attacks on media freedom and pluralism in Hungary and Poland plus several other member states, and the European Commission’s flagship annual rule of law reports are proof of that.

However, the EU’s treatment of the media freedom crises in Poland and Hungary, which are part of a broader backsliding of the rule of law, has been fragmented and differs qualitatively from the EU’s response to the assaults on judicial independence, academic freedom, or migrants’ rights by the Fidesz and PiS governments.

Other than monitoring the violations of media freedom and pluralism in the two Visegrad states the EU’s response has been limited to some action in the scope of the Article 7 Rule of Law procedure against Hungary, and a single EU law infringement action against the Hungarian government contesting the media regulator’s independence and accusing it of discriminatory action following its decision not to renew the license of independent radio broadcaster Klubrádió.

Frustrated by the lack of legal tools available to it, the European Commission is seeking new EU-wide legislation in the form of the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), presented in September, that would harmonize some aspects of regulation over public and private media in member states.

Until now, public and private media regulation has been mainly the responsibility of member states. With no legal mandate to act on media freedom issues, the Commission has based the EMFA on rules protecting the single market.

Meanwhile, the Council of Europe has developed extensive standards for public media and media pluralism and the EMFA is a welcome opportunity to turn some of these standards into binding law in EU member states.

While the EMFA has not been devised solely to address the challenges that the current governments in Budapest and Warsaw have posed to media freedom and pluralism, the draft regulation holds specific promises in this regard.

New rules, new regulations

The first concern in Hungary and Poland is the media regulators’ lack of independence. The Media Council in Hungary, and, in Poland, the National Broadcasting Council (Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, KRRiT) and the PiS-established National Media Council (Rada Mediów Narodowych) are part of the respective governments’ informal power grab. Loyalists with links to the governing parties dominate these media regulators, which have contributed to limiting media freedom.

In 2020, the Hungarian Media Council did not renew Klubrádió’s license, forcing the station to move online with a limited audience. After Fidesz secured a fourth term in power in April 2022, the regulator refused to renew the license of non-profit Tilos Rádió, citing violations of rules on the use of inappropriate language on air. Tilos won back the licence in the subsequent application process.

In Poland, in 2020/2021, KRRiT delayed the renewal of the broadcasting licenses of the television broadcasters TVN24 and TVN7, which are owned by the U.S. company Warner Bros. Discovery. In 2017, KRRiT fined TVN for reporting about a protest; the fine was rescinded in 2022.

The EMFA seeks to nurture greater independence through the enhanced European Board of Media Services that promotes cooperation between the national regulators. It doesn’t enhance any standards, but it does endorse the requirements of independence of national regulatory set out in Article 30 of the 2018-revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), which Hungary and Poland already transposed.

This means that the media regulators are required to be independent of political and business influence and exercise their powers impartially and transparently, in keeping with principles of media pluralism, cultural and linguistic diversity, consumer protection, accessibility, non-discrimination, the proper functioning of the internal market, and the promotion of fair competition. It also prohibits media regulators from seeking or taking instructions from any other bodies regarding the assigned tasks.

If it so wished, the European Commission could already have started infringement proceedings against the biased decisions of media regulators in Hungary and Poland that are detrimental to media freedom and pluralism, based on Article 30 AVMSD. The time to do so is of the essence, especially as the European Parliament elections and local elections in Poland and Hungary are approaching in 2024.

EU law protects European voters’ rights to participate in the EP and elections that are free and fair. The OSCE/ODIHR found in election observation mission reports on general elections in Hungary in 2018 and 2022 and in general elections in 2019 and presidential elections in 2020 in Poland that the elections were tarnished by the apparent bias of public media towards the governing majority or incumbent president and that public broadcasters failed in their duty to provide impartial coverage.

Moreover, the EMFA envisages the creation of the European Board for Media Services, which would succeed the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA) and include national media regulators’ representatives. The Board would advise the Commission on regulation and EU law application issues. It is yet unclear how the Board could insulate itself from internal disruption by rogue member states that are systematically assaulting media freedom and pluralism and quite successfully playing catch-me-if-you-can with Brussels.

