Since 2010-2011 the National Media and News Authority (and with it the Media Council) has been in existence, along with the pertinent, secretly conceived media package enacted by a two-thirds majority. Since then it has become understood why they were born. Almost complete control over the media, characterized particularly by the gradual takeover of the media by the economic coterie of the governing party.
The most severe development in 2013 is the fourth amendment² of the constitution. The amendment wiped out all the legal precedents of the past twenty years, and with that the system of exemplary judgments regarding the freedom of speech. For instance, the principle, similar to the American First Amendment, that considers the freedom of opinion a basic right (that is in case of the conflict of rights this is a primus inter pares). Or, for example, the prohibition of dominance by one party, the more extended criticism of public figures, or the qualification of diatribe as a criminal offense.
If, concerning these cases, judgment is required, the Constitutional Court, now newly shored up with members loyal to Prime Minister Orban, will have to decide starting from square one. Some of those new judges were known earlier for their opposition to “excessive media freedom.” Included in the Amendment, and consequently into the Constitution, is the prohibition of election campaign advertising in the commercial media that was declared unconstitutional before by the Constitutional Court.
The fourth amendment was followed on its heels by the hastily enacted ‘smoke-screen law.’ Its consequence is that the media (even if it dared) could not follow the decision processes of government tenders and the movements of public money.
There will always be a next step.
The hidden potential threat
The first result of the Media Council’s activities was the wrestling down of radio and television companies that went far beyond the mere re-expropriation of the public service media. This was accomplished by the extreme widening of the Media Council’s looming potential of threat.
The ability to regulate broadcast frequency licenses enables the Media Council to keep the bidding process open until they find an applicant that they like. This authority has the right to suspend the process if, “in their judgment the goals of the media policy are not fulfilled.” The criteria applied at the judging of bids are unknown. The law and the Council reserve their right to be informed even after the awarding of licenses; that is tantamount to the right to control content.
The strategy of the Media Council is that they issue series of warnings in insignificant matters, if the broadcaster, heaven forbid, should become unruly; citing the previous warnings they can make draconian decisions. It goes without saying, based on the Media Law, that the numerous warnings in completely petty matters can have fatal consequences.
The Media Council can exclude from bidding any media company that has been warned in the previous five years. This is the secret of the servitude of the Belorussian and Russian private media as well. Because the Media Law does not define the nature of the admonishments that could be grounds for retribution, the investors limit the freedom of editors, since even a simple discrepancy in the observance of the mandatory music quota can lead to political retribution.
Beyond the fines leveled against the service provider, in case of repeated occurrence, the Media Council is mandated to fine the leaders of the media organization too. In the application of personal sanctions, the identity of the actually responsible person is immaterial. There is no definition of what is to be regarded as a breach of the law, what is discriminatory content, nor what obstructing the Council’s work means. What is important: the Council enjoys a free hand and the client is helpless.
This rule alone would be enough to capture the entire commercial television market. They did not need to enact any more media laws. Under these circumstances any investor will think it over a thousand times before investing in the media in Hungary. The pluralism of the media withers by itself. The fines that can be leveled to frighten media owners are disproportionately high: in the case of print media 750,000 euro, in other media many times more.
Against the rulings of the Media Council there is no recourse to regular court. In such cases jurisdiction lies exclusively with the Administrative Court. In matters of substance, or merit, the administrative courts have no jurisdiction. They can only adjudicate on questions of procedure; whether the Media Council adhered to the media law during the process or not.
The government acquired a monopoly over the media, regardless of ownership. The grip of the Media Council is so all encompassing that even this kind of ‘legal remedy’ is unlikely to be available in practice. Klubrádió was lucky; the Media Council was too obvious in its formal breach of the law when it was bent on eliminating the radio station. But at the same time, Klubradio couldn’t have sued when the Council called for bids for a station with musical programming.³
Influencing the advertising market
The tool for annihilating the opposition media is the buying up of ad agencies constituting the advertising market. This process started already well before Fidesz came into power. The Fidesz-related companies also bought into the privately owned papers. Some of them have a circulation in the hundreds of thousands (Metropol, Helyi Téma, etc.) and are distributed free of charge. As a result, the ownership of advertising agencies is heavily concentrated in government-friendly hands and through them the wide-ranging opportunity to manipulate the quantity of advertising that is available to the opposition media.
