Witamy na stronie Klubu Jagiellońskiego. Jesteśmy niepartyjnym, chadeckim środowiskiem politycznym, które szuka rozwiązań ustrojowych, gospodarczych i społecznych służących integralnemu rozwojowi człowieka. Portal klubjagiellonski.pl rozwija ideę Nowej Chadecji, której filarami są: republikanizm, konserwatyzm, katolicka nauka społeczna.

Zachęcamy do regularnych odwiedzin naszej strony. Informujemy, że korzystamy z cookies.
Wojciech Mucha  23 października 2020

Closing the system. How has Viktor Orbán changed the Hungarian media?

Wojciech Mucha  23 października 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 13 min
Closing the system. How has Viktor Orbán changed the Hungarian media? European Parliament - flickr.com

‘The end to extreme imbalance’, ‘breaking the monopoly of foreign capital’, ‘putting a stop to the flood of lies’. These were the arguments the politicians of the Hungarian Fidesz used to justify the changes to the local media market. On the occasion of the next chapter in the discussion on the topic of the repolonization, or as others want to call it, decentralization of the media in Poland, it is worth to bear in mind the Hungarian example. While Budapest coped well with the pressure of Western capitals, this does not mean that the quality of public debate, which guarantees freedom of speech, has improved. On the contrary, the system is closing.

A decade of the Hungarian right-wing party’s rule is a series of successive reforms, including changes to the constitution. Changes in the media market were among the first to be picked up. No wonder. The Hungarian Prime Minister repeatedly argued that he treated the media as a strategic segment and wished that the share of the Hungarian capital in the media sector exceeded 50%. His reasoning was obvious – we need to restore pluralism. But was it valid?

As Grzegorz Górny, a journalist and expert in Hungary points out, the media market in Hungary has been affected by pathologies similar to those in Poland since the beginning of the political transformation. For example, in the spring of 1990, the German concern Axel Springer bought 17 out of 19 Hungarian local dailies in bulk.

‘The condition of the contract was the signing of a clause stating that the new owner would retain all the management of the newspapers and would not dismiss anyone from the editorial team without their consent […]. This way, after the fall of communism, most newspapers were still edited by communist journalists – only that instead of being protected by the party, they had the protection of foreign capital,’ writes Górny.

This meant that ‘the media elite of the Kadar era maintained a dominant position in the market, even after the system transition’. It should come as no surprise that the ‘new’ media eagerly supported the post-communists pupated from the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. The nationwide Hungarian press was no different. Radio licenses were granted, among others, to the Germans and the Luxembourgers.

The conservative worldview was not particularly strongly represented in Hungary. Orbán himself indicated the lack of media support as one of the reasons for the defeat of the first Fidesz government in 2002. This was a mistake he would never repeat again.

The road to hegemony

Even before the victorious elections in 2010, the then opposition Fidesz had the Magyar Nemzet daily and the Hír TV station on its side. The titles were being managed from 2005 by a businessman, Gábor Széles, who is considered to be one of the co-authors of Fidesz’s great success in the 2010 elections. Immediately afterwards, major changes began.

The first step of transformation was the adoption of the media law, which happened just six months after the elections. It was then that the National Media and Communications Authority (NMCA) was established – its responsibility is to assign frequencies to broadcasters. The office also includes a government-appointed Media Council, whose term of office lasts as long as nine years. Importantly, the head of the NMCA is appointed by the Hungarian president at the request of the prime minister and following (at least in theory) consultations with media organisations.

From the very beginning, it was known that Orbán’s plans were ambitious. Fidesz initially wanted to control online blogs and oblige journalists to disclose their sources. These issues were successfully protested by the European Commission. The initial ban on running campaigns in private media also did not persist.

Another change in the media market was the establishment of the Media Mission and Property Fund (MMPF), which manages the entire output of the public media. There were some layoffs. Similar to Poland, in Hungary too, the public media are prey to every subsequent political transformation.

Fidesz, however, went further. In November 2018, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) was established, associating nearly 500 titles. What for?