Unwinding media capture

Another significant problem is the media capture process, particularly advanced in Hungary and mimicked in Poland. Fidesz has captured media through  a network loyal oligarchs, who in 2018 “donated” media to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány, KESMA). Outside of KESMA, the process of forcing journalists to resign or closing some captured media outlets continues.

The PiS party in Poland used the state-controlled oil and gas company PKN Orlen in 2021 to acquire the country’s the most prominent regional daily newspaper group, Polska Press, from the German publisher Verlagsgruppe Passau. The transaction raised major concerns about editorial independence and media concentration. The EMFA would require member states to carry out a “media pluralism and independence” test when taking any new regulatory measures that impact the media market. It would apply, for instance, to decisions impacting media concentration or on private media licensing.

Governments in Hungary and Poland also boost friendly private media with state funds through advertising and partnerships. The EMFA would include rules enhancing transparency and fairness in the allocation of state advertising to media outlets. It would require member states to distribute state advertising to media in a non-discriminatory way.

Article 24 would further require member states’ central and local governments to publish a list of the media supported with public funds and the amounts allocated to them. The national media regulators would be responsible for verifying government-provided information. Without independent regulators however, this provision is unlikely to be effective.

Strengthening the existing toolbox

It is uncertain what shape the EMFA will eventually take in the long EU legislative process. Several objections have been posed to it from interest groups, notably European association of press publishers. Moreover, member states governments may raise objections to specific elements of the act.

Negative developments regarding media freedom impact also other member states than Hungary and Poland, where such problems further entrench democratic backsliding. Greece scores the lowest among member states on RSF’s Press Freedom Index. In the countries ranking high in media freedom, threats of media concentration in the hands of businesspeople with solid political agendas risk destabilizing the electoral process. The opposition to various solutions included in the EMFA may come from a variety of interest groups.

It must also be emphasized that although the EMFA brings some opportunities, focusing on developing new legislation should not be an excuse for not taking action, as the EU already has avenues for legal actions to protect media freedom and pluralism in member states and could apply more political pressure, for example, at the Article 7 hearings against Hungary. The Council should also consider expanding the Article 7 procedure against the Polish government to include specific issues negatively affecting media freedom and pluralism. For now, the EU is not acting as strongly as it could.

 

Anna Wójcik, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Institute of Legal Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences. She was Re:Constitution fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute in 2022. She specializes in the rule of law and freedom of expression. As RethinkCEE program fellow, has recently published with the German Marshall Fund of the United States a policy report on the EUs response to the media freedom and pluralism backsliding in Hungary and Poland.

This article is part of IPI’s series “Media freedom in Europe in shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondets throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI. The reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for FReedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response coalition.

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Public service media Event

Threats to independent public service media in Central Europe

Threats to independent public service media in Central Europe

24 November, 10:00 CET.

In the last few years, Central Europe has emerged as a regional flashpoint in the battle for the future of independent public service media in the European Union.

 

In Slovenia, editorial staff are currently in a stand-off with the management over what they say are politicised efforts to erode editorial independence. As internal disagreements escalate and strikes continue, the new government is pushing for legislative reforms which depoliticise Radiotelevizija Slovenija – and faces an upcoming referendum challenge by the opposition in doing so.

 

In the Czech Republic meanwhile, a country often lauded as the regional model for professional public service media, after years of sustained political pressure under the previous government of former PM Andrej Babiš, the new administration is close to passing legislation aimed at limiting political interference and shoring up the broadcaster’s institutional independence.

 

Two countries, with a shared set of pressures on independent public media, and similar initiatives by newly elected governments to pass democratic reforms.

 

In this webinar, speakers will discuss the latest developments in both countries, explore parallels in the challenges faced, and asses the ongoing legislative efforts to insulate their country’s public broadcasters against future illiberal attacks.