Associated with this is the intimidation of advertisers. If they advertise in the opposition media they will be rejected in government competition bids. Advertising in the opposition media is tantamount to brazen defiance on the part of a company. Private companies, even without directives, are following the practices of government-owned companies. Consequently, the two opposition dailies, one of which is Nepszabadsag, with the largest circulation in Hungary (70,000), gets hardly any advertising compared to the government-friendly press. Neither does Klubrádió. The clear message of the three-year-long legal battle Klubrádió fought against the Media Council is that any advertiser or investor should stay away from the radio station, or better yet, from attempting to initiate any venture in independent content production. The definition of political and social advertisements, as opposed to the commercial and social, is not clearly distinguished. The media law in effect prescribes the mandatory proportions of only the latter. The government’s political messages – The New Széchenyi Plan, New Hungary Development Plan, the “overhead-reduction plan” – are all presented as social matters. As it argues, the government is merely fulfilling its duty to inform. If necessary, in the voice of the prime minister.
Radio, television and online media
In the area of radio broadcasting, with the exception of Klubrádió, government control is complete. The overwhelming majority are music stations; quality radio ceased to exist in the Hungarian ether. This is the inescapable consequence of the Media Law’s resistance to pluralism (single party personnel, authority that denies legal recourse, complete lack of transparency). According to the regulations, those stations broadcasting interviews, round-table conversations, and public affairs programs, in high proportions, are entitled to get free broadcasting frequency. The opposition Klubrádió is the only one that is forced to pay for theirs.†
The programming of commercial television stations is completely bereft of politics. There are only two options:
either they provide only entertainment programming, to avoid any trouble;
or they provide political programming too, but solely from a government point of view.
ATV is the only independent television station. It is owned by the Congregation of Faith. The Congregation is in close association with the American TV preacher and Republican Party supporter Pat Robertson and his political circle. It is likely that the conservative Christian-American background protects ATV from interference.
The government-friendly buying up of online media companies is still going on but more slowly because the target companies still receive advertising revenues. That is because some parts of the advertising in this media are ‘anonymous’, based only on ‘clicks.’ Here the Media Council has a hard time catching the “behavior” they dislike, and as yet they don’t have the means to forbid clicks-based advertising. This is why the clicks have a preponderance over the written ‘banner’ advertising.
The government decided to postpone the transition to digital broadcasts. The two nation-wide commercial stations remain analogue; therefore, they are in a permanent state of dependence because the granting of broadcast frequencies is at the discretion of the government via the Media Council. (Therefore, every analogue station is constantly ‘trembling’ in fear for their license.)
Since the digital conversion has been dragged out, the formation of digital commercial stations that would not depend on licenses is slow.
Elections in the media
Parties with a nation-wide list of candidates are forbidden to advertise in the commercial media during the fifty-day-long election campaign. The prohibition does not extend to those parties that have no national reach, nor the independent candidates, nor the civic, or pseudo-civic organizations that support parties. At the same time, political advertising will be completely free of charge in the public, as well as in the commercial media. At first glance, there is no connection between the two; the distinction is completely inexplicable. The text of the law must be read and digested repeatedly until it can be understood even by people not motivated by the same intentions as the framers [of this law] were.
The messages of independent candidates or the small parties unable to launch a full slate of candidates can reach the electorate unfettered. The messages of the substantial opposition parties, however, are limited in reaching their constituencies.† To those people, therefore, who are not politically inclined and so only listen to, or mostly watch the commercial media (and this is the majority), only the insignificant parties’ messages will reach them instead of those larger opposition parties. This makes the redirection of the largest parties’ voters much easier.
