Center for Media, Data and Society, Central European University
Government allies strengthened their grip on the media market last year through acquisitions and mergers, distribution of state advertising and subsidies, control over public service media, and smear campaigns against critical journalists. Against this background it is not surprising that the audience’s trust in news is very low. Social media networks are a key source of news.
In April 2018, the Prime Minister Orbán led right-wing parties (Fidesz-MPP and KDNP) to a third consecutive term in government, with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Since the election, governmental attacks against democratic institutions have continued, including the judiciary, academic institutions, NGOs, oppositional parties, media outlets, and the European Union itself. Government campaigns against ‘migrants’ and the European Union are running on various channels (billboards, television, and social media) paid for by the public purse. Reflecting concerns about democratic backsliding, Freedom House changed Hungary’s status from free to partly free in their annual report. According to Transparency International, Hungary is the third most corrupt country in the EU1 with Prime Minister Orbán’s close friend, Lőrinc Mészáros, becoming the richest Hungarian in the course of a few years.2
Investigations into the wrongdoings of oligarchs and politicians are conducted by independent journalism outlets, but are rarely followed up by police investigations or covered by pro-government media including the public service broadcaster. Because of the structure and nature of the Hungarian media environment, significant segments of the audience are systematically underserved with critical information, while the reach and breadth of pro-government outlets is extensive.
In captured media environments such as Hungary, political power tends to be reflected in the structure of the media market. The aftermath of the elections saw the capitulation of former-Orbán-ally-turned-nemesis oligarch Lajos Simicska. He either closed or sold all his assets, including his media companies. This resulted in news channel HirTV being taken over by government-friendly owners and editors, and in the closure of the historic daily Magyar Nemzet,3 the weekly Heti Valasz, and Lanchid Radio. As a consequence of Simicska’s withdrawal from the media market, Hungary’s biggest online news portal, Index, also changed its ownership structure, raising further concerns about its independence and sustainability. Zoom.hu, a recent addition to the online news market, has ceased operation due to financial problems.
But the most significant change on the Hungarian media market was the creation of a new Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF), merging a total of 476 media companies – with donations from many of the owners of the biggest pro-government groups. The affected titles include the second-most-read tabloid paper, one of the most visited online news portals, numerous radio stations and television channels, and all the regional dailies.4 Though the CEPMF raises questions of fair competition and people’s right to information and pluralism, the authorities have not investigated this since the government declared the move to be of ‘national strategic importance’.5
Besides ownership, governmental control over the market is exercised through the distribution of state funding: while pro-government media receive much of their budget from state advertising, critical media are struggling for survival.6 Some independent outlets are experimenting with new business models: crowdfunding (memberships and donations) has been a significant part of the budget of investigative journalism centres Atlatszo and Direkt36, and the weekly and online outlet, HVG, for some time. Other media outlets have been following this path, running crowdfunding and membership campaigns (Magyar Hang, 444), including the biggest online portal, Index.
Hungary has one of the lowest levels of trust in our entire survey (28%). On the one hand, there are ongoing discussions and research into the presence of misinformation (including Russian propaganda) in the Hungarian media market. On the other hand, it is common practice for politicians and pro-government media to label critical journalists and outlets as ‘fake-news’. RTL Klub is the most trusted of the brands in our survey, with pro-government TV2 least trusted.
Paywalls are yet to be introduced to the Hungarian online market. Other innovations include content production in various formats (visualisations, videos, etc.), of which podcasts are a success – 32% of respondents have used podcasts in the past month according to our survey.
Though online channels are the most significant news source, television still scores very high considering the composition of our sample (online news consumers). Social media as a news source, especially Facebook, are high in international comparison and usage has grown by 2 percentage points from last year, with 62% using it for news.
Trust in the news remains extremely low in general (28%), though is much higher for sources that people use themselves (54%). This suggests a highly polarised media environment where consumers are drawn to brands that reflect their political views. This can also be seen by the difference in brand trust between those who are aware of a brand and users of that brand.
- https://transparency.hu/en/news/hungary-bringing-up-the-rear-of-the-region-in-transparency-internationals-most-recent-world-corruption-ranking ↩
- https://forbes.hu/a-magazin/magyarorszag-50-leggazdagabb-embere-mar-nem-csanyi-az-elso ↩
- Later in 2019, the pro-government daily, Magyar Idok took on the ‘Magyar Nemzet’ name and brand. ↩
- https://english.atlatszo.hu/2018/11/30/data-visualization-this-is-how-the-pro-government-media-empire-owning-476-outlets-was-formed ↩
- https://mertek.atlatszo.hu/a-sajtoszabadsag-lapzartaja ↩
- https://mertek.atlatszo.hu/state-advertising-2006-2017 ↩