Freedom of the press in Hungary: an American critique

Today David J. Kostelancik, minister counselor and deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, delivered a speech before members of the diplomatic corps and journalists at the headquarters of Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ / National Association of Hungarian Journalists). This was the second time since the installment of Donald Trump as president of the United States that the new Republican government, through its Budapest embassy, made it clear publicly that, contrary to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s expectation, Washington is not at all happy about the state of affairs in Hungary. The first time was in April when the U.S. Embassy in Budapest issued a warning in connection with the Hungarian government’s pressure on Central European University. A month later this message was reinforced by the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, who urged the Hungarian government to suspend its amended law on higher education law, which would place “discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary.” Today the topic was freedom of the media.

Before I summarize the speech itself, I should note one way in which the Hungarian government restricts the flow of information. In fact, this Kostelancik speech is an excellent example of a centralized media in the grip of an autocratic government. The method is simple and effective. Prior to the new media law introduced by the Orbán government, media outlets had to pay a fee for news gathered by Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), Hungary’s official news agency. After the change of leadership, access to MTI’s materials was made free. The downside was that MTI’s reporting became distorted in favor of the government, and the free access to MTI’s materials made certain that the same colored information reached all media outlets. So, if the authorities don’t want a piece of information to reach a wide audience, it is enough to instruct MTI to remain quiet. Or, it is possible that special coaching is not necessary because the people at MTI know what is risky to report on. Hungarians have experience with this kind of self-censorship from the pre-1990 days.

This is exactly what happened this time. The chargé d’affaires of the United States delivers an important speech titled “Freedom of the Press: Enduring values in a dynamic media environment” and MTI “forgets” to report on it. Well, I’m not entirely fair because, if one searches hard enough, one finds an MTI report on a press conference by Gergely Gulyás, the new leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, where Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV asked Gulyás his opinion of Kostelancik’s “comments on the state of Hungarian freedom of the press.” MTI added that, according to index.hu, the chargé of the American Embassy talked about the “alarming state” of Hungarian media freedom and about “the government’s responsibility.” End of reporting. This MTI report appeared in today’s Magyar Idők, but the details of Csuhaj’s question to Gulyás could be learned only from ATV’s website.

But let’s return to the speech itself, which was indeed hard-hitting. Perhaps the most important message was that “defense of a free press” is “fundamental to [U.S.] foreign policy interests.” Given Donald Trump’s frequent outbursts against the “fake news” concocted by mainstream journalists, one can only admire Kostelancik’s handling of this apparent contradiction. He admitted that the U.S. president “is not shy about criticizing the media,” but “in the finest traditions of our free press, those on the receiving end of his criticism are quick to respond and make their argument about why they think the president is wrong.” In brief, freedom of the press in the United States is still thriving.

David J. Kostelancik / Source: zoom.hu / Photo: Viktor Veres

He then listed the ways in which undemocratic governments attempt to silence their critics: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control and pressure on advertisers, attempts to manipulate the advertising market, or outright threats and intimation of journalists. Kostelancik indicated that all of these tactics have been tried in Hungary in recent years. He talked about “government allies” who have acquired control and influence over the media market “without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies,” having in mind Lőrinc Mészáros’s recent acquisition of all the regional papers. He is well informed about the central directives issued to the journalists who work for these papers. The U.S. Embassy hears “reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.” 888.hu’s list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros didn’t go unnoticed either. “In a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media.” Finally, he said that “the United States unequivocally condemns any attempt to intimidate or silence journalists.”

MTI didn’t want to cover the U.S. chargé’s harsh words on the lack of media freedom and therefore it simply disregarded the whole event. But the Hungarian foreign ministry could not afford to ignore the American message. On the contrary, the response from the ministry was practically instantaneous. Tamás Menczer, undersecretary in charge of “coordination,” suggested that Kostelancik get a translator, with whose assistance he can sit down and take a good look at the Hungarian papers, where he will find “numerous news items critical of the government every day.” He added that a few weeks ago the U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the modification of the Ukrainian law on education despite its restrictions on the rights of minorities. “We are forced to think that U.S. diplomats in Kiev and Budapest are ignorant of what they are talking about.” A typical response from the ministry of foreign affairs of the Orbán government, the kind of clumsy, gauche comment to which by now, I’m sure, the American diplomats in Budapest and Washington are accustomed.