Moderator

Jamie Wiseman

Europe Advocacy Officer at International Press Institute (IPI)

Speakers

Ksenija Horvat

Journalist and broadcaster at Radiotelevizija Slovenija (RTV SLO)

Jan Bumba

Presenter at Czech National Radio (ČRo Plus).

Radka Betcheva

Head of Member Relations Central & Eastern Europe, European Broadcasting Union (EBU)

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Hungary: Media freedom groups welcome EU court referral over…

Hungary: Media freedom groups welcome EU court referral over Klubrádió frequency

Together with media freedom and freedom of expression organisations, today MFRR partners welcome the European Commission’s decision to refer Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union over the February 2021 decision of the country’s Media Council to force independent broadcaster Klubrádió from the airwaves.

This  decision by the EU’s executive body to take Hungary to court over the alleged breach in EU telecoms rules regarding Klubrádió’s frequency licence is a belated but important signal that the Commission is increasingly willing to use the tools available to it to defend independent media, freedom of expression and media pluralism where they are most threatened.

 

We believe this legal challenge goes to the core of democratic standards and EU values: the freedom of the press to criticise the government and provide independent reporting without undue interference from government or state regulatory bodies.

 

The Commission announced the continuation of infringement proceedings on July 15, stating that the Media Council’s decision to reject Klubrádió’s application for the use of the Budapest 92.9 MHz frequency was made on “highly questionable grounds” and had applied rules in a “disproportionate and discriminatory manner”. It added that the muzzling of the station “violated the freedom of speech as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU”.

 

As our organisations have previously reported, Klubrádió was forced off air in February 2021 after the media regulator, which is filled with figures appointed solely by the ruling Fidesz party, rejected the extension over its alleged failure to comply with administrative requirements. The regulator then blocked the station’s attempt to re-secure the frequency it had broadcasted on for 20 years, gagging one the country’s last major critical broadcasters. While Klubrádió continues to broadcast online, it is currently operating as a radio station without a frequency, severely limiting its reach and influence.

 

Moving forward, we hope the Court of Justice of the European Union will carefully assess this case and find Hungary in violation of EU telecommunications law over the fair and non-discriminatory allocation of radio frequencies. This would then allow Klubrádió to seek a retrial at the Supreme Court over the Media Council’s original decision. However, this process is likely to be lengthy and there are concerns that in the end it may have little direct impact on Klubradio’s ability to restart broadcasting.

 

Ultimately, this case is bigger than one radio station. Over the last decade, as a result of a lack of appropriate legal safeguards for upholding the Media Council’s functional independence, the regulator has played a central role in the well documented and systematic erosion of media pluralism in Hungary. Concerns over this lack of independence were recently highlighted in the EU’s Rule of Law Report 2022. Klubrádió is one of several cases in which the frequency renewal process has been applied selectively at the expense of critical broadcasters.

 

This underscores the urgent need for the upcoming European Media Freedom Act to address developments contributing to media capture, including by helping enforce the functional independence of national media regulatory across the bloc.

 

Our organisations will continue to closely monitor the infringement proceedings in the coming months and will continue to sound the alarm over all future attacks on media pluralism and freedom in Hungary. We also continue to stand in solidarity with all independent journalists and media outlets in Hungary who continue to carry out their watchdog role in highly challenging conditions.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • AMARC Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • IFEX
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Media Diversity Institute
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Ossigeno.info
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Society of Journalists, Warsaw

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Hungary: Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station…

Hungary: Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station Tilos Rádió

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council – the country’s powerful media regulator – to block the frequency license renewal of the symbolic independent station Tilos Rádió.

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council – the country’s powerful media regulator – to block the frequency license renewal of the symbolic independent station Tilos Rádió.

Our organisations are concerned that this decision appears to be yet another disproportionate move by the Media Council, whose members were all nominated and appointed solely by the ruling party, which will force another independent voice off the country’s airwaves and further weaken media pluralism.

We note the Media Council’s decision on April 14 came shortly after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party secured an unprecedented fourth term in office, which has already led to heightened concerns about the future of what remains of independent media in the country.