‘It is necessary to organise the safe operation of national and regional press operators, provide them with a stable base and independence from foreign centres so that they can represent the value system in the national-Christian spirit,’ the founding document reads.

Apart from the change of people working in the foundation, it is worth knowing that the first president of the Foundation, István Varga, has resigned. It happened after he admitted in one of the interviews that the quality of pro-government journalism was mediocre, and that he himself started reading the news provided by independent media.

Although he is no longer there, the Foundation is working to its full potential and (according to some sources) makes about 90% of publishers in Hungary dependent on the government. According to the analysis of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, in 2018 this included: 379 newspapers and magazines, 96 news websites, 20 TV channels, 11 radio stations and 3 billboard companies. By comparison, in 2015, only 31 of these 500 titles were government-related, and 21 did not yet exist. Of course, this would not be possible only because of the declaration on establishing the Foundation. So what happened?

Divide, rule, buy, take over

Orbán is an experienced politician and knows that the best kind of management is not done with a stick – in Hungary, journalists and the opposition are not killed or imprisoned – but with a carrot and intrigue. And over the years he has achieved perfection.

Orbán has no qualms in taking over, closing down and subordinating successive titles one by one. He knows that the media can be subsidised with state advertisements or killed off with the lack thereof. Suffice to say that there are two main advertisers in Hungary – the government and… the Central European Press and Media Foundation. Moreover, in a small country like Hungary, it is quite easy to ‘persuade’ private businesses not to engage in the opposition media. Anyway, when there are fewer and fewer of these, the problem solves itself.

Apart from taking over opposition titles, Orbán caused the fall of others. The aforementioned Népszabadság was bought by a business associated to Fidesz. It fell into the hands of the oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros (a friend of Viktor Orbán from his hometown) and was closed shortly thereafter. As Dr Dominik Hejj, editor-in-chief of Kropka.hu, said, ‘in 2016, the daily Népszabadság published a series of articles about the fact that Antal Rogán, the minister responsible for government communication, popularly known in Hungary as the Minister of Propaganda, flew a helicopter owned by one of the oligarchs during a wedding. These articles unleashed a terrible scandal. Within one day, the oligarch linked to Orbán, Lőrinc Mészáros, bought 100 per cent of the newspaper’s shares and closed it down immediately. This was punishment for articles about Rogán.’

Closing is one thing. Orbán also creates new media and revives the old ones. An example is the daily Magyar Idők, which was established by oligarchs in 2015, and which at the end of last year pupated and merged with the Magyar Nemzet, which was re-launched after one year’s suspension. Although the latter was first published in 1938, it was closed down in 2018 ‘for financial reasons’, and in practice it fell victim of a conflict between the owner, Lajos Simicska, and the Hungarian prime minister. Simicska, the media baron associated with Fidesz, at one point decided to challenge Orbán. Ultimately, however, he withdrew from the business when Fidesz won the elections for the third time.

This former supporter of the Hungarian prime minister and his trusted associate found out the hard way that it is not worth getting in the way of the orange bulldozer. Immediately after the elections, in addition to Magyar Nemzet, Simicska’s weekly Heti Válasz and the Lánchíd Rádió radio station were closed. Hír TV, in turn, went to… the Central European Press and Media Foundation. Orbán triumphed because the re-launch of the Magyar Nemzet was his pet project. He willingly photographed himself with the first copy of the re-issued and, of course, pro-government newspaper. Sounds complicated? It is, but it is also effective.

There is more. In December 2016, the popular weekly Figyelő changed owners, going to the K4A Lapkaadó, owned by Maria Schmidt, a millionaire, privately a close friend of Viktor Orbán, so it is no wonder that the weekly has adopted a clearly pro-government course since then, as evidenced by the publication of a list of 200 people who were identified as alleged ‘associates and agents of billionaire George Soros acting to overthrow the government in Budapest’ in April 2018.