What I find more worrisome is a sentence the much more courteous and diplomatic Gergely Gulyás uttered as an answer to Ildikó Csuhaj’s question about Kostelancik’s message: “It is harmful to America’s reputation in Hungary to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.” I wonder what the government’s next step will be. Perhaps once the anti-Soros campaign is over, a major anti-U.S. drive will come, picking up on the journalistic offensive the two government papers, Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, are already waging.

October 17, 2017
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Charles Gati
Guest

Allow me to add this to Eva’s excellent discussion: Nepszava, the only independent daily in Budapest, ran an extensive, detailed, and accurate account of David Kostelancik’s pointed and very thoughtful presentation. It also ran the government’s spokesman’s brief, nasty, and indeed intemperate “rebuttal.” The good news is that the government’s two far-right daily, Magyar Hirlap and Magyar Idok, as Eva mentions, didn’t cover the event — but their combined circulation is widely believed to be less than Nepszava’s. The bad news is that the survival of an independent printed press, as Mr. Kostelancik discussed, depends on the government.

Member

Is it fair to call Nepszava “independent?” After all, it is owned by Laszlo Puch & friends. Credible sources assure me that Nepszava’s reporters have greater freedom to report than their colleagues at basically any other Hungarian news outlet. But at the end of the day, the MSZP’s former treasurer holds the purse strings.

bimbi
Guest

@Alex Kuli, 8:25 a.m.

“Is it fair to call Nepszava “independent?”, you ask. Nepszava is independent in the sense that it is not owned by one of the front companies in the Orban media control empire and in having to provide such an answer the desperate state of media freedom in Hungary is merely underscored. Sure, and inevitably, Nepszava has to get much of its news items from MTI, with all that implies, as described in the blog but Nepszava is as independent as Orban is going to let the printed news media become under his sharp regimen of media Kontroll. Dare one say “token”?

The very continued existence of Nepszava is stark evidence of just how corrupted the media picture in Hungary has become.

Member

When I learned that Puch was to acquire Nepszava last year, my reaction was “better than the alternative, but far from ideal.”

Perhaps the biggest part of the problem is that many Hungarians believe party-controlled media is the norm. I have long been dismayed by the fact that no one since 1990 has ever made any serious moves toward truly independent media. At least two colleagues told me they resigned from the late, great Nepszabadsag because they could not bear the political nature of the editing process – and these colleagues are hardly right-wingers, I assure you.

Of course, the political influence at MSZP-SZDSZ papers cannot be compared to the goings on at Fidesz papers. In their case, it is not “state control,” but “party control.” Fidesz is the worst thing to happen to the media since Al Gore invented the Internet.

wrfree
Guest

Independent media in Magyarorszag? Certainly on life support.

If according to current leadership the US is ‘ignorant’ (this word is high in the leadership lexicon for some reason) on Magyar affairs considering its fluid access to multiple opinion and dialogue what can we say of the people and press who read, watch and process information with virtual hoods on in a more and more biased media environment?

They seem to function only as minions of chopped liver when it comes to current media communications in the country. And truly that is wanted for in the Fidesz equation that kind of ignorance is bliss.

Aida
Guest

In the UK there are only “independent” newspapers in the sense that they are not owned by political parties or the government. That is not the end of the problem. Quite the contrary. The owners of The Sun, The Express and The Mail are super rich men who directly or indirectly control the editorial and to some extent the news content of their papers. These papers have a huge readership and their political influence is immeasurable. Both Blair and Cameron were Murdoch staff. The influence they exert resulted in the brainwashing of an otherwise poorly educated and mostly gullible population to back, however narrowly, a catastrophic Brexit vote. These news bosses together with the open support of bunches of Tory oligarchs have been pushing a consistent diet of anti EU propaganda for decade. The output would have made Dr Goebbels proud.
We must think about what an independent press should consist of. Clearly the Hungarian model is not acceptable. The British, is it any more acceptable?

Member

Britain’s tabloid trash sells better than “real news” because that’s what people want to read. That’s what makes Murdoch and the Viscount Rothermere rich. (Naturally, the viscount inherited much of his fortune, but his ancestors made their fortune from newspapers.) The fact that these men influence coverage does not change the fact that they are independent.

Britain also has a great number of quality newspapers – The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, arguably The Times. These newspapers endorse whomever they please come election time.

The point is, none of Britain’s newspapers are party controlled. They choose their allegiances based upon the proclivities of their editors, their owners or both.

In Hungary, all papers are party controlled. Some websites are independent, but Fidesz considers them to be enemies simply by virtue of the fact that they refuse to kiss Orban’s ring.

Aida
Guest
Neither model should be acceptable in a democracy. We have real concerns about press freedom in Hungary and the position is unacceptable. However the no state or party ownership of newspapers is by itself not enough to ensure a free and balanced press. The ownership by small groups of people of major opinion forming papers distorts the essential balance. The fact that huge numbers like to read them means that the reverse of the Hungarian problem is the case. Not that the party owns the papers but rather that the paper owner virtually owns the party. We saw this in the case of Blair and Cameron. Soon May will be tested whether she decides to serve the national interest or lines up behind Murdoch and Rothermere as the only political option available to her. Without the extravagant use of their anti EU propaganda for decades Brexit would not happen. The event is globally catastrophic on a scale that just does not compare with any of the nonsense Orban can generate in his little, backward country. And this event was allowed to happen because of the misconception of what a free press means. It should not mean putting disproportionate power in… Read more »
Member

No one is forcing anyone to read The Sun, the Daily Mail or the late News of the World. People are voting with their subscription money. If Murdoch & friends are influencing them, it is because they want to be influenced. You simply cannot stop that.

People are free to disregard the newspapers’ voting instructions. The Daily Mail has instructed its voters to support the Tories in pretty much every election since time began, and the Daily Mirror, which had essentially the same print run as the Mail until 2000 or so, has endorsed Labour just as consistently. Voters made up their minds on their own every time. Or, in the 2010 and 2017 general elections, they did not make up their minds at all.

Member

What may be desirable is to limit the number of news outlets held by a single group in the UK.

Ferenc
Guest

@aida
But that’s how the newspaper market is in the UK, people buy what they want. If this does not seem a healthy situation, doesn’t it say more about the people in the UK than about those most popular newspapers?
Furthermore you only write about the newspapers, how is the situation with the other media (radio, TV, internet)? There is of course first of all the public media (BBC in all sort of forms) and than a number of private media, but overall the non-newspaper media market seem quit healthy, isn’t it?

Aida
Guest

@Ferenc
I would not challenge the right of people to buy what they want to read. Of course not. The issue is about the imbalance of ownership. It is not strictly just a monopoly or market dominance situation.
TV is fine because the BBC which has a huge market share is by law committed to neutrality and balance. The Commercial channels are bound by similar rules. That is why the press barons own the press although Murdoch wants to impose his monopoly.
Social media is another set of problems. I think it will need rules which will evolve in time and is already happening incrementally.

Ferenc
Guest

I understood that you didn’t wanted to challenge any rights.
But forgot to make clear my main question: does the popularity of the tabloids say anything about the society as a whole? can it have something to do with the British class system (ref: the article I commented 2 days ago)? and overall will the EU not be better off without the UK (in it’s present form)?

Aida
Guest

The article by the Dutchman was very interesting. The English do not live in a classless society and the much publicised striving for equality is merely a process of compliance with certain rules that have been passed. They consist mostly of outlawing various forms of discrimination.
People like the tabloids because they are very good products. That brilliance and the huge power of the owner to dictate the editorial as opposed to the news content enables the product to be used to manipulate the rather susceptible readership of millions to swallow the political content. The same papers could have over the decades educated their readers to understand the reasons behind the EU and workings of its institutions. Had they shown it in a positive light, there would be no Brexit. But Murdoch and Rothermere have their own agenda and So have the people behind them. The EU will be better off without the English. The poor in Britain will be much poorer, the rich much richer and much greedier if such is possible.

Guest

I still remember my shock when I came to England the first time in 1965 – in school we had heard about the glorious British press, Fleet St where the journalists were and then I saw the Sun, The Daily Express etc – just horrible!

In Germany we had (and still have …) the Bild-Zeitung (usually called Blöd-Zeitung) and the English had so many of them!
None of the London papers was acceptable for me – the Times was so boring …
And then I found the Manchester Guardian, that was ok!
And I still read the online version …

PS:
I understood that a simple worker might read one of these papers during his lunch break – but anyone else, say a teacher or another professional?
The doctors I (have to …) visit here in Germany only have papers like the Frankfurter or the Süddeutsche in their waiting rooms …

Aida
Guest

The culture difference between UK and Germany is very profound. The British tabloids are not rubbish. They are brilliantly produced papers to a very high standard. The Times, which I read only on line, is, as you say, is a very boring newspaper. Some comments which are interesting are fine, but boring. The problem is the political content.

Guest

Do you really believe that?
The London “yellow papers” are full of “selective news”, ouright lies and manipulations!
They were the role model for sites like Russia Today and breitbart imho …

1956
Guest

This speech has scratched the surface only.
Is America afraid to condemn the real misery, the dangerous Orban-Putin alliance?

wrfree
Guest
It would appear that US criticism is a very touchy point within the leadership to the extent that negative comments indicate ‘meddling’. If that is so another speech given by John McCain just might pile on to the Konstelancik whammy on lack of media freedom. ‘Meddling’ McCain here intimates on a time in the 20th that Magyar leadership has a somewhat wistful hankering for: ‘We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad’. And he also commented, ‘To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history’. And as noted with all this it just could happen that the US will be facing days and nights of long and sharpened knives looking for something to slash at complete with vitriol for quite a bit over locked up airwaves and in government controlled publications. ‘… Read more »
Observer
Guest

Kudos to the US Chargè d!
I would also like to hereby allay the eventual fears of Mr. Kostelancik after the Foreign Ministry response – there’s no need for an interpreter, the findings are spot on.

Guest

My wife now totally ignores the official Hungarian state media aka North Korean state media, she switches the tv on only for some cook shows or old Hungarian movies …
She relies only on the internet media (index, 444 etc) where you still find some unbiased info – but for how long?

Not too much OT:
Here’s a report on the killed journalist from Malta and what she discovered via the “Panama Papers” and whistleblowers – of course Russia and Azerbaijan are involved and a lot of money invested by Russians etc to get those special visa which reminds one instantly of the similar Hungarian visa program …
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/17/the-situation-is-desperate-murdered-maltese-journalists-daphne-caruana-galizia-final-words

Marty
Guest
People who work at the Simicska media (Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV) plan until April 2018. If Fidesz gains 2/3s then it’s game over for Simicska – he may end up in jail (although he may submit to Orban eventually). In that case it’s also very quickly game over for index.hu, hvg.hu and 24.hu which have been struggling to break even. It’s simply not possible to operate a news site from banner ads — especially when Fidesz pressures companies, even multinationals to refrain from advertising on sites deemed “liberal” if they want to continue to enjoy favorable regulation or participation from state businesses. 444.hu, which also struggles financially, may survive just for Orban to be able to say that there’s still some independent media in Hungary. But any specific article of 444.hu on any given day is read by 50,000 people at best out of over 8 million voters. Compare that to the 1990’s when we all got to know the “boys”. When Orban or Szájer or Deutsch appeared on national TV 3-4 million people saw and heard him. Today an opposition leader is read/heard by a few tens of thousands at best. E.g. Bernadett Szell’s FB posts are often shared… Read more »
bimbi
Guest

It has been clear since the start of the Second Coming of Viktor Orbán that media control was very high on his list of propaganda priorities. The mechanism is well in place now and is seen to be very effective – from the early lies about and libel of Mr. Gyurcsany to the lies and libel directed at Mr. Soros. But the US knows this, though, alas, the Hungarian public at large do not and do not seem to care.

It is quite proper that the U.S. State Department continues to point out this state of affairs and Hungary’s “Miniszterelnök” is kept from entering the USA like one of the “Islamic terrorists” he so much fears.
Hunker in your Bunker, Vikta!

Istvan
Guest
David Kostelancik, is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service of the United States and was not appointed by either Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Trump. I am totally unclear as to whether Kostelancik’s discussion of the Hungarian media reflects the perspectives of Tillerson or not. Clearly as Eva indicated Kostelancik’s perspectives on a free media are less than consistent with those of President Trump. But Rex Tillerson does has some familiarity with Hungary because when he was CEO of ExxonMobil his firm had joint partnerships with MOL (see http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20080414005836/en/ExxonMobil-MOL-Start-Mako-Trough-Exploration-Program ). Alexander Dodds a former associate of Tillerson’s from Exxon became an Executive Vice President for Exploration & Production and member of the Executive Board of MOL, he also was a notorious drunk. The Hungarian Free Press had an excellent article on how Dodds lost vast amounts of money for MOL before he resigned (see http://hungarianfreepress.com/2016/02/28/hungarys-mol-oil-group-bad-investments-and-uncertain-future/ ). Tillerson has a high level of distain in general for career service employees of the State Department and according to reports this week in the New York Times he still intends to slash the department’s staff by 8 percent, or roughly 2,000 people. According to one senior State Department official, Tillerson… Read more »
Michael Kaplan
Guest

Three cheers for this article and the author. I welcome the comments from Professor Gati.

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