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Podcast: Navigating Hungary’s new Sovereignty Protection Act

Podcast: Navigating Hungary’s new Sovereignty Protection Act

The situation for Hungary’s embattled independent media is about to become even more challenging.

On 12 December, the Hungarian parliament voted to pass the Protection of Sovereignty Act. It was debated for less than two weeks and passed without any serious public consultation.7 Its stated motivation is the protection of Hungarian sovereignty from malign external threats, and the criminalisation of foreign funding to political parties during election campaigns.

A new body will now be established to map and report on perceived threats to national sovereignty and identify bodies or individuals suspected of serving foreign interests or receiving foreign funds. In a country where government politicians have previously smeared some media as serving foreign interests, media have criticized the vague language of the law, and decried the bill as being part of the government’s decade-long attempt to dial up the pressure on critical voices.

Ahead of elections in 2024, and amidst ongoing negotiations with the European Commission over the release of frozen EU funds, the new law looks set to be another divisive issue pitting Budapest against Brussels – and create further uncertainty for media and NGOs.

In this episode of the MFRR In Focus, we spoke to renowned Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi about the details of the law, what its real motivations are, and what impact it will have on the already destabilised independent media community.

Guests: Szabolcs Panyi, investigative editor at VSQUARE and investigative journalist at Direkt36

Producer and Host: Jamie Wiseman, Europe Advocacy Officer at International Press Institute (IPI)

Editor: Javier Luque, Head of Digital Communications at IPI

 

Listen to more episodes of the MFRR in Focus Podcast here.

This podcast series is part of the MFRR in Focus project sponsored by Media Freedom Rapid Response, which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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Hungary: Draft Sovereignty Protection Act poses fresh threat to…

Hungary: Draft Sovereignty Protection Act poses fresh threat to independent media

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today alerts the European Union about the chilling impact that the Hungarian ruling party’s proposed Sovereignty Protection Act will have on what remains of the country’s embattled independent media community.

Our organisations stress that while media are not named directly within the text of the draft bill, the intentionally vague language and broad scope for application of the proposed law would effectively open the door to state-sponsored pressure on those media which receive foreign funding and produce journalism critical of the government.

 

The draft Sovereignty Protection Act is therefore the latest prong of a decade-long campaign by the government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán to harass critics and suppress democratic checks and balances. This has been effected in part through measures that restrict, punish, and stigmatize critical journalism and NGOs that are deemed to be hostile to national interests.

 

The bill, submitted to parliament on 21 November, would establish a new office headed by an individual appointed directly by the Prime Minister with a six-year mandate. Its main task would be to map and report on perceived threats to Hungary’s national sovereignty and identify bodies or individuals suspected of serving malign foreign interests. All foreign funding of parties’ election campaigns would be criminalised.

 

This new office would have broad investigatory powers to demand documents, financial records or data of any organisation or body operating in Hungary, including civil society groups, media organisations or journalist associations. It would publish public reports about these bodies’ allegedly negative impact on Hungarian public discourse or politics, with a focus on election periods. Organisations adjudged to be undermining national sovereignty could be unofficially labelled as such by the body in its reports.

 

While media and media activities are not referenced directly in the text, the vague language of the bill means it could easily be applied to media organisations and individual journalists. Within the current parameters, any media receiving foreign funding could be accused of undermining Hungarian sovereignty by spreading “disinformation”, carrying out activities which are “aimed at influencing the democratic debate” or “aimed at influencing the will of voters”. Domestic media freedom groups registered in Hungary could be included within the scope of the law, while international media freedom organisations carrying out work in the country could also be stigmatised in reports by the proposed Sovereignty Protection Office. Although it will be tasked with preparing recommendations, the body would have no legal powers to issue sanctions.

 

Government figures have indicated that the objective of the law is purely to stop domestic political actors from accepting foreign funds. However, when the bill was first announced, a leading Fidesz politician said that among other intended targets were so-called “dollar media” and “Soros media” – pejorative terms used to label media receiving money from the U.S. or European Union.

 

The bill therefore fits against the backdrop of a campaign of stigmatisation since the 2022 general election, and beyond, against media which receive foreign grants and funding. Last year, an organisation close to the government published a report examining the funding structure of several of the leading independent media, suggesting they were serving foreign interests. If this new body were to become operational, it would hang like a sword over the independent media and NGOs and represent an institutionalised escalation of pressure over acceptance of foreign funds.