Tilos (Forbidden) Rádió began broadcasting as a pirate radio station in Budapest in the 1990s and became the first non-profit independent radio station in Hungary, making it a symbol of press freedom. Since 2015, the community station has broadcasted on the 90.3 MHz frequency in Budapest, where it provides cultural, social and political programming sometimes critical of the government.

The Media Council justified its licensing decision on the grounds that the station’s media service provider, Tilos Cultural Foundation, had violated legal requirements regarding inappropriate language four times during a seven-year period since 2015. This meant that in 20,000 hours of broadcasting, inappropriate language was used four times. The regulator also cited two failures to provide data to the authority and two minor irregularities regarding annual reports.

Tilos has not denied the violations but stressed the heavy-handed nature of the decision. The station’s 90.3 MHz licence is now set to expire on 3 September 2022, at which point it will fall silent on the airwaves. The National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) has already said it will reopen the tender and seek to find a new provider for the frequency.

Our organisations believe the Media Council’s decision to block the renewal is disproportionate and based on oversized regulatory powers, which are often applied selectively and in a politically motivated manner. The violations identified do not, in our view, constitute reasonable grounds to strip a radio station of its license – and will only further weaken media pluralism in Hungary.

We also note that, while the radio stations differ, the ruling bears clear parallels by the discriminatory decision last year to force the country’s last remaining major independent radio broadcaster Klubrádió off the airwaves – a ruling which led the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings over what it said was a breach of EU law on proportionality, transparency and non-discrimination.

As detailed in a recent report by MFRR partner the International Press Institute (IPI), as a result of a lack of appropriate legal safeguards for upholding the Media Council’s independence, over the last decade the regulator has used the media law to arbitrarily deny broadcast licenses of stations critical of the government, instead then handing them to government-supportive owners, further entrenching a pro-government narrative in the country’s media ecosystem.

Moving forward, we urge the government to guarantee the independence of the NMHH and its executive body, the Media Council, which should immediately cease regulatory practices designed to marginalize independent media or force them from the market. The tendering process for radio and television licenses must also be depoliticized to ensure decisions are proportionate and measured, and the problematic dual-headed leadership structure of the regulator should be reformed.

As the European Commission launches the long overdue rule of law mechanism against Hungary to uphold EU values, it should closely scrutinise the work and rulings of the Media Council – which has been instrumental to the systematic erosion of media pluralism over the last decade. Our organisations will continue to monitor the situation and draw attention to all future problematic decisions, as well as the wider challenges for media freedom in Hungary.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Recommendations for government and EU to improve media freedom…

Recommendations for government and EU to improve media freedom in Hungary

After the re-election victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, the International Press Institute (IPI) today sets out fifteen recommendations for the government to help improve the landscape for media freedom in Hungary.

IPI also sets out seven recommendations for the European Union to help stop the erosion of media pluralism and democratic freedoms in Hungary and help defend what remains of independent media within the country.

Recommendations to the Hungarian government

– Develop a long-term strategy for restoring independence and pluralism in the media market based on clear democratic procedures, while also taking immediate steps to stop illiberal practices in the media market.

– Create checks and balances which ensure a parliamentary majority is not a carte blanche for a government to reshape the media system according to its will; create a legal framework that fosters a pluralistic media and independent journalism.

– Reform the system for funding Hungary’s public service media to ensure it is transparent, measurable and based on a clear set of criteria for the performance of tasks and the delivery of its public interest mission.

– Depoliticize the management and oversight bodies of the public broadcaster and increase professional standards; create accountability mechanisms to ensure adherence to the Media Act and Code of Ethics of the Public Service Media and the provision of fair, impartial and balanced news including a plurality of voices and opinions.

– Restore proper democratic governance and oversight to the public broadcaster, ending the dual structure of Duna Media Service Provider and MTVA; establish stronger professional requirements for election to the boards; guarantee independence, accountability and transparency in line with international standards; rebuild trust in public service media.