The Index case

On 22 July this year, Szabolcs Dull was dismissed from the post of editor-in-chief at Index.hu. The entire editorial staff followed their boss – two days later, in a gesture of solidarity, everyone left their computers and submitted their resignations. That is no coincidence. The situation in the index was deteriorating from the moment when, just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Miklós Vaszily, an oligarch associated with Viktor Orbán, took over 50% of shares in the company issuing the Index. Under his leadership, the management board stated that the website would need to be reorganised as it generated losses.

The case of Index.hu was a well-thought-out operation. In 2014, the same was true of Orgio.hu. There, too, when the editor-in-chief was fired, most of the editorial staff resigned, and as a consequence, the portal became pro-government. Here too, Vashili was responsible for the takeover. As reported by the Centre for Eastern Studies, he himself is at the same time ‘the president of the company controlling one of the largest commercial television stations TV2, with a clearly pro-government agenda.’ The blow to the Index was extremely painful. The website was considered to be the last relevant title critical of Orbán’s government.

One can see the independent press fighting back. In early September, former journalists from the Index launched Telex.hu, which lives off crowdfunding, but at the same time on 21 September there was information that Economia, one of the largest Czech media groups, pledged to donate 200,000 euro to the new portal. As one could easily guess, the government in Budapest was critical of this initiative. The Magyar Nemzet daily dubbed the president of Economia, businessman Zdenek Bakala, the Czech Soros.

The latter is actually the main black character in pro-government media, as evidenced by the list of 99 titles about George Soros that appeared in Hungarian public media. And while the activities of the founder of the Open Society Foundations may indeed be controversial, it is hard not to get the impression that the government in Budapest is obsessed with him. This, however, requires a separate, extensive analysis.

When I visited Hungary last year to describe the problems plaguing the local media market at the request of the Association of Polish Journalists, one thing struck me. When we met with journalists from the pro-government media there, it was hard not to get the impression that they did not see any problem in their current situation.

Moreover, they spoke openly about the fact that it had to be this way, argued that it was necessary to build their own information bubble, and used terms such as the ‘media front’ and ‘information warfare’. Our doubts as to whether the situation in which authors’ texts in local state media are replaced by dispatches from the Hungarian press agency were met with shrugging shoulders. Symptomatically, some of their business cards did not say ‘journalist’, ‘reporter’ or ‘editor’, but ‘content creator’ instead.

Bad blood

Of course, one can hardly forget about the opposition media in Hungary that still remain. Hungarian independent investigative journalism deserves special attention. There is a multitude of topics, and journalists use, among others, grants supported by the European Commission under the #IJ4EU – Investigative Journalism for the EU fund, which come from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the International Press Institute (IPI). Investigative texts are being published on websites such as Atlatszo.hu, Direkt36.hu or 444.hu.

What can we learn from the Hungarian example? The fact is that Orbán’s initial actions were caused by a desire to break the left-liberal hegemony in the media (and let’s face it – to gain power). There is no doubt, however, that Fidesz went too far in their good intentions. In a short while there may not be any media left in Hungary that would publish material that is critical of or unmasks the authorities. The pro-government media will not do it for obvious reasons, and others will simply not exist.


Life itself has added an epilogue to this rather sad text. In early September, information came out that Péter Rózsa, editor-in-chief of the weekly 168 ORA, had been fired. The reason was the publication of Viktor Orbán’s family photo. Earlier, unsuccessful attempts were made to withdraw the newspaper from distribution.

Interestingly, Hungarian investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi, editor-in-chief at 168 Ora, wrote on Twitter that he was fired by the new owner of the weekly, the Prague-based media mogul and owner of Brit Media, Pal Milkovics. The latter stated that the photo accompanied an article ‘that has nothing to do with Orbán’s family’ and that ‘children should be protected’, rather than ‘made into a target of political hatred’. Meanwhile, the photo supplemented a text devoted to the social and pro-family policy of Orbán’s government. Besides, it was originally published on the Hungarian prime minister’s website.

Some critics note that the hysterical reaction to the publication of a family photo of the most important politician resembles the standards known from the Russian Federation, where the topic of Vladimir Putin’s family is a national taboo, and any media that decide to violate it face severe consequences. All of this is worth a thought.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.