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Hungary: press freedom undermined

The campaigns against press freedom of Hungary's right wing-conservative government have made international headlines several times in recent years. Plans to introduce an Internet tax brought the population onto the streets in huge numbers in autumn 2014. In fact, the protests were so strong that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán eventually abandoned the project.

Protests against Internet tax.
(© picture-alliance/dpa)

The media law introduced in 2011 had already brought Orbán massive criticism in Hungary and abroad. The law, designed to step up controls over the media, even triggered intervention by the EU Commission. The law obliged journalists working for public media to engage in "balanced reporting” and to "strengthen national identity”. The newly founded state media watchdog was staffed by Orbán-loyal followers, and 1,000 public radio employees had to leave their jobs. The EU Commission lodged an unusually strong protest and condemned the law as violating the basic values of the EU.

The Hungarian media landscape is marked by the contrast between the two political camps that have emerged since the end of communism: the current right wing-conservative governing party Fidesz on the one hand and the legal successor to the former state party, the Socialist Party (MSZP), on the other. Many print media have come under the influence of these political camps over the past twenty-five years.

Only a few of the major international media companies that came to Hungary after the political changes of 1989 are still there. In May 2014 the Finnish media company Sanoma withdrew from Hungary, and three months later the Funke media group decided to sell its majority stake in the weekly hvg. The Swiss publisher Ringier sold its shares in the largest opposition newspaper Népszabadság to an Austrian holding company. The withdrawal of these media companies is probably also connected with the fact that readership has declined dramatically over the past decade and some media have experienced huge declines in circulation.

Even without the direct impact of the media law, observers regard press freedom as under threat in Hungary: certain extremely wealthy business people use their connections to control large parts of the media market. The introduction of an advertising tax has primarily affected the government-critical private station RTL Klub. Independent newspapers are doing badly because they are no longer able to acquire state advertising. And the firing of the chief editor of the second-largest news portal Origo has been interpreted by European media observers as state intervention. Origo had revealed that a powerful politician was claiming major expenses.

Press Freedom Index:

Reporters without Borders: 65th place (2015)
Freedom House: 71st place (2014)

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