– Depoliticise and restore organisational and editorial independence to the state news agency MTI; sever channels for direct political control over production of news content; assess the performance of the management staff in line with professional criteria and take appropriate actions if breaches are identified.

– Radically reform the system for state advertising to halt widespread abuses of public resources to distort the media market; end all politically motivated financing of media; create a new framework based on market logic and on transparent criteria.

– Guarantee fair competition in Hungary’s media markets to foster a vibrant and sustainable media ecosystem; appropriately apply the Competition Act to limit existing media concentration, including to KESMA; adopt measures to support market entry and the sustainability of the sector.

– Guarantee the independence and transparency of the NMHH and the Media Council; create safeguards to ensure limits on the concentration of power; immediately cease regulatory practices designed to marginalize independent media or force them from the market; depoliticize tendering processes and ensure decisions are transparent and taken according to clearly defined criteria.

– Immediately end the selective approach against journalists regarding interview requests, requests for comment, public information and data; reverse restrictive measures affecting journalists’ movement within the Hungarian Parliament.

– Re-establish regular press conferences and briefings to which all media are invited; including those by the prime minister; end discriminatory approach towards journalistic accreditation for government events; restore normal working relationship between journalists and public authorities at national and regional level.

– Reform the system for FOI in Hungary, ensuring timely response from all public bodies and ministries and removing unnecessary obstacles; guarantee adherence to all rulings by the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information; re-join Open Government Partnership.

– Launch a thorough and credible parliamentary inquiry into the alleged abuses of Pegasus spyware by Hungarian intelligence and law enforcement agencies against journalists and establish strong, clear and transparent safeguards to limit future violations. Fully comply with the EU Parliament’s investigation into abuses of Pegasus in the EU.

– Introduce anti-SLAPP legislation in line with EU recommendations to protect journalists and media organisations from vexatious defamation lawsuits launched by powerful individuals or institutions; publicly condemn all smears and vocal attacks by politicians against journalists.

– Coordinate closely with international media freedom groups, civil society and European Union to improve press freedom and implement international standards; seek to join the Media Freedom Coalition to reinforce Hungary’s commitments to safeguarding press freedom.


Recommendations to the European Union

– Make full use of competencies under competition and state aid law to address the deliberate distortions of competition in the media market in Hungary; including addressing the two existing complaints to the Commission for unlawful or incompatible state aid in the area of public service broadcasting and state advertising as well as prioritizing the handling of future complaints.

– Continue EU infringement proceedings against Hungary over arbitrary and discriminatory tendering decision by the Media Council over the license renewal for Klubrádió; monitor the independence of Hungary’s media regulatory bodies according to the requirements of article 30(2) of the Audio-visual Media Services Directive.

– Pass strong Media Freedom Act which empowers EU institutions to address systematic abuses of legislative, economic and regulatory powers to erode media pluralism and freedom in the EU internal market; create a legal framework which helps safeguard the pluralism and foster independent journalism.

– Apply the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation to Hungary and suspend funds in response to grave attacks on the democratic values, including the freedom of the press, as well as systematic management of EU funds to intentionally distort media markets

– Pass strong EU anti-SLAPP directive to help protect journalists and media outlets against vexatious litigation aimed at silencing their work; ensure swift implementation by member states including Hungary

– Continue and expand financial support to independent journalism in Hungary, especially investigative journalism. Such support should be tailored to the needs of journalists and should include core support.

– Further strengthen the toolbox of the EU to pushback against media capture within the EU market and halt the spread of illiberal attacks on press freedom across the bloc.


 

Ahead of the election, IPI visited Budapest and published a report examining the landscape for media freedom in Hungary. Click here to download the full report.

Today, IPI and its global network of leading journalists, editors and media executives called for renewed efforts to defend press freedom following the election victory of Prime Minister Orbán and underscored its solidarity with independent media in Hungary.

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Hungarian capital in foreign media Library

IPI publishes report on the role of Hungarian capital…

IPI publishes report on the role of Hungarian capital in foreign media

New report produced by IPI in cooperation with regional media experts and investigative journalists. The International Press Institute (IPI) today published a new report written by regional media experts and investigative journalists on the investment of Hungarian capital in foreign media and the implications for the spread of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” model of media control.

