I understand that Viktor Orbán is mighty annoyed with the independent media, which in his opinion remains far too critical of his government. For instance, hard-working journalists have unearthed an incredible number of corruption cases. I know that people like to complain about the quality of Hungarian journalism, and I myself often grouse about articles that are hard to follow or are sloppy. On the whole, however, Hungarian journalists should be commended for working under difficult circumstances for very little money. There are a couple of politicians who decided to specialize in exposing corruption cases, like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Péter Juhász (Együtt), and lately Bertalan Tóth (MSZP), but the bulk of the corruption cases came to light thanks to the growing number of investigative journalists.
Investigative journalism was a new field in post-communist Hungary. I still recall how feeble the first attempts were in the first half of the 1990s. But by the early 2000s there was a handful of first-rate investigative reporters who were, for example, instrumental in informing the public about the enrichment of Viktor Orbán and his family, which was of course modest in comparison to the situation today. And by now there are at least two NGOs, Direct36.hu and Atlatszo.hu, that are non-profit investigative journalism centers “with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.”
Orbán would like to tone down or, better yet, stifle the media’s outcry over what’s going on in government circles. His government’s first move was to transform the public broadcasting system, whose staff even before 2010 had been less than independent from Fidesz influence, into a totally servile government propaganda machine. An incredible amount of money was and continues to be poured into a TV station that practically no one watches. Once the low viewership numbers became obvious, the government started a new channel specializing in sports, which is used as a “pseudo news channel.” Every fifteen minutes or so “government news” is broadcast between sports events. This way there is no escaping the news–news that bears a suspicious resemblance to that broadcast in the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes. People in the trade swear that by the second half of the 1980s journalists at the state television and radio stations had more freedom than employees of the state television and radio stations do today. Just one example. Journalists stopped people on the street to ask about their reaction to the migrants. When one woman said that she has no problem with them, she was told that they are not interested in what she has to say.
Prior to February 2015 the government had an extensive, loyal media network thanks to Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s high school friend who owned a TV station, a radio station, a daily newspaper, a free paper distributed at metro stations, and a weekly magazine. The last two publications were also available online. With the fallout between the two old friends, however, Orbán lost Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both of which were critical for his government, especially since the “state television” (MTV) turned out to be a flop. So, the pro-government gurus moved into high gear and within a year and a half managed to build an even larger network of media outlets. And they haven’t finished their job yet. Friends of the government are buying up popular media properties and transforming them into propaganda machines.
To replace Magyar Nemzet a new pro-government daily was created called Magyar Idők, which is not exactly a favorite of the public. On a list of the fifty most popular online news sites Magyar Idők didn’t make the cut. Mind you, neither did Magyar Nemzet, which in my opinion has become a quite respectable paper in the last year and a half. In addition, several other pro-government internet sites came into being, among them ripost.hu, a tabloid that has a decent-sized readership (179,842/day in July 2016).
The two most popular sites are origo.hu (561,494/day) and index.hu (513,854/day). The former was recently purchased by a cousin of György Matolcsy and has since turned decidedly to the right. Apparently the future of index.hu is not at all assured because the current owner, Zoltán Spéder, is no longer a favorite of the prime minister. There are still a couple of popular independent internet sites like hvg.hu and 444.hu that trounce the official government hirado.hu in readership. Could they be in the government’s crosshairs? Surprisingly, nepszabadsag.hu is not a popular news site, despite the fact that the print version is the most popular nationwide daily paper. But even Népszabadság’s fate is not quite settled yet. There is talk about Vienna Capital Partners selling Népszabadság to the owner of Duna Aszfalt, László Szíjj, who was described by Népszava as a possible front man, along with Lőrinc Mészáros, of Viktor Orbán.
On the television front, government propaganda lost HírTV, but after a lot of finagling Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer who is now the owner of several casinos and a loyal friend of Orbán, purchased the German-owned TV2. Vajna, who is not exactly a poor man, didn’t have enough money for the purchase so the Orbán government gladly lent him 8 billion forints, which most people believe will never be paid back. TV2 was heavily indebted at the time of Vajna’s purchase, and it is unlikely that it will suddenly become wildly popular, surpassing the favorite commercial television station in Hungary, RTL Klub. Only a couple of their shows are attracting a larger audience, while RTL Klub has at least six such favorites.
Passing TV2 to Vajna was not quite enough for Orbán, who would like to have a quality television channel specializing in news. It looks as if there is an attempt to upgrade Echo TV, which is owned by Gábor Széles, a rich man of extreme right-wing political views. Echo TV’s current audience is very small. However, I just read that Ferenc Szaniszló, who had a weekly program and who belongs to what I call the lunatic fringe, was fired and that Echo TV is being reshaped to be a more respectable outlet of news and political discussions serving the government’s needs.
Apparently, Orbán hoped that Lajos Simicska would give up his losing media outlets. In the past, when the two men were still friends, Magyar Nemzet and HírTV received government ads galore in addition to thousands of subscriptions for government offices. Since the blow-up no government advertising money has come Magyar Nemzet’s way. Moreover, the paper isn’t getting much in the way of ads from the private sector either since rich businessmen who are heavily dependent on government orders are afraid to advertise in opposition papers. This is the way the government ensures that papers they consider to be disloyal will starve to death.
Orbán’s aim was the total destruction of Simicska’s media outlets, but so far he hasn’t succeeded. The only victim was the free newspaper Metropol, which used to be distributed at metro stations. One day the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) broke its contract with Simicska on the grounds that he had received the right of distribution without a tender. BKV immediately signed a contract with Árpád Habony’s Modern Media Group Zrt., whose new publication, Lokál, took its place. I might add that Modern Media Group also received its contract without any competition. Lokál, being a free paper, depends on advertising, and it is chock full of government ads. The government is keeping it afloat.
The picture is grim and, I’m afraid, it can be grimmer still. One can only hope that Orbán, in his insatiable appetite for a servile media, will not gobble up every important outlet, leaving only crumbs for the opposition. If, for example, pro-government owners were to acquire hvg or index, it would be an irreparable blow to the democratic opposition.