Editorials of The Times: No News Is Bad News for Hungary
Posted December 3, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST
The world’s growing ranks of would-be autocrats should study Viktor Orban. Steadily, systematically, relentlessly, he has disabled any criticism or honest accounting of his imposition of right-wing, nativist, nationalist politics on all spheres of Hungarian life. His latest feat is breathtaking in its audacity.
Acting as if on a signal, more than a dozen owners handed over more than 400 news websites, newspapers, television channels and radio stations to a foundation formed and run by Orban loyalists. Most of the owners said they “donated” their outlets.
Obviously, it wasn’t philanthropy. The owners are pro-government oligarchs and allies of Orban. Some of them have been buying up independent media outlets in recent years and turning them into pro-government mouthpieces. It’s not hard to presume that the business owners were happy to do Orban and his party, Fidesz, a little favor, especially since their news outlets depended on government advertising and were making little money.
What Orban has managed to create is a media juggernaut that closely resembles communist propaganda machines of old. The consolidation, if that’s the word, still needs to be approved by regulatory authorities, but they’re led by officials appointed by Orban. So is the Constitutional Court, should anybody consider challenging the transfers in the courts.
The nonprofit foundation that has suddenly become an enormously powerful government mouthpiece, the Central European Press and Media Foundation, was formed in August by staunch allies of Orban. In an email to The Times, a board member, Miklos Szantho, echoed a line from Fox News, claiming that the foundation would work to create a “balanced” media environment in Hungary by serving as a counterweight to “progressive” news outlets.
That’s a curious notion of balance, since more than 500 news outlets in Hungary today are pro-government, compared with 31 in 2015. Independent media organizations have been denied state advertising for years, often rendering them targets for acquisition by Orban’s friends. The most widely read opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag, was shut down in 2016. Many of its staff members charged that the shutdown was the work of Orban.
Hungary is not alone in its assault on media freedoms — Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party is also trying to bring the media under its control. But Orban has been the trendsetter in his effort to build what he proudly describes as an “illiberal state.” His efforts have included active measures to spread his far-right ideology to the theater and other arts, to universities and other schools, and even to religion.
They have also included a crackdown on pro-democracy organizations and institutions like the Central European University, created to foster democracy by Hungarian-American investor George Soros — a bête noire of Hungarian government propaganda — that is now being forced out to Austria, with a shrug from the Trump administration.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom,” U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein said last week of the showdown, advising Soros, “It would pay to work with the government.”
Orban’s behavior prompted the European Parliament in September to begin a process that in theory could ultimately strip Hungary of European Union voting rights for posing a “systematic threat” to the union’s core values. It will take a lot more than that to make Orban care.
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