In June 2013, the Hungarian parliament approved changes to the country’s freedom of information act that restricts the public from accessing certain types of government information that were previously accessible. One of these restrictions prevents news organizations and non-profits from accessing rejected applications for tobacco licenses. The changes came shortly after allegations that the Hungarian government was favoring supporters of the ruling Fidesz party in the awarding of licences to sell tobacco, a charge the government has denied.
This is just one example of how Hungary’s media landscape has changed in the past three years since Fidesz, the county’s ruling centre-right party, came into power in the spring of 2010.
Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament, leading Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to dub the result a “revolution in the voting booths.” Almost immediately, Orbán set out to initiate drastic changes to the constitution, the voting system, the courts and the country’s media policies.
Hungary's press freedom expanded significantly after the fall of Communism, but it is now retrenching. The new media law is a step back in time. It encourages Communist-era self-censorship and produces a chilling effect on investigative reporting, analysts say.
If Hungary’s news media council—itself dominated by Fidesz supporters—should find that a journalist unfairly criticized a politician or anyone close to the government, or else failed to paint a “balanced” picture, that journalist or his publication face heavy fines. That’s led to comparisons media restrictions under the country’s last Communist leader, János Kádár.
“Orbán’s media law is a reversion to Kádár-era style governance - the media laws of 2010 are very similar to those of 1986 in that there is no de jure censorship, but fines are so high that media outlets choose to tone down their coverage of politics,” said Alex Kuli, a social commentator and former analyst at Political Capital, a policy research group.
In particular, his 2010 media reforms drew considerable international attention and criticism. Orbán was accused of trying to centralise power and mute the opposition by stifling investigative journalism that could expose alleged government corruption.
Another tool the government uses to exert its power is through its control of advertisement funding for news media. With Hungary recovering only slowly from Europe’s recession and with a population of under 10 million people, the country’s advertising market has been languishing . As a result, the Hungarian media has become heavily reliant on political advertising and commercials from state-owned companies. But if a news organisation is critical of the government, advertisement funding is cut, which can often mean the end of a newspaper or radio station, analysts say.
“This is most evident in the incomes of radio stations, where radio stations with few listeners but close government connections receive the largest chunks of government advertising revenue,” said Gabor Polyak, a law professor at Hungary’s University of Pecs.
In addition, a handful of wealthy businessmen, some of who are closely connected to the government, own most of Hungary’s television stations and print and online media. It is hardly in their interest to uncover stories of corruption or harm the image of those in power.
“The government often puts economic pressure on the owners of the media outlets, and since traditional checks and balances are fast disappearing, it has become easier for Orban to influence the media and control public opinion,” Kuli added.
The 2010 media law also created several new governmental bodies that oversee legislation and act as media watchdogs. One of these, the Public Service Foundation, is controlled by the Fidesz political appointees who govern the four governmental media outlets. Five of six members appointed to the governing body of a state Media Council are also Fidesz appointees.
“The new legislation has created a system which is completely opaque, where journalists cannot uphold minimal standards and which has made it impossible to adhere to journalistic ethics,” Polyak said of the new regulatory bodies.
Among the most troublesome features of Orban’s new media policies is a statute that requires media outlets to reveal their sources, which has had the effect of chilling investigative journalism and can also discourage whistle blowing.
“In Hungary’s ‘goulash’ communism there was no real censorship, journalists just knew their limits. We are now going back to the same style of journalism – people are treading carefully,” said Kuli.
Janos Gal is a writer who lives in London and Hungary. His writing in English, Spanish and Hungarian has appeared in publications including Agence France-Presse, Chile’s Estrella de Arica and Hungary’s Nepszabadsag Travel.