Centre for Media, Data and Society, Central European University
In 2016 the Hungarian government intensified its attempts to tighten its control over the media through changes in ownership, distribution of state advertising, and campaigns against critical voices, external and internal.
The most dramatic event in the field of media in 2016 was the sudden closure of left-leaning newspaper Nepszabadsag by its owner, Mediaworks, with many suspecting political motives behind the move. The wider Mediaworks business, which included 12 of the 19 regional daily print newspapers with over one million daily readers combined, was sold to a company controlled by Lorinc Meszaros, a close friend and ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Meszaros also owns the far-right-wing television channel Echo TV, making him the second biggest media owner in the Hungarian media market.
Meanwhile the financial weekly Figyelo was bought and restructured by Maria Schmidt, another close associate of Viktor Orbán. One of the most popular news portals Origo has also had a change of ownership which has made its editorial coverage strongly pro-government. The acquisition of the second national commercial broadcaster, TV2 by Andrew G. Vajna, the government commissioner in charge of the Hungarian film industry, became official in early 2016. Since then, TV2’s reporting has become blatantly pro-government.
Public service media have been significantly restructured since the 2011 media law. Now it is under the control of the Media Council, a body that consists entirely of members nominated by the governing party, Fidesz. MTVA (the Public Service Media Fund) operates six television channels and seven radio channels. There have been serious concerns about the lack of transparency regarding its budget, which is estimated to be approximately 80 billion HUF (US$275m) annually. The public service media news (MTV and Hirado.hu) is strongly pro-government, with critical voices barely present and factual errors frequent.
The Hungarian online sphere is still vibrant and plural, with a wide range of political and news portals/blogs operating. Index and Origo are the two biggest online news portals in Hungary, founded in the late 1990s after legacy media struggled to adjust to the online environment. Although Origo can no longer be considered a space for independent journalism under its new ownership, critical opinion and investigative articles are produced by a number of online sites including Index, 444, and Mandiner. Partly crowdfunded watchdog NGOs and investigative journalism centres, Atlatszo and Direkt36, specialise in high-quality, labour-intensive investigative journalism. However, because of the nature of the media environment, these stories rarely get featured in the pro-government or mainstream media. This raises serious concerns over Hungarian citizens` right to be informed. Research shows that the amount of state advertising to government-friendly media outlets (such as Origo and TV2) has significantly increased in recent years.1
Overall most Hungarians still get their news online (89%) or via television (72%), with only around a fifth (20%) reading a printed newspaper, down 7% on last year. The closure of Nepszabadsag and changes of editorial stance at Vilaggazdasag, Magyar Nemzet, and Figyelo are arguably contributory factors.
Social media are an extremely popular source of news in Hungary, partly due to the lack of trust in traditional media sources and partly as a result of a longstanding preference for informal personal networks. Some researchers attribute this characteristic of the Hungarian society to the legacy of the socialist past. Formal institutions are considered untrustworthy by many. Low levels of trust may by driven by concerns over government control of the media and the extent of misinformation carried. But these also reflect and are exacerbated by political polarisation.
Hungarian respondents are fairly divided when it comes to what media they consume. Interestingly, two major online news portals, Origo and Index are among the least divisive media in terms of their reach to both sides of the political spectrum. Television channels (including the public service broadcaster) are mostly highly divisive.
All the major media outlets are available free of charge without paywalls and online subscriptions. NGOs and investigative journalism centres have been experimenting successfully with crowdfunding (including asking readers for donations and monthly payments), but their content is available for free.
There is significant difference between the level of trust in the news in general and in the news respondents consume (31% versus 54%), which indicates a highly polarised environment. Only 11% of respondents think the media in Hungary are free from undue political influence, which is the second lowest figure among the 36 countries included in this study.
- A. Szeidl and F. Szucs, Media Capture through Favor Exchange (2016): https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a942/2f02f6aa890261325948d05a190fa7ab4efa.pdf ↩