On April 3, Hungary will hold parliamentary elections pitching the incumbent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against a united opposition candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, in what represents the first serious challenge to Orbán and his dominant Fidesz party since winning power in 2010. During this time, Orbán and Fidesz have become synonymous with the construction of an “illiberal democracy” in Europe. Central to their strategy has been the process of media capture by Fidesz using the instruments of the state to create a bubble of pro-government media. Independent media have been closed or transferred to party-friendly hands. And the government seeks to force the remaining critical outlets to the fringe of public debate, denying them access to information and hobbling their economic position.

The model has been extensively documented by media freedom organizations including through IPI’s 2019 press freedom mission report and  IPI’s 2021 analysis of the Hungary’s media capture model and its application in Poland. What is less well known is how Fidesz’s ambitions for media influence and control do not stop at its borders.

In recent years there has been an influx of Hungarian investments in media either in the Hungarian minority communities abroad, or in media aligned with Fidesz’s ideological political allies, particularly in Slovenia and North Macedonia. These investments and the apparent instrumentalization of these media to promote Fidesz’s wider political agenda raise serious questions about efforts to further export the Fidesz model of “illiberal democracy” and media control to its neighbours and beyond. In some cases, as in Slovenia, there are signs that the replication of this model is already underway.

Today, the International Press Institute (IPI) is publishing Hungarian Capital in Foreign Media. Three Strategic Models of Influencing the Neighbourhood, a series of articles examining how, where and for what purpose Hungarian money is being invested into foreign media. The articles explore the following topics:

  • Since 2017, Hungarian businesses close to Fidesz have purchased numerous media in Slovenia and North Macedonia. While Fidesz politicians insist such investments are purely commercial, heavy investments in these media have been used to support Janes Janša’s SDS in Slovenia and the fugitive former North Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE.
  • Media in Hungarian minority communities in Serbia, Romania, and Slovakia have all received a boost in Hungarian financial support, which is seen as bringing these media into close alignment with Fidesz.
  • Lastly, in 2019, a new international news agency, V4NA, was launched in London from where it attempts to project Fidesz’s populist narrative onto a pan-European media landscape.

The articles were produced by IPI in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN); the Hungarian investigative reporting outlet Átlátszó and its Hungarian-language partner in Romania, Átlátszó Erdély; and the Center for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University’s Democracy Institute.

The report is published as part of IPI’s actions in the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a project which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. It is supported by the European Commission and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

This report by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR
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Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access

Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access

Hungary is the only EU member state not to give media access to hospitals during pandemic. The IPI global network today condemned a Hungarian government decree which – despite a court order – ensured journalists from independent media titles could continue be barred from reporting from inside hospitals. IPI called on the Fidesz government and its pandemic management body to approve future requests for journalists to access health facilities and stop hindering the media from doing their jobs and reporting on the realities of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of pandemic, representatives of the independent press have been barred from filming or reporting from within hospitals and their COVID-19 wards. In March 2021, this led to an unprecedented appeal from the the editors of 28 media outlets to the prime minister that the rules be changed to allow the media to record within health care facilities.

This appeal was rejected by the PM, who said that such a move could lead to the spread of  “fake news”. Since the start of the pandemic, the government-controlled public television and the state news agency have been the only media permitted to film inside hospitals. Independent newsrooms have requested access on dozens of occasions but all were rejected by the government’s Department of Human Resources (Emmi).

This led Telex and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) to launch legal action against the government on the basis that the order disproportionately affected media freedom. The Metropolitan Court initially sided with the government last year. Following an appeal, on January 27, 2022, the Supreme Court sided with Telex and ruled that Emmi could not bar media from reporting from within hospitals, as that power lay with individual hospital directors.