They can keep the same voters away from the opposition parties whom they tried to keep away through the introduction of the mandatory preliminary voter registration. They try to weaken the activity of undecided voters who decide in the last minute and who most likely would not support the government.
According to the European Commission this law cannot be applied to the European parliamentary elections. Both elections will be held concurrently.‡ Thus, the large opposition parties in one election can, and in the other election cannot, campaign in the commercial media.
All this indicates that the ruling political elite is unable to calculate the consequences of one single measure. They are operating their mental system from the gut. This is why their political instincts appear almost perfect. They are like carnivores lying in wait to prance. Until they are hit by a shot. If only there were someone ready to shoot.
The printed press
In the area of the printed press, the final chapter is inevitably within sight. In addition to influencing the advertising market, its most important device is the prevention of mergers among media enterprises. The demise of Népszabadság is imminent. The first steps are already completed.
It is known that the large media companies everywhere in the world combine their forces in the print media to survive the falling sales figures and the advances of online media. In Hungary, the Ringier and the Springer companies wanted to combine forces to assure Népszabadság’s viability, among other reasons. Ringier and Springer managed to merge everywhere else in the region except in Hungary. Because the president of the Media Council had veto power, she simply forbade it. This was made possible by the Media Law that provides for the right of veto in media matters, to this president, even over the decisions of the Competition Bureau.
The result of the ban is that the opposition media, if it doesn’t want to disappear, will have to be owned by political parties and not private enterprise, simply because under such circumstances no private investor would be interested. But if there is no private investor and only the parties can own newspapers, the independence of the press is lost, because party investors are inevitably politically motivated. The parties might even make deals with each other. The pluralism of the media is becoming perfunctory; the press becomes directed, in which only appearances matter. The ideas in the content would be determined by the compromises made by the parties.
This brings with it the atrophy of investigative journalism and the marketing strategies that are based on it. The number of copies sold cannot be increased with the help of investigative pieces. But, on the other hand, following the example of the post-Soviet press, in Hungary the government-friendly media also developed anti-opposition investigative journalism that aims not to expose the proven misdeeds of the target person but to apply character assassination by insinuation.
The exigency of cooperation
The system of regulation in the European Union is basically applied to the online media in the spirit of cooperation. In Hungary, this system is at the mercy of the Media Council. This means that the media enterprises, having accepted the principles of the Media Council, cooperate with it. Essentially, they submit to the policies of the Media Council that aims to protect the majority.
While the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva repeatedly rejects the Islamic countries’ suggestions for the protection of majority positions (for example, criticism of world religions, forbidding blasphemy) and Hungary, so far, votes with the European partners, in Hungary the government via the Media Council aims to introduce the protection of the majority position (besides the minorities, prevention of any criticism of “any majority, or religion”). And this is part of the Media Law!
Members of the three basic content provider groups – the online media, the printed press, and the radio-television sector – have forged contracts with the Media Council, agreeing that they will regulate themselves based on the prohibitions in the media law. Any breach of the media law they will investigate and settle themselves. By accepting the role of the executioner, they can escape the constant harassments for petty infractions, but for the same reason the owners put pressure on the editors to refrain from any political challenge in their news service and their chat shows.
The owners who would balk at accepting this would stigmatize themselves in the eyes of the Media Council. They could be subject to frequent fines that would be grounds for very strong punishment later, even being shut down.
This is the system of post-Soviet self-censorship.
Despite the participation in cooperative self-regulation, the Media Council is still entitled to pull any matter into its purview that hasn’t been handled satisfactorily by the contracting organization, and it is also entitled to inquire into its confidential business affairs as well. Punishment cannot even be mentioned; as a result of “cooperative regulation,” the media companies are toeing the line and the Media Council can resoundingly claim: just look, the fines are less frequent, there is no supervision over the media.