 

Over the past decade, as numerous reports have documented, the Fidesz government has deliberately distorted the media market to weaken the finances of independent media. This has included abusing state advertising, pressuring private advertisers, engaging in smear campaigns against independent media and other tactics that drive readers away, using state funds to bankroll otherwise economically unviable pro-government media, and selectively applying competition law. Numerous independent outlets did not survive this onslaught, either closing or being sold off to pro-government owners. Those independent media that remain have been forced to modify their business models toward subscription systems and grants from foreign donors in order to survive and continue their watchdog work. This bill and the attacks on foreign funding must therefore be seen as the latest effort to undermine the business models and financial sustainability of the independent press.

 

The dire conditions for media freedom and independent journalism in Hungary have been constructed by the Fidesz government over the past decade under the eyes of the European Union. For too long, nothing was done to challenge the anti-pluralistic consolidation of a pro-government media bubble and the slow eradication of bastions of professional journalism through regulatory abuses and the politically-engineered takeovers of media houses. While the EU’s draft European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) does represent a principled effort to safeguard media pluralism and freedom in Member States, its fate remains uncertain.

 

As the debate continues in the Hungarian parliament, the EU must not flinch in its opposition to this bill. If the package of amendments is ultimately passed and the constitution and criminal code are changed by the parliament with Fidesz’s two-thirds majority, plans should already be in place for the EU Commission to launch infringement proceedings against Hungary and challenge the law in the EU courts. Even if the bill is never passed, the text and its proposed measures will have a chilling effect in the signal they send. We jointly call on the Hungarian government to scrap the bill and refrain from all forms of pressure on the media and NGOs.

 

In the coming weeks, our MFRR consortium partner ARTICLE 19 Europe will prepare a thorough legal assessment of the law’s alignment with European law and international media freedom standards. This will outline in detail the severity of the threat posed by the draft Sovereignty Protection Act to media and civil society organisations. Our organisations remain committed to protecting what remains of independent and pluralistic journalism in Hungary.

Signed by:

  • International Press Institute (IPI) 
  • ARTICLE 19 Europe 
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) 
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) 
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU) 
  • 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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Hungary: DDoS cyber attacks pose major new threat to…

Hungary: DDoS cyber attacks pose major new threat to media freedom

The International Press Institute (IPI) today warns that an unprecedented wave of cyber-attacks predominantly targeting independent media outlets in Hungary in recent months represents a serious and growing threat to the free flow of information in what arguably is already the European Union’s worst country for press freedom.

The International Press Institute (IPI) today warns that an unprecedented wave of cyber-attacks predominantly targeting independent media outlets in Hungary in recent months represents a serious and growing threat to the free flow of information in what arguably is already the European Union’s worst country for press freedom.

 

Since April 2023, at least 40 different media websites in Hungary have faced Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, a form of cyber-attack which temporarily slows or crashes websites by overloading their servers with millions of simultaneous access requests, leaving readers unable to access news and information for hours at a time.

 

While the specific motive of these attacks remains unconfirmed, the majority of portals targeted in the DDoS attacks include many of the country’s leading independent media, including Telex, HVG, 444.hu, Magyar Hang, and Népszava, which are critical of the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. International media companies hit by hackers include Forbes Hungary.

 

To date, no media outlet supportive of the ruling Fidesz party has been targeted in the current wave of attacks, according to IPI assessments, indicating a political or ideological motive. Index.hu, a formerly independent publication considered co-opted by, though not overtly supportive of, the government, was also targeted. In some cases, media were targeted for simply reporting on DDoS attacks against others, as in the case of Media1.

 

While the attacks initially appeared to be isolated incidents, the frequency and severity of the attacks increased in May and June and have caused serious damage and disruption to news websites. In addition to undermining reader’s access to news and information, DDoS attacks also result in financial losses for media companies due to diminished advertising revenue.

 

Many of the targeted websites were left inaccessible to readers for hours at a time, either until website administrators were able to minimize the damage or the DDoS attacks – which can require considerable costs to execute – were halted by the hackers. Waves of attacks have mostly occurred over successive weekends, when IT staff are most likely not to be working.

 

With more than 40 different media websites targeted, some multiple times, this campaign of DDoS attacks is understood to be one of the broadest cyber-attacks against an independent media community within a European Union member state to date, according to IPI’s analysis.

 

While some of the media involved have filed police reports, investigations have so far yielded no discernible progress. Police are understood to be investigating cases individually, rather than as part of a unified national investigation. The perpetrators of DDoS attacks are notoriously challenging to identify due to the variety of tools available to attackers to remain anonymous.

 

While no actor has claimed responsibility, the hacker or hackers appear to go by the nickname HANO – an acronym in Hungarian for a type of disorder which affects the human body. In recent months, they have also left messages in Hungarian behind in the code of attacks, indicating that they are being coordinated domestically, rather than by foreign actors. The attacker appears to demonstrate a knowledge of the Hungarian media landscape and individual journalists.

