The Orbán government and the media

Perhaps on the surface this is not a topic that has any immediacy. However, I think that because Viktor Orbán was so secretive about his plans for a brave new world it is worth recalling the 1998-2002 period for possible clues. I will concentrate here only on the Fidesz government's media policy. I am relying on two sources. First, an article by Mária Vásárhelyi entitled "Uszítás közpénzből" (Incitement on public money) that appeared in the February 27 issue of Élet és irodalom (commonly known as ÉS). In addition, I refer to Viktor Orbán himself in conversation with József Debreczeni after Orbán had the opportunity to read Debreczeni's biography in manuscript form. The conversation was included in the published biography, Orbán Viktor (Budapest: Osiris, 2002).

The backdrop of Vásárhelyi's article was the prime minister's reaction to an op-ed piece by Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz now infamous for his anti-semitic and anti-Roma sentiments. Zsolt Bayer's career from Népszabadság to ATV to HirTV and finally to the far-right daily Magyar Hírlap is not terribly different from that of other far-right wing publicists. Bayer's writings, in my opinion, couldn't appear in Austria, Germany, or France. But in Hungary, no problem: he is the senior editor of the paper that Gábor Széles, a billionnaire, transformed from a liberal paper into a right-wing rag. True to form, Bayer, after the murder of the handball player Marian Cozma, called the Gypsies "animals." In response, Ferenc Gyurcsány asked Hungarian government offices to stop all subscriptions to and advertisements in Magyar Hírlap. This request caused an outcry on the right, including Viktor Orbán himself. He announced that the prime minister's action reminded him of Károly Grósz, the last secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party (MSZMP), and the Central Committee's "agitprop department." It was something they would have done. As Vásárhelyi rightly pointed out, Orbán was once again "confused". In those days nothing of the sort would have happened because the media was a state/party monopoly. On the other hand, Vásárhelyi adds, Orbán should have remembered his own government's media policy. During the period between 1998 and 2002 there were blatant attempts to control the democratic media.

A few months after the election in 1998 a new program was introduced to achieve "media balance." The Orbán government was convinced (and rightly so) that all significant channels of communication were in the hands of people whose sympathies lay with the socialists or the liberals. There were conservative or right-wing papers even then, but they came and went. They didn't have a large enough subscriber base. The government immediately began filling some of these papers' coffers with public money via generous advertising monies. At that time there were two papers close to the new government: Napi Magyarország and Magyar Nemzet. The income of Napi Magyarország within a few months quadrupled. By December 1998, that is within half a year, the paper received 60 million forints which in those days was worth more than it would be today. Within a year 90% of the income of Napi Magyarország came from ads of government offices, ministries, and state-owned companies. The other paper close to Fidesz, Magyar Nemzet, did even better. The newly nationalized Postabank was financing it not with millions but billions. At the same time firms in state hands, surely under instruction from the government, stopped both subscriptions of and advertising in left-liberal papers. But the Orbán government also used less subtle methods to achieve "the balance." For example, there was the weekly Magyar Narancs, the liberal paper close to Fidesz at the beginning of the democratic transformation of the country that proudly took the Narancs (Orange) name. Since Fidesz was no longer a liberal party the Orbán government didn't want its symbol, the orange, associated with a liberal paper. After a lot of legal wrangling, Magyar Narancs had to change its name. (The decision was subsequently reversed and it is once again Magyar Narancs, but who knows how long if Viktor Orbán has his way.)

A more insidious move was the following. There was a profitable publication called Sportfogadás owned by Szerencsejáték Rt., a state company in charge of the Hungarian state lottery and toto, a betting game on soccer matches. The publication reported on the results of the international soccer games. Szerencsejáték Rt. was forced by the government to part with Sportfogadás and pass its rights on to Magyar Nemzet. From there on those who bet on toto could get the soccer results only if they subscribed to Magyar Nemzet. At that time Magyar Nemzet was losing about two million forints a day and the entire loss was covered by the Hungarian taxpayers. During the spring of 2002, after the first round of the elections when it looked almost certain that Fidesz would lose, the state-owned companies, in a great hurry, bought about one and a half billion forints worth of advertising in Magyar Nemzet. There were other expensive yet failed attempts to secure a vibrant right-wing press. One "successful" venture was the launch of Heti Válasz. That initially cost taxpayers a piddly 2 billion forints. Then! Even far-right publications like Magyar Demokrata also received a considerable sum of money from the Orbán government.

The reality is that Orbán succeeded in his quest to dominate the media. Seven years after he left office right-wing papers and radio and TV stations are in the majority. Vásárhelyi tried to figure out how much it must have cost the Hungarian taxpayers to launch this media empire. Of course, it is difficult to give exact figures but she thinks that we are talking about billions. Perhaps ten or twenty billion. Or even more. And, of course, it was not only by subsidizing the right-wing media but also by slashing outlays to the liberal press–cancelled subscriptions and, more importantly, advertising.

And now let's hear what Viktor Orbán had to say about all this to József Debreczeni, his biographer. The interview took place after Orbán lost the election. Debreczeni asked whether he regretted that he and his government were too combative, too confrontational. That they frightened people and most likely lost the elections because of this behavior. Oh no, said Orbán. Just the opposite, they were not confrontational enough. If he could re-live those four years he would have been more "resolute." They should have spent more money on intellectual workshops that would have worked for their side. More new channels should have been opened in the media. They tried to open up the avenues but what they did wasn't enough. "Starting Heti Válasz was a good thing but it wasn't enough." If they had been more forceful there would have been more confrontation but it would have been worth it.

I'm afraid that since 2002 Orbán's resoluteness has doubled or tripled. I hate to think what he would do today to achieve his goals.

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