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Press FreedomEurope

Orban, Fidesz defang Hungary's critical media

Keno Verseck
September 17, 2020

Viktor Orban's government continues its campaign against independent media in Hungary and other EU countries. Journalists say freedom of speech and opinion are increasingly threatened.

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Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Isza

First, the largest news portal in Hungary was gutted. Then, the editor of a liberal weekly was forced out. Now, the government has declined to renew the broadcasting license of the country's last independent political radio station. Hungary's media landscape is rapidly being remade: Businessmen close to the government are bringing independent publications into line, while the authorities are silencing the remaining independent voices. 

The most recent case involves the left-liberal news and talk station Klubradio. On September 11, the state media authority, the NMHH — which is headed by loyalists to Prime Minister Viktor Orban — announced that it would not extend Klubradio's broadcasting license when it expires in February because the station had "repeatedly infringed" on the law. 

The announcement came as a shock to Hungarians critical of the government, but it may even have alarmed  relatively moderate supporters of Orban's nationalist Fidesz party. Klubradio has long been a bastion of independent radio journalism in Hungary — the only station critical of the government that officials also listen to regularly. "It is almost certain that we will be shut down," Gyorgy Bolgar, the station's most prominent presenter, told DW. "I don't think we still have a chance." 

The infringements that the NMHH used to justify its refusal to renew the license include Klubradio's failure to meet the deadline to inform regulators of the ratio of Hungarian music to foreign music played on the air. Government-friendly broadcasters get away with far more serious violations of media law. "The authorities could have simply said that they didn't like us," Klubradio director Andras Arato said. 

Editors forced out 

Declining to renew Klubradio's license is the latest step in the campaign against independent media by Orban's government. In the spring Miklós Vaszily, a media manager close to the government, bought a 50% stake in Indamedia, which manages the revenue and advertising business of Index — by far the most widely read news portal in Hungary — and presented a plan for restructuring the editorial office. When journalists resisted, the editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, was dismissed at the end of July. 

Days later, almost the entire editorial staff resigned out of solidarity. Since then, Index, which previously shined with witty writing and investigative research, has been a shadow of its former self. In the coming weeks, the journalists who have left intend to launch an independent portal under the name Telex and are currently recruiting supporters. Whether Telex will achieve the reach of Index remains to be seen. 

Szabolcs Dull - ehem. Chefredakteur des ungarischen Online-Portals Index
Former Index editor Dull was honored with a press freedom award on ThursdayImage: István Huszti

There is no doubt that Index had been a problem for Orban and his regime. In October 2019, the portal investigated reports of corruption surrounding the leaking of a tape featuring a Fidesz mayor in northwestern Hungary having intercourse with a sex worker on a luxury yacht on the Adriatic Sea. This exposed the corrupt self-importance and moral duplicity of Orban's Christian-democratic FideszAs a result, the party lost municipal elections by a landslide in almost all of Hungary's larger cities in November. 

In September Peter Rozsa, the editor-in-chief of the left-liberal weekly newspaper 168 ora, was fired after a family photo that the Orban had posted to his official account was printed. Publishing the picture, which included the prime minister's child, had "crossed the line of decency," said Pal Milkovics, the general director of Brit Media, who has been in charge of 168 ora since July. Tied closely to the pro-government Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation led by the Orthodox rabbi Slomó Köves, Brit Media has bought its way into numerous independent media outlets in recent years and is known for watering down reporting on and ceasing investigations into the corruption connected to Orban's regime. 

Ungarn | Unabhängige Medien unter Druck
The magazine HVG illustrated its cover on the Index takeover with a happy Orban Image: DW/S. Ozsváth

'Dictatorial one-party system'

The quiet, long-term entrepreneurial strategy is one of the salami tactics — a term coined by the Stalin-era dictator Matyas Rakosi to refer to an opposition so divided that it had been sliced thin — Orban employees against the media. In the case of Klubrádio, however, the state media authority acted directly against the broadcaster. 

Klubradio was once broadcast nationwide, but its range has gradually been reduced since Orban took office in 2010. Now, the station can only be heard in and around the capital, Budapest. Created by the prime minister, the NMHH started a full-blown war against the radio station. After years of litigation and the resultant quasi bankruptcy, Klubradio had won its case and was able to broadcast again. 

The early-evening talk shows and call-in broadcasts are particularly popular because they address important political and public affairs and permit listeners and guests from all political camps to comment. "We are a disturbance," Bolgar said. "And it lies in the unscrupulous logic of a dictatorial one-party system to bury or assimilate everything that is disruptive." 

Read more: Danger level yellow for media in central and southeastern Europe 

The rebellion by Index's editorial staff attracted international attention and recognition: On Thursday, former editor-in-chief Dull received the Potsdam M100 Media Award. "It is an honor to receive this award," Dull told DW ahead of the ceremony. "But it is not my prize — rather a prize for the entire Index editorial team. I am happy about this sign of solidarity at a time when the European values of freedom of speech and opinion are having an increasingly difficult time in Hungary."