The online media services and the press publishers continue to obey (wouldn’t repudiate) the self-regulation contracts, whereas, due to a Constitutional Court decision, Parliament substantially reduced the content supervision of online and printed press. Foreign owners, in their own countries, would never agree to participate in this duplicitous cooperation, they rely on the principles of free press. Following the Constitutional Court’s decision, they could do the same in Hungary, too. But they don’t do it. They prefer to be obedient.
The curse of getting it free
The preponderance of one-sided news was fostered by the move that made the services of MTI (Hungarian State News Agency) available free of charge. The publicly owned media is mandated to use the services of MTI; it only can publish their content. The other content providers, struggling already with financial difficulties, including that of the opposition, also utilize free MTI news, while on the one hand, they are giving up their subscription to other, international news agencies, and on the other hand, they decline to maintain their own network of domestic and foreign correspondents. Without any specific pressure being applied, the use of sources for news has become one-sided. In some cases, the negative decisions of international bodies concerning Hungarian affairs don’t appear, or appear too late, in the opposition media. They don’t even learn about them in the first place. The only competition is who is publishing MTI’s news faster.
The participants in Hungarian public life are all restricted to the same news source. This is not only contrary to the EU Charter regulating media pluralism, but also to the European Commission’s competition rules. MTI (and by extension the government) abuse their position of power.
Those concerned are still afraid (or just simply wouldn’t because it is free of charge) of initiating a Hungarian and European process against the abuse of overwhelming economic power, nor against the state’s information monopoly.
The invisible oppression
The government’s media policies are evil.
They don’t suppress the opposing views directly. This hides a mutant, fascistic ideology within the appearance of a democratic framework. There is no ‘immune reaction’ from society. Its constituent elements are the overwhelming single-party power of the Media Council; the hidden potential of state intimidation; the government’s absolute control over the public media; the expropriation of advertising market; the system of cooperative regulation; the free news service of MTI; and the exclusion of nation-wide parties from the commercial media during election campaigns. These concrete details were discussed above. And the government’s answer: We have nothing concrete to say.
They are sure of themselves. They introduced democratic-sounding language that covers up the restrictions to the outside viewer. Criticism formulated in traditional democratic language can be dismissed by the claim that it is nothing more than the voice of the Hungarian and foreign Left. The Media Law is in accordance with European norms. Every individual regulation has a parallel in some other country’s legal system.
Only the seasoned professional can discern in the task-oriented, pro-majority, and community-based character of the regulations the goal of stifling freedom. It can only be expressed in a specific language that is certainly not the language of the average media consumer, that for the purposes of the New Order the media is not an instrument in the business of controlling the other three branches of government but merely a neutral institution to provide “balanced” debate. That is, in the spirit of regulation, the opposition (therefore, unbalanced) media, in principle, is forbidden. And if there happens to be some of it, that is only thanks to the largesse of the Powers that be.
(The author expresses his thanks to Mr. Miklós Haraszti for his help in writing this article.)
¹Article by Rudolf Ungváry published in Élet és Irodalom, May 24 2013.
²The fourth amendment is a conglomerate of several disparate pieces of legislation counteracting previous constitutional court judgments by inserting them into the body of the constitution. (Translator’s note)
³Klubradio was a exclusively a talk station, but the invitation for bids for its established broadcast frequency specified music programming. This forced Klubrádió to bid for its own frequency, at the cost of changing its profile.
³This is still the case despite a favorable recent court decision that awarded a free frequency to Klubrádió that the Media Council refuses to carry out, without any explanation. (Translator’s note)
†Fidesz is not affected by the prohibition on large parties’ advertising, partly because it can substitute for party advertising government “public information” and partly because it has already established several mysteriously financed ‘civic organizations’ that advance its cause without any public accounting about the sources of their lavish spending. (Translator’s note)
‡Holding these two different elections at the same time while applying two different sets of rules is unprecedented. (Translator’s note)