Soft Censorship in Hungary in 2016: When Propaganda Rules Public Discourse

Mérték think tank has examined major trends in the news media in Hungary since 2014. New annual report Soft Censorship in Hungary in 2016: When Propaganda Rules Public Discourse includes  the yearly findings of the press freedom perception survey among media professionals. This time the analysis is also accompanied by a chapter based on series of interviews with journalists/editors who provide insights into the way the new pro-government propaganda machinery works.

Népszabadság terminated, Class FM removed from its frequency, TV2 turned into a character assassination machinery, the public media are aggressively disseminating anti-migrant propaganda – as far as the eye can see, the ruins of a media that have seen better days. 2016 was the year when there was no election campaign, and this offered an opportunity to settle the remaining open issues in the media.

Even if none of the oligarchs were to buy additional media outlets in 2017; if not a single critical voice was silenced; if no more journalists were laid off; and not another penny of public money was spent on feeding the governmental propaganda machinery, from Fidesz’s perspective the media are already set for the elections.

But of course 2017 will not be this peaceful at all. The aggressive expropriation of the public sphere has been ongoing since 2010, after all – and switched into high gear after 2014, with new players. But the last chance for a fair election was removed in 2016. The Habony-Vajna media that was consolidated last year is now ready to pounce with vile attacks on any new players in the political arena.

Alternative voices stand practically no chance of reaching people beyond their own narrow base. Political messages have become extremely simplistic, and political communication is completely devoid of all semblance of  The Media Act of 2010, which imposed serious restrictions on press freedom, has not been substantially amended despite continuous domestic and international criticisms. There is still no institutional guarantee in place to ensure the independence of the organizations that supervise private and public media, or to create a stable legal environment for the work of journalists.

Recently, the government rendered a series of decisions that severely restrict the freedom of journalists in performing their work. In 2016, the transparency of the state owned companies was practically ceased.

Administrative burdens on the work of journalists are increasingly common. The banishment of the journalists from the Parliament became a daily routine, the police hindered in more cases the work of journalists, for example when they tried to report on the soccer stadium and the special train built in the prime minister’s native village.

Media market processes pose an increasing threat to pluralism: In 2016, the expansion of pro-government media and the pressure on critical media became more aggressive than ever. A substantial portion of media outlets have become concentrated in the hands of a few investors with strong ties to Fidesz.

The closing of Népszabadság has significantly reduced investigative capacities to uncover governmental abuses.

The state media have openly embraced a role as uncritical purveyors of government communication. Pro-government tabloid media have emerged as instruments of discrediting political opponents.

The economic environment wherein the media operates is also shaped by political decisions. The overwhelming majority of business investors have left the Hungarian market in recent years, and they have been replaced by oligarchs.

The business model of government-affiliated media is based on the manipulated allocation of public resources. Radio frequencies, distribution capacities, state advertising and credits from state banks are all given to government-friendly media, regardless of the actual performance of the given media.

This economic environment constitutes an ongoing state of risk for the few remaining independent media outlets. With the exception of RTL, these media outlets have a reach that is significantly more limited than that of the pro-government media. Moreover, often the identity of their owners is murky as well.

Download: Soft Censorship in Hungary in 2016: When Propaganda Rules Public Discourse

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