 

In other cases, messages were left in the code of DDoS attacks which warned of future attacks against certain media, only for those attacks to then be carried out at the precise date and time. The costs associated with this scale and duration of DDoS attacks, continuing over several months, also indicates that those responsible are relatively well-funded, according to experts.

 

Although IPI referred some independent media outlets in Hungary to Cloudflare’s Project Galileo – which provides cyber defences by redirecting overload attempts to its own servers – the attackers have found new ways to crash or drastically slow down websites. This further indicates the sophisticated offensive cyber capabilities of those responsible.

 

Major democratic and security threat

The DDoS attacks so far appear to follow a pattern of targeting critical and independent media websites and were in some cases aimed at smothering access to certain types of news reporting or investigations. In some cases, DDoS attacks began less than half an hour after the publication of reports critical of the government or entities connected to it.

 

Examples include a critical report about journalists from independent media not being allowed into a government press conference, or a critical report about the pro-government propaganda outlet Megafon. None of the attacks appear so far to be extortionate in nature, but rather intended to cause maximum disruption.

 

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said the months-long DDoS campaign represented an insidious form of digital censorship and another form of pressure against critical and independent media in Hungary. He warned that while the current cyber-attacks were worrying enough for media freedom, the potential for them to be weaponized during elections in Hungary – when access to factual and independent journalism are more vital than ever – could also pose a major threat to election integrity and democracy.

 

“The potential for cyber attackers to cause major obstruction for citizen’s access to independent news reporting during periods like elections or protests are clear”, he said. “What we have been seeing in recent months could be the probing for weaknesses in advance of a major coordinated attack, which is why authorities need to act now to identify and put a halt to this democratic and security threat”, he said.

 

“IPI today calls on Hungarian law enforcement authorities to consolidate investigations into one major national probe, assisted by expert cybercrime officers and if necessary, intelligence agencies, aimed at identifying the source of these cyber-attacks, what their motive is, and how they are funded. Those responsible should face serious criminal cybercrime charges for their obstruction of free speech online and attacks on important media infrastructure.”

 

Griffen also called for greater international attention, particularly from the European Union, to the DDoS attacks against media in Hungary and the democratic threat they pose.

 

While multiple motives for the attacks were possible, he said, another theory could be that they are aimed simply at undermining business operations of independent media companies. DDoS attacks have led both to a loss of advertising revenue and forced some media to invest in stronger cyber defense capabilities, hitting balance books of the smaller news outlets in particular. Independent media in Hungary continue to face major threats to their viability.

 

DDoS attacks are not new to Hungary. In 2022, the website of the united opposition movement was hit with a powerful DDoS attack as it was in the process of conducting its pre-election for the nominee for Prime Minister. Around the same time, independent media platforms also faced isolated DDoS attacks. In July 2023, the website of the Budapest Pride was crashed for hours on the day it was due to hold LGTBQ+ events in the capital. In a recent attack on Hungarian outlet Media1, the attacker also left messages in the code which admitted that they were responsible for carrying out the attack on the Pride website.

 

In March 2022, several news websites belonging to right-wing and conservative media supportive of the government were also hit by hackers claiming to be from Anonymous, with the justification that the media were supporting Russia’s war on Ukraine. At the time, the DDoS attacks drew a strong statement from the then Justice Minister Judit Varga. By contrast, no government official has yet condemned the attacks on independent media. The perpetrators of the 2022 cyber attacks were never identified.

 

Although DDoS attacks affect major media companies around the world, including in Europe in recent months, the financial resources and specialized security apparatus available to larger media companies mean that such cyber attacks are frustrating but cause little disruption.

 

DDoS attacks are broadly aimed at identifying and then exploiting vulnerabilities in website and server systems. They work by flooding these systems with what appears to be legitimate internet traffic from multiple locations, which overwhelms bandwidth or server capacity, significantly slowing or crashing websites. Efforts to protect against DDoS generally involve blocking the IP addresses of illegitimate access requests. Often this means mitigating attacks rather than stopping them outright. Attacks can be carried out via botnets – networks of infected computers and other digital devices around the world – making it very difficult to trace the perpetrators.

 

Media1 has been tracking the DDoS attacks on its website. IPI has been documenting these cases on the Mapping Media Freedom (MMF) platform and the Council of Europe Platform for the Safety of Journalists.

 

IPI has been working with our members and other independent media organizations in Hungary in recent months to help bolster their cyber-security defences.

 

Click here for more of IPI’s reporting and advocacy on Hungary

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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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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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