However, just two days later on January 29, the government passed a decree which bypassed the Supreme Court’s ruling. It instead determined that only the government centre in charge of managing the pandemic, the Operational Tribunal, could decide on press access and accreditation. The rule came into effect on February 5, 2022, leading to a fresh outcry about government interference from the country’s remaining independent media titles.

“This government decree is another shocking example of the Hungarian government’s efforts to block media’s access to public health information and hinder the ability of independent media to do their job” said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “During the pandemic, media across Europe have been able to report from within hospitals and speak with front-line health workers. This has been vital for showing the human face of the health services and for building trust in state health measures, as well as allowing for frontline staff to raise concern when necessary and to foster healthy debate on health policy.

“In Hungary, however, despite numerous appeals, journalists have repeatedly been barred from visiting hospitals, limiting transparency and leaving reporting from within health facilities to state media, which sorely lack independence and impartiality. There is no other country in the European Union right now which still has such restrictive hospital reporting policies in place as Hungary.

“IPI continues to condemn the Hungarian government’s efforts to ban journalists from hospitals. That a government decree was used to bypass a ruling from the Curia is a stark example of the length which Fidesz will go to retain control over the COVID-19 messaging ahead of the upcoming elections. We stand with independent journalists in Hungary in their demand for access to information, which is a fundamental right. It’s shocking that this is still up for debate in an EU member state.”

The government decree means the Operational Tribunal will have full responsibilities for deciding on which journalists and TV crews can film or record interviews on the premises of health facilities. That body will have the power to overrule directors who feel it is acceptable to welcome media into their facilities they head.

During the pandemic, journalists working for what remains of the country’s independent media operate in an extremely challenging environment for accessing public information or questioning public officials. While media critical of the government are shunned for interview requests, the prime minister meanwhile gives expansive interviews to state-controlled media. After the media sent an open letter to the PM in March 2021, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs accused “left-wing portals” of spreading “fake news” to embarrass the country’s health care system.

At different points during the pandemic, doctors and other healthcare professionals have been forced to speak with media off record to raises concern about their institutions’ capacity to handle rising cases and an influx of patients. The government decree came amidst a general election campaign for the April 3 election.

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Viktor Orbán Library

Video: How Hungary’s state media interviews Orbán (Telex)

Video: How Hungary’s state media interviews Orbán (Telex)

Viktor Orbán ignores questions from independent news outlets. But he’s happy to speak to state-controlled media that lob softball questions his way, explains Telex.hu.

While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán manages to avoid tough questions domestically, he has been dropping by Kossuth Radio almost every Friday to give an interview to one of the leading editors of the public media, which operates with an annual budget of 325 million euros of taxpayer money. In his third cycle with a two-thirds majority, Viktor Orbán fields questions almost exclusively from Katalin Nagy on the state radio station. The journalist, who was awarded the Knight’s Cross from the Hungarian Order of Merit, doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of these opportunities.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe as part of a collaboration between IPI as part of the MFRR with leading independent media in the region.

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The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex) Library

The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex)

The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex)

Viktor Orbán’s takeover of the media didn’t come overnight. It’s been a long time in the making. Hungary’s Telex.hu traces the evolution of media capture.

For 30 years Viktor Orbán and his old political colleagues have held the view that the press is against them, that journalists always help their opponents. If Fidesz loses, they think, the power of the press has won. If Fidesz wins, it does so in spite of the media headwind. The same line was taken in Orbán’s 2019 governmental press conference— when he told members of the Hungarian and foreign press that more journalists were against him than for him, “but even in such circumstances it is possible to win” — as in the analysis of the 1994 election result, where Fidesz’s defeat was blamed on a media superiority stacked up against the party. However, the party did not always view the press this way.

In this article we look at the development of the Hungarian media over those 30 years. Today, Hungary is in a dismal 92nd position in the World Press Freedom Index, which is put together by Reporters without Borders (RSF). How did it reach the point where ownership of most of the Hungarian TV, radio, printed and internet media is in some way tied to the government and its politicians.

This piece is published as part of a collaboration between IPI as part of the MFRR with Telex.hu as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. 

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