The narratives provided by at least one hundred Hungarian news outlets are now under the complete political control of Minister of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office Antal Rogán and Árpád Habony, the Prime Minister’s spin doctor.
According to the independent Hungarian news site 444.hu, these two individuals are the ones who give instructions to the editorial staffs of newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.
These media outlets are used to persuade voters that things have improved under the rule of Fidesz, and to discredit the opposition and any public persona they deem undesirable. A recent innovation in this area is the “political tabloid” format: paparazzi have followed János Volner, an MP for the far-right Jobbik party, into a forest to document his liaison with an alleged mistress, and newspapers have spread rumours that far-right leader Gábor Vona is a homosexual (even Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a joke about the politician who “hides behind other men’s skirts”).
One media outlet has even republished nude photographs of the wife of former Hungarian Socialist Party leader József Tóbiás (she worked as a model in the 1990s), accompanied by a questionnaire in which readers were asked whether these pictures made them feel like masturbating.
Other media have invented stories about the allegedly luxurious lives of opposition politicians such as Együtt party president Péter Juhász and László Botka, the Hungarian Socialist Party’s candidate for prime minister. Zoltán Spéder, a businessman who used to be close to the governing Fidesz party, has become the target of a coordinated campaign by numerous government-friendly outlets portraying him as corrupt and immoral. These reports were evidently intended to put pressure on Spéder, as not long thereafter he sold most of his business interests (which had previously operated with the government’s blessing).
It is also Rogán and Habony who dictate what phrases should be used in the press: NGOs who work on issues such as human rights or corruption should be referred to as “foreign-financed civic organisations”, while the Central European University has to be called “the Soros University” to fit into the current narrative of government propaganda, according to which billionaire financier George Soros is orchestrating an attack to topple Hungary’s democratically elected government and to undermine the country’s white Christian identity.
But how did Orbán’s people manage to gain such influence over the messages in the Hungarian media?
The fallen empire
In the early 2000s, Orbán and his inner circle started to build up a right-wing public sphere in Hungary, in order to counterbalance what they saw as a left-wing liberal bias in the Hungarian media. Until 2015, Orbán’s media was dominated by one person: his old friend and former roommate Lajos Simicska. Simicska accumulated a highly profitable media portfolio thanks to numerous government subsidies.
As long as the friendship between Orbán and Simicska lasted, his TV and radio stations as well as his newspapers were completely loyal to the governing party. Besides the Simicska media, the remaining handful centre-right newspapers were owned by other Orbán loyalists, such as Gábor Széles, who in 2006 acquired the liberal daily Magyar Hírlap so that he could change the composition of the newsroom. This also meant that there was no “conservative” entity that dared to criticise the government.
During Orbán’s second term (2010-2014), the Simicska press (together with Simicska’s outdoor billboard companies and the completely loyal public broadcasters) made sure that there were strong pro-Orbán voices in the then still relatively diverse Hungarian media landscape. New laws and regulations have made it harder, and in some cases impossible, for the competition to operate. While the targeted use of the government’s advertising budget ensured that Simicska’s media were still profitable, most independent news outlets suffered under the effects of the shrinking advertising market and readers’ unwillingness to pay for news content.
However, following Fidesz’s three election victories in 2014 (national, EU and municipal), the harmony between Orbán and the so-called “oligarch” ended, and early 2015 marked the beginning of open hostility between the two former friends. Simicska lost the income sources that had been secured for him by the prime minister, and many of his most loyal people turned their backs on him, accepting new positions offered by Orbán and his inner circle. Simicska was thus forced to take a drastic step: he re-staffed his news outlets and repositioned them as government-critical media.
Simicska’s news outlets are now having a harder time than in previous years, among them the newly acquired Index.hu, which has the greatest readership in the country. Almost none of Simicska’s news outlets are in the black without their biggest advertiser, the Hungarian state. Nor do they enjoy the same access to information as before, as the governing party’s politicians now boycott them. Moreover, Simicska’s daily newspaper Metro was forced to close, as its free issues were no longer welcome in the capital’s underground stations; Metro has been replaced by the new, more loyal newspaper Lokál.
But Simicska is not giving up; he wants vengeance, and he believes he will get it. His media are among the most ardent critics of Orbán and his regime, and they are not afraid to go after shady stories and scandals surrounding Orbán’s people. The democratic opposition, however, is somewhat suspicious of the role the former “oligarch” is playing in the Hungarian public sphere, as Simicska has already said in an interview that he hopes the far-right Jobbik party will win in the next elections, as he sees Jobbik as the only political force with the potential to unseat Orbán.
