Center for Media, Data and Society – Central European University
The Hungarian government reached a new level of control over the media last year through a series of acquisitions by supportive oligarchs, and by using the power of state advertising to starve critical outlets of funding. With trust in mainstream media low, many rely on digital and social media as a source of independent news.
In April 2018, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán was re-elected to a third consecutive term in power with a two-thirds majority in parliament. In the immediate aftermath, the owner of the legacy daily Magyar Nemzet, Lajos Simicska (Orbán’s former closest ally, turned enemy), announced the closure of the newspaper due to financial problems. This development means the further shrinking of pluralism in Hungarian media and the loss of yet another newspaper with a long history.1
Leading up to the elections, the media became a political battleground in 2017 in three ways. First, leading oligarchs acquired numerous media outlets, to the extent that over 500 titles are now published by companies owned by businessmen close to the government, with the entire rural population served by regional papers in the hands of government allies.2 Secondly, Prime Minister Orbán launched a campaign against the media, identifying critical journalists as the main enemy along with ‘Brussels’ and the ‘Soros mafia’.3 In addition to cutting off state advertising, this also involved smear campaigns against critical media, and the boycott of these publications by government and Fidesz officials. Thirdly, government-sponsored campaigns, including aggressive anti-migration and anti-Soros campaigns, which flooded the public sphere (streets were covered with billboards), dominated the Hungarian media in 2017. Media outlets, including the leading broadcasters, sections of the press, and some popular online news outlets, have also been accused of spreading misinformation and excluding critical voices from reporting. We observe a struggle for agenda setting, with the government and the media outlets under its control pushing migration as the main issue in the electoral campaign, and critical media outlets trying to put government corruption on the public agenda.
With the majority of mainstream broadcast and print media outlets influenced by government agendas, digital media have become important as a space where freedom of expression is practised and critical information can be found. On the other hand, reliance on digital news, especially accessed through social media, intensifies the already high level of polarisation.
In terms of weekly reach in TV and print, by far the most frequently accessed source of news is RTL Klub (60%), with TV2 (37%) in second place. The most significant change from the previous year is the decline of the public service broadcaster, MTV: it fell from third to fifth place, with 23% of online Hungarian news consumers saying they accessed news on MTV in the last week compared with 35% last year. In terms of online news, Index.hu (40%) remains ahead of Origo.hu (38%), followed by 24.hu (34%). Both Hirado.hu (-8) (the online portal of the public service broadcaster) and ATV.hu (-4) have experienced a significant drop in percentage of Hungarians using the sites for news.
In polarised environments such as Hungary, we see that trust in overall news (29%) is low (35th out of 37 countries). In public discourse, politicians and public figures frequently accuse media outlets of spreading ‘fake news’ and having a political agenda, which arguably adds to the sense of general lack of trust. Hungary also suffers from low trust in institutions in general while there tends to be a strong reliance on personal, informal networks. This helps to explain the high usage of social media in Hungary, though it is worth noting, if slightly surprising, that only 27% trust the news accessed this way.
In government-dominated small media markets such as Hungary, funding independent journalism becomes a crucial and difficult issue. Some of the most significant investigative journalism is produced by small NGOs, journalism centres, and digital-only outlets (Atlatszo, Direkt36). In addition to limited distribution, they struggle financially which is not surprising when we see that a very small portion of Hungarian news consumers pay for online news (8%) and a third (32%) use an ad-blocker (6th highest out of 37 countries).
Online news is the most common source for Hungarians (87%), though the online nature of the poll will tend to underplay the importance of television (70%) and print (20%), especially amongst those in rural areas. Social media use for news (65%) is one of the highest in our survey.
Overall trust in the news (29%) is amongst the lowest in our survey while greater trust in brands people use themselves (52%) suggests high levels of media polarisation. Media outlets deemed least trustworthy include pro-government outlets (MTV and TV2, as well as Origo.hu). Even those who use these outlets rate them much lower than users of HVG, RTL Klub, or HirTV.
- https://www.ft.com/content/8f78f132-3cc6-11e8-b9f9-de94fa33a81e ↩
- https://24.hu/kozelet/2017/07/25/a-fidesz-most-olyan-ellenfelet-valasztott-amelyik-valaszolni-is-tud ↩