World News

Orban and His Allies Cement Control of Hungary’s News Media

Posted November 29, 2018 6:07 p.m. EST
Updated November 29, 2018 6:11 p.m. EST

BERLIN — Hundreds of private Hungarian news outlets have been simultaneously donated by their owners to a central holding company run by people close to far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, cementing Orban’s grip on the Hungarian news media.

If approved by Hungary’s regulatory authorities, which are led by an official appointed by Orban, the deal will place most leading private Hungarian outlets under the control of a single, state-friendly entity, in a move that is unprecedented within the European Union, according to Freedom House, a global rights watchdog that analyzes press freedom.

It is the latest broadside against pluralism under the increasingly autocratic Orban. Since taking power in 2010, he has steadily chipped away at Hungary’s checks and balances, stacking the Constitutional Court with loyalists, reshaping the electoral system to favor his party and placing dozens of watchdog institutions — including the judiciary and prosecution service — under the leadership of his allies.

In coordinated announcements Wednesday, more than a dozen media owners declared the transfer of — or intention to transfer — over 400 news websites, newspapers, television channels and radio stations to the Central European Press and Media Foundation, a group founded in August that had previously played little role in the Hungarian media. Most of the owners, pro-government business moguls, said they would receive no compensation for the properties.

The chairman of the foundation is a former lawmaker from Orban’s party, court records show. Its two other board members are Orban’s personal lawyer and the head of a research group that strongly supports Orban.

The deal is largely symbolic, since the transferred outlets are already highly supportive of Orban. His government has systematically starved independent outlets of state advertising revenue and squeezed their owners’ other business interests — encouraging most private media companies to either censor their coverage or sell to Orban allies.

Today, more than 500 Hungarian news outlets take a pro-government stance, compared with just 31 in 2015, according to research by Atlatszo, one of the few Hungarian news websites that remain independently owned. Under Orban, public broadcasters have been turned into mouthpieces for the Orban government, and rarely feature opposition voices.

“It’s a massive change, but it’s more about the symbolism,” Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House, said of this week’s ownership transfers. The Hungarian media is now “beginning to resemble state media under communism because of the level of control and consolidation,” Csaky added.

In an email to The New York Times, one of the foundation’s board members, Miklos Szantho, said that while his group had an undeniably right-wing agenda, it is an independent and private entity that will work to sustain a “balanced” media environment in Hungary, combat fake news and tackle political correctness.

“The main priority of the foundation itself is to serve, preserve and uphold balanced media in Hungary, in all terms,” wrote Szantho, who also heads the Center for Fundamental Rights, a conservative Budapest-based legal research group.

He said the foundation’s outlets would work to ensure that opposition-minded media outlets do not regain the prominent market position that they held before Orban’s election.

“Since 2010, as the Hungarian political Left lost its ability to invent and communicate strategic visions or ideas about the country but even about themselves, they also lost the capability to ‘nurture’ their ‘intellectual Hinterland,’ while the Right was able to build up a viable counterpart to the ‘progressive’ Hungarian media outlets,” Szantho wrote.

Now, oppositional voices “have to come to terms with the existing, ‘new’ and much more balanced media landscape,” he said.

One of the news outlets now controlled by the foundation, Origo, compared its new ownership to that of The Guardian, a major London-based international news organization — but the trust that owns The Guardian does not interfere in its news coverage.

Csaky of Freedom House said that the Hungarian foundation was without precedent in Europe, and that its creation highlighted how openly Orban is prepared to flout European norms.

In the past month, his government has come close to forcing one of Hungary’s leading colleges, the Central European University, to move its headquarters to Vienna, and given political asylum to a former prime minister of Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, helping him escape corruption charges in Skopje.

“The boldness of the move shows that Orban seems to have lost some of his pragmatism,” Csaky said. “With this move, and with the Gruevski move, and CEU leaving, it seems like he trusts his instincts more and more, certain that there will be no pushback from the European Union.”

The European Parliament voted in September to begin the process of penalizing Hungary for breaching democratic norms, but it was only a first step, and it remains to be seen what sanctions, if any, the European Union will impose.

According to Freedom House’s democracy index, Hungary’s political system, classified as a “consolidated democracy” when Orban entered office in 2010, is now only a “semi-consolidated democracy.”

Its media is only “partly free” and has fallen nearly 50 places on the Freedom House scale since Orban’s election.