After the falling out with his former ally, Orbán decided to set up a new, government-friendly media sphere for his party and government. The new structure is not dependent on any particular strongman, but instead rests on many, replaceable pillars. Orbán has therefore asked a number of his wealthy and most loyal supporters to invest in the government’s emergent media portfolio – and in order to help them in this endeavour, state-owned banks have provided loans to prospective media owners.
Many of them have bought existing media outlets (often known for their quality journalism) that were previously owned by Western media conglomerates like Funke, Axel Springer, Ringier, Sanoma and Deutsche Telekom, which have decided to sell part or all of their media portfolios knowing that they would no longer be profitable without the government’s goodwill.
Only two years after Simicska’s fall from grace, Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s home village Felcsút, has become one of the biggest players in the Hungarian media market. Mészáros is believed to manage the secret wealth of the Orbán family (see our report about his activities here). He has bought the private news station Echo TV, and through his company Opimus he owns Mediaworks, which publishes 12 of the largest regional newspapers. Their editorial teams have now been merged, many journalists were fired, and numerous articles, including long, propagandistic interviews with the prime minister, are now published in identical form in dozens of outlets all over the country.
11 companies and 14 owners – this is what journalist Attila Bátorfy found while exploring Hungary’s pro-government media landscape. Mészáros is the biggest, but by far not the only new media owner. Spin doctor Árpád Habony is behind the website 888 and the free tabloid newspaper Lokál, which is distributed freely at train and underground stations all over the country. Mária Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror Museum, has bought and restructured the business and news weekly Figyelő.
Former Hollywood producer Andy Vajna (whose name can be found in the credits of Die Hard, Rambo and Terminator, among other films) has acquired TV2, one of the two major private television stations, and Ádám Matolcsy, the son of the president of Hungary’s central bank, now owns the news website Origo. Most of these news outlets are indirectly supported by the state through advertising. According to 444, Habony’s news outlets alone received state advertising worth more than 3 million euros last year.
On top of that, the Hungarian public service media operate with a yearly budget of more than 250 million euros.
Conquering the regions
The regional media constitute a very important part of the government’s media portfolio. According to figures published by the news site Index, Fidesz can reach more than 4 million potential voters through its regional newspapers, so it is not too surprising that the ruling party has bought up the whole regional media landscape through the companies of Andy Vajna and Lőrinc Mészáros.
Not long ago, the weekly HVG reported that the last three independent regional newspapers in Hungary were bought by Mészáros’s go-between, Heinrich Pecina, the Austrian businessman who shut down Népszabadság, Hungary’s largest political daily, before selling the Mediaworks portfolio to Mészáros (see our article here). With the exception of television, where all but one of the major stations are under state influence, the regional newspapers are the most important information source for Hungarians living in rural areas.
Today, there are only a handful of regional newspapers that are still willing to stand up to the governing party. Most of these are online news start-ups with a small reach, such as Szabadpcs.hu and Nyugat.hu.
Even some critical newspapers are dependent on government revenues. A good example is the news portal VS.hu, which has received grants worth almost 2 million euros from the Hungarian central bank’s foundations. For a long time, the central bank president insisted that its grant recipients did not have to be made public, as the money would not count as a public expenditure. Ultimately, however, a court order forced the disclosure of the grant recipients, which led to a wave of resignations at VS.hu. Many journalists claimed that they had had no previous knowledge of the significant state subsidies.
In the meantime, the television station ATV, as well as newspapers Népszava, Vasárnapi Hírek and Szabad Föld continue to profit from state advertising. Such a model is not unprecedented. In the Russian Federation, Gazprom holds a two-thirds’ stake in Echo of Moscow, one of the country’s largest critical news outlets. This allows the government to maintain the appearance of media pluralism, while at the same time exercising direct control over critical voices.
This is not to say, of course, that there are no media outlets in Hungary that are independent of the government’s (and Simicska’s) deep pockets. Magyar Narancs, 24.hu and Direkt36, just to name a few, are still ready to investigate the corruption cases of the new political elite or critically dissect the government’s propaganda campaigns. Some outlets, such as Atlatszo.hu and Kettős Mérce, have even demonstrated that it is possible to raise sufficient funds through crowdsourcing.
All in all, however, the space for independent journalism is shrinking, as is its impact. Just a few years ago, HVG.hu’s report about President Pál Schmitt’s plagiarised doctoral dissertation led to his resignation. Nowadays, we no longer see reports having the same kind of impact; corruption is accepted as an inherent and unavoidable part of everyday life, and if Orbán’s transformation of the media landscape continues, the situation will continue to deteriorate in future.