During the Antall-Boross administrations after the change of regime (1990-1994), the government launched a full-fledged war against the media. At that time practically all Hungarian journalists were liberal. The right of center, which the government considered itself to be, was not represented in the print media or on television and radio. (At that time there was only one television station, MTV, and one radio station, MR.) The government tried to establish pro-government papers, but they were not financially successful. So, in the early months of 1994 the decision was made to get rid of all those journalists whom the government found objectionable at MTV and MR. Over one hundred journalists were fired just at Magyar Rádió. The government’s triumph was pyrrhic because a few months later MDF lost the election and the fired journalists triumphantly returned on the very day of the socialist victory.
The Orbán government’s “handling” of the media has been both more subtle and much more ruthless. It is true that the public television stations were again cleared of undesirables and by now these organs are no more than propaganda machines of the government, but there is no longer the need to establish pro-government newspapers because Fidesz in the last fifteen years or so managed to acquire a full-fledged media empire. It seems, however, that this is not enough for Viktor Orbán, who wants to completely eliminate all independent and critical voices. The best way to achieve this is to strangle them financially and, if that is not enough, to intimidate them. And if that doesn’t work, the Hungarian government is ready to put pressure on media outlets via their owners as was the case in the Origo affair.
This latest war on the media has a new element. It looks as if the Orbán government wants to get rid of foreign owners of media outlets. Mysterious Hungarian owners managed to buy TV2, originally owned by the German media giant Prosiebensat1, and it looks as if the decision was made to kill off the foreign-owned RTL Klub, the most popular commercial television station in Hungary.
I covered the beginnings of the RTL story but, since then, the war between the firm and the Hungarian government has only escalated. In order to understand what’s going on we must understand that RTL Klub might be the most watched television station, but it is not known for its high quality programs. On the contrary, the level is quite low. People call the station “trashy.” Personally I don’t think that all TV networks should satisfy highbrow audiences and, if the Hungarian public enjoys the RTL Kub’s offerings, who are we to criticize. What, on the other hand, people rightly objected to was RTL Klub’s news programs. Almost as if there had been a tacit understanding between government and management concerning the choice of news items. Stories that cast a bad light on the government or its members were conveniently left out or underemphasized and hidden. In this way, the argument goes, RTL Klub hoped “to buy the goodwill of the government.” But, critics point out, there is no way to appease this government. If Viktor Orbán wants to get rid of you, sooner or later he will succeed. RTL Klub right now is in the way of the government. Why? Perhaps because it is a fierce and successful competitor of TV2 and its new owners, who are apparently close to Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Hence, the advertisement levy seems to be designed to kill off RTL Klub.
So, what was the station’s answer? They decided to bring up all the dirty linen of the government that until now they had studiously ignored. It is funny to hear an old story from years or months back being dredged up suddenly. They also decided to report truthfully on the important stories of the day, including those they would have left out in the past. RTL Klub is only doing now what any self-respecting television news program should be doing, and they should be ashamed of themselves for not having done the same in the past.
Well, this is not exactly how the Hungarian government sees it. The counterattack began already on June 14 when the prime minister’s office objected on its website that RTL Klub’s news mentioned the fact that Viktor Orbán’s father’s business has flourished despite the bad economic figures of the last few years. It was pointed out by the news editors that the elder Orbán’s business relies exclusively on state orders. This was translated by the prime minister’s office as an act of revenge because they have “to pay taxes in Hungary.” Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, continued the attack on the station. The fact that RTL Klub’s headquarters are in Luxembourg comes in handy for Fidesz politicians because, as we know, there are several politicians from Luxembourg who are not to Viktor Orbán’s liking: Viviane Reding and Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. And now here is this Luxembourgian firm that uses its news “as a political weapon.” Rogán complained that it “intimidates and insults public figures,” even the prime minister’s father. It is sad, he continued, that “these billionaires from Luxembourg think they can do anything.”
This foreign media conglomerate looks upon Hungary as if it was its “colony,” János Lázár charged in Napi Gazdaság, another government mouthpiece recently acquired by Századvég. Moreover, he called RTL Klub a “corrupt firm.” After all, why didn’t it broadcast negative news items about the government and government politicians in the past? “If there is no tax there are no discrediting items; if there is, then come stories about Viktor Orbán’s father, daughter, or friend, Lőrinc Mészáros. This is unimaginable in any other country of the European Union,” he declared. He added that it was a mistake to let foreign companies own television stations in Hungary because “they don’t possess the national point of view.” They are interested only in profit.
RTL’s management was not intimidated and rejected all accusations, while reiterating their belief in democracy and freedom of the press. They also stressed “the patriotism of their employees.” RTL’s answer pointed out that freedom of the press is “a national treasure whose defense is the duty of all of us.” And the accusation that RTL Klub doesn’t pay taxes is a lie: just last year they paid 8.9 billion forints in taxes and other dues to the central budget.
Meanwhile the less than pleasant but true news items continue to be aired. 444.hu found at least ten items in today’s news that reflect badly on the government, starting with the very questionable allocation of gambling concessions and ending with the U.S. statement on intimidation of civil society and media in Hungary, published also on Hungarian Spectrum.
I have no idea who will win this fight. Most people think that it will not be the RTL Klub. But then all three television stations that can be watched nationwide without a cable subscription will be in Fidesz hands in one way or the other. That will mean that the government will control practically 90% of all the electronic media. Back to the good old days of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes.