A move by Poland’s new conservative government to take control of the state-owned broadcaster has left journalists, human rights activists and free speech campaigners in Europe with an anxious sense of déjà vu.
Poland’s parliament last week passed a new media law to give the newly-elected Law and Justice party (PiS) more latitude to control state-run television and radio, prompting warnings from Brussels about a potential infringement of “European values.”
Critics say Poland is following the script used by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to reshape Hungary’s media landscape in the past five years, consolidating his grip on power by neutralizing critics of his Fidesz party. His vision of a more nationalistic, “illiberal” state has earned Hungary’s press a downgrade from free to only partly-free by Freedom House, an American NGO.
The situation in Poland is “very similar to what the Orbán government did when they came to power in 2010,” said Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of Atlatszo.hu, an independent investigative website based in Budapest.
The concern in Poland goes beyond the impact on the state-run media to publications and broadcast stations owned by private companies, who could face commercial and political pressure to avoid criticizing the government, as they have in Hungary, media analysts and NGOs claim.
As those critics see it, Poland is fast heading down the Hungarian path: a state media that becomes simply a mouthpiece for government, a neutered private media controlled by a small number of wealthy businessmen with ties to the ruling party, and journalists hampered by legal restrictions and political pressure from speaking truth to power.
“Law and Justice is trying things that have worked well for Fidesz,” Philip Howard, a professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and former director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, in Budapest, said in an email. “They are definitely learning from the Hungarians.”
Yet the Orbán modus operandi isn’t as blunt as some of his critics contend, making it hard for Brussels or his opponents to block policy changes pushed by a popular and democratically elected leader.
Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s spokes-man, dismissed the concerns, calling Hungary’s media diverse and thriving. “Our commitment to the freedom of media … is unbroken,” Kovács said in an email. “If you’re familiar with the Hun[garian] media landscape, you would notice that it has never before been so colorful (and critical) as for the past couple of years.”
“Hun[garian] media freedom is alive and kicking, even if many are critical of the circumstances,” he added.
Orbán’s party took office in 2010 with two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament, giving it the power to change the constitution. One of his priorities was to address what he saw as a left-wing bias in the media that was both “unfair ideologically and a hassle to him on a pragmatic level,” according to Csaba Tóth, director of strategy at the Republikon Institute, a liberal think tank. “His goal was to change the balance of power.”
One of Orbán’s first acts was to pass a controversial media law strengthening regulation of print, broadcast and online media. A new oversight body, the Media Council, was given extensive powers, including the ability to issue licenses and impose large fines for content it deemed objectionable.
Stacked with Fidesz appointees, it is not independent and has allowed the government too much sway over the industry, European lawmakers, media analysts and human rights campaigners have complained.
The state-owned TV and radio networks and the public news agency were centralized and brought under tighter government control. Its news output heavily favors the Fidesz party, observers say.
Critics including Mertek, an NGO that monitors the Hungarian media, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have accused the government of rearranging the privately-owned media to be more friendly to Fidesz, partly through the distribution of public advertising contracts to supportive media outlets.
In a relatively small media market, spending on advertising by publicly-owned bodies such as the Hungarian National Bank, the postal service and the national lottery account for a large portion of the available advertising revenue. Under Orbán, the bulk of these contracts have been directed to channels and publications seen as supportive of the government, starving left-wing and opposition media outlets of funding, Mertek said in a 2014 report published in conjunction with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Market competition among media agencies is clearly distorted by the biased award of state contracts,” the report said.
Commercially-funded TV networks, newspapers, magazines, radio stations and websites can’t afford to risk alienating advertisers and suffering a loss in funding, which has resulted in self-censorship by many newsrooms, Mertek contends.
In one prominent case, the editor of a popular Internet news portal, Origo.hu, lost his job in 2014 after publishing a report on the expenses of one of Orbán’s aides. The owners said Gergo Saling left “by mutual consent” but reporters on the site said he was forced out for political reasons.
In what was seen as another attempt to shackle the media, the government announced in 2014 that it would impose a tax on advertising. The progressive levy, rising to half of ad sales above 20 billion forint (€64 million), would disproportionately hit Hungary’s most popular TV channel, RTL Klub, a subsidiary of Germany’s RTL Group.
Not only the German company was angered by the proposal: It sparked a ferocious row with one of Hungary’s most prominent businessmen, Lajos Simicska. A longtime friend of Orbán’s, whose assets include the conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet, Simicska publicly insulted the prime minister and accused him of trampling on democracy.
Journalists in Hungary say the adoption of a series of laws, including changes to Hungary’s freedom of information laws and harsh criminal sentences for defamation, has made it harder to do their jobs.
Last summer, during the refugee crisis in Hungary, concerns about state interference in media grew. Journalists alleged that they were denied access to public facilities to report on the treatment of refugees. In September, a journalist for the Associated Press, Luca Muzi, said he had been confronted by Hungarian police while he was filming near the Serbian border and pressured to delete his footage. The news agency complained but the authorities did not take action.
The “slow strangulation” of critical media, as the radio journalist Attila Mong has described it, has helped Fidesz consolidate its grip on power, media analysts and NGOs say. Mong, the former presenter of Hungarian public radio’s flagship breakfast show, famously protested the 2010 media law by holding a minute’s silence on air.
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In the run-up to the 2014 par-liamentary elections, coverage by the leading TV channels and newspapers was heavily skewed to the ruling party, international monitors for the OSCE found.
Three of the five main TV channels, including the state-owned M1, “displayed a significant bias towards Fidesz in their news programs,” the OSCE said in a report. “Almost all the Fidesz campaign was covered in a positive tone, while the opposition alliance was covered mostly in a negative tone.”
RTL Klub, the most popular channel, was balanced, but its news coverage of the campaign was limited, the OSCE said. (Róbert Kotroczó, editor-in-chief of RTL’s news programs in Hungary, said in an email: “Our news team could not have reached and maintained this leading position without our independence and credibility.”) Across the mainstream media, opposition parties struggled to get their message across, giving Fidesz an unfair advantage, the OSCE said.
Even the government’s critics concede that the press is still at least partly free. Hungary isn’t Turkey, Russia or Azerbaijan. Journalists aren’t arrested and imprisoned for writing articles critical of politicians; they’re not harassed, threatened, physically assaulted or murdered for writing articles that show powerful people in an unflattering light. Foreign media companies haven’t been forced out. There are numerous publications and websites that are consistently, openly critical of Fidesz.
And Orbán’s critics have successfully pushed back against some of his proposed reforms. In 2014, the government backed down on plans to impose a tax on Internet usage, which many took as an assault on civil liberties, after thousands of people protested. In May, it scaled back the advertising tax that would have hit RTL.
“It’s a free media, definitely,” Tóth said. “If anyone wants to write, have their opinion, say Orbán is horrible, they can do that and have big coverage and they won’t be sued, won’t have consequences.”
If there’s a comparison to be made, Hungary is probably closer to Italy under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi than Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Tóth added. The Berlusconi approach was to blend political power and control over the media, via state channels and his Mediaset business empire, to outgun his opponents.
Bodoky, the editor of the investigative website, said that while there is no overt intimidation, there is “constant pressure” on media outlets, economically and politically, that are not friendly to Fidesz.
His publication, Atlatszo (Hungarian for “transparent”), regularly reports on public corruption, relying on crowdfunding and donations from overseas NGOs for support. For that, he says, it is derided as unpatriotic and a mouthpiece for foreign interests.
“They say that you are not a patriot, you are against your country,” Bodoky said. “If you criticize them you are a traitor, you are an enemy.
Unfortunately, a lot of people fall for this propaganda.”
That does not stop Atlatszo and other small, independent websites from publishing articles that present an alternative view to that of the government, and attempt to hold public officials to account. Yet they typically struggle to get much attention for their work among the wider public, Bodoky said.
“At the end of the day, opposition voices don’t reach that many people. They reach maybe 10 percent of the population who are actively seeking opposition content or critical news. People who just watch the mainstream [TV channels] or read the mainstream [newspapers], they get a lot of government-influenced news.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Philip Howard has left Central European University.