Can Europe Make It?

A shrinking space: media capture in Orbán’s Hungary

The demise of a once thriving independent broadcaster is yet another signpost in Hungary's deteriorating democracy and part of a broader attack. The rest of Europe, take note.

Nik Williams
8 February 2021, 12.51pm
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The Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán, which has been in power since 2010, often demonstrates its press and media freedom record by pointing out that no journalists are in prison or have been murdered in the country. While this remains accurate on these narrow terms, it is not the full picture. Because if there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to threaten journalists and undermine media freedom.

Over the last decade, Hungary’s Fidesz government, as part of what Orbán calls ‘illiberal democracy’, has perfected the use of an alarmingly effective alternate set of tools to weaken media pluralism and independence. This model of media capture was again on show in a Budapest courtroom on February 4, where the court rejected the request for a temporary license extension from Hungary’s last independent radio station, Klubrádió. This followed a decision by the Media Council of the National Media and Communications Authority (ORTT) in September 2020 to not extend Klubrádió’s license.

The court’s decision will mean that Klubrádió may vanish from the airwaves after February 14, 2021.

Klubrádió under attack

Klubrádió has been on air since 1999 and its existence has increasingly acquired an element of defiance since Fidesz’s rise to power. The state’s antagonism towards Klubrádió was immediately self-evident in the boycott of the station from advertising revenue from state-owned companies and agencies. It was only due to donations from listeners that the station was saved when ad revenue from private companies also plummeted. In 2011, the first attempt to block the renewal of Klubrádió’s broadcasting license took place. As highlighted by the International Press Institute (IPI):

“this process continued for two years despite three separate court rulings in Klubrádió’s favour, during which time the station managed to stay on air. A grassroots campaign by more than 10,000 supporters put major pressure on the regulator and the station was eventually awarded a long-term frequency in March 2013.”

While the station has established a base of support that has enabled it to endure pressure from the government, the same cannot be said about its affiliates. Lokomotiv Radio, an affiliate in the city of Debrecen, was shut down by the Media Council for allegedly failing to pay for the frequency. This strategy proved successful and it was expanded to other affiliates until Klubrádió was confined to Budapest and online. If Fidesz could not silence the broadcaster, it worked hard to drastically reduce its reach. But that wasn’t enough. Prior to this, Government ministers had already refused to give interviews to the station, and its journalists were denied accreditation to participate in government press conferences. Every year between 2014 and 2017, the station was fined at least once a year by the Media Council.

Prior to this, Government ministers had already refused to give interviews to the station, and its journalists were denied accreditation to participate in government press conferences.

Utilising this wide range of mechanisms to limit, isolate, defund and intimidate critical outlets is an effective and hard to track method through which state power can be exerted. Even if the broadcaster can muster a defence, how do you defend against so many different forms of attacks? This strategy also affords a degree of bureaucratic secrecy that can cloak these attacks in assumed legality, formality and robustness, while also obscuring it from public view.

This is not isolated to Klubrádió alone. Financial strangulation, opaque ownership structures and the manipulation of access to the licenses and technology necessary to broadcast are all approaches that have been deployed against media outlets in Hungary. Perhaps the most iconic example of this is KESMA.

KESMA exerts its influence

KESMA, or the Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány (Central European Press and Media Foundation), is a non-profit foundation that was formed in September 2018. According to its mission statement, KESMA aims to “contribute to the formation of Hungarian public discourse based on national values ​​and to the upbringing of the next generation of our community.” In the two years since its formation, over 470 media outlets have found their way to being controlled by the foundation, which is dominated by pro-Fidesz trustees, including the lawyer, Dr. István Bajkai, who had once been Orbán’s personal lawyer and Zoltan Hegedus, a former Fidesz mayoral candidate for Hódmezővásárhely. KESMA exerts significant influence over the media landscape. According to analysis commissioned by the European Parliament’s Green group and carried out by the Mertek Media Monitor, of the 246.5 billion Hungarian forint spent by the state in 2017 on the media, KESMA accounted for 24% of that money. When combined with other government-related private media and publicly funded media, this concentration increases to 77.8%. This influence extends beyond controlling the media output alone. According to The Atlantic who interviewed Attila Babos and Ervin Gűth of Szabad Pécs, “private businesses are reluctant to advertise in non-KESMA outlets, fearing government retaliation.”

While the existence and consolidation of media outlets within KESMA ensures their continued existence – Ágnes Urbán told Quentin Ariès of The Atlantic “that the majority of KESMA organizations would not be financially sustainable without the state’s advertising” – its dominance squeezes out independent or critical outlets and reinforces the precariousness of the media environment. In July 2020, the editorial board of Index.hu and the majority of journalists resigned in protest of the sacking of its editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, following the leaking of a controversial business plan which showed drastic changes to the editorial team.

Fidesz and the Hungarian Government hide behind the absence of killed or imprisoned journalists as a testament to the robust media freedom environment in the country. This only holds true if those were the only diagnostic tools we use. The manipulation of ownership, state capture of regulators and formerly independent outlets, government advertising revenue and the granting of licenses are methods by which the media environment can be skewed in favour of the government and it will not stop at Hungary. This model is already being exported across Central Europe, most notably in Poland, as part of the repolonisation campaign undertaken by the governing Law and Justice party (PiS). Elements of the model are already being copied in Slovenia under the leadership of Prime Minister, Janez Janša.

This model is already being exported across Central Europe, most notably in Poland, as part of the repolonisation campaign undertaken by the governing Law and Justice party (PiS).

While the Hungarian government has stated that “as the current holder of the broadcasting rights, [Klubrádió] will also have the opportunity to submit a bid to the tender” for its current frequency, after Valentine’s Day this year, Klubrádió may be restricted to an exclusively online audience. This demise of a once thriving independent broadcaster is yet another signpost in Hungary's deteriorating democracy. The rest of Europe must take note. Because if such a model can work under the nose of the EU in Hungary, it can work anywhere. An understanding of the full picture of media capture is vital to ensure other states don't follow down the path reinforced by the ruling in Budapest on February 4.

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