Though this is mainly a photo blog, you might have noticed that I sometimes write about other issues I consider important. One of these issues is press freedom, which, according to press organizations, is in decline worldwide. And it is also the case for countries in the European Union, which advocates for a free press. To see how these mechanisms work, I spoke with László Dobos, a Hungarian journalist who currently lives in Germany and works as a freelancer for the newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine, and other publications. He tells us how he sees the media market in his native country. I have seen similar mechanisms at work in other countries as well, so it was interesting to hear of the development of Hungarian media since Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010.
How to you view the development of Hungarian media in the post-Socialist area?
Overall, media is a lot freer than it used to be under communist rule before 1990. However, in the 26 years since 1990, a powerful, economically and politically independent media-landscape did not materialise. A lot of media-outlets are politically openly partisan and independent media suffer from unstable financing. State-owned TV and radio stations function as propaganda outlets. Hungarian politics failed to establish state-owned independent, non-partisan broadcasting stations. As stated earlier, media in general has become a lot freer since 1990. Yet there have been also serious set-backs within this development.
How much does the government interfere with the media?
Government interference in media is common. One of the most-used tools to keep media in line is through government advertisement spending. Pro-government media receive a lot of advertisement spending, independent media hardly any. There is a strengthening effect to this from private companies. Since a lot of company leaders fear that paying for advertisement in media that the government considers as hostile might lead to hostile reactions from the government (e.g. sudden tax controls), they often buy advertisements in government-friendly media only. The creation of a central agency for all governmental advertisement spending in 2014 (Nemzeti Kommunikációs Hivatal) have made it easier to exert even more control in this field.
Another tool to influence media is the restrictive granting of radio broadcasting licenses. (Generally the easier a type of media is to access the more restrictive the government is with it. Radios are cheap and simple to use, hence government is exerting a very tight grip on radio stations. Reading printed media regularly on the other hand is more costly for customers and does not experinece the same intensity of government interference.) Radio broadcasting licenses are granted by one central media authority (Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság). Its five-member board are all delegates of the government party. This authority has made substantial efforts with opaque arguments to hinder the government-critical Klubrádió from getting a license. Hungarian courts of justice have found a lot of irregularities in the authority’s actions and have awarded Klubrádió a large compensation for that.
Another great interference has been the introduction of advertisement taxation in 2014. The advertisement tax places a financial burden on all Hungarian media companies. Originally, the rules said that the larger the advertisement revenues the higher the applied tax rate would be. The legislation seems to have been targeted specifically towards the RTL Group which owns the Hungarian TV station RTL Klub that has produced some very critical news pieces on government officials. Roughly half of the expected advertisement tax amount in the whole country was to be paid by RTL Klub. After protests by the RTL Group, the legislation has been altered and there is one tax rate for all companies.
Lastly, government cronies own a lot of media outlets. Oftentimes they are openly pro-government and are used for the character assassination of government opponents. Most notable in this regard is the TV station TV2 owned by the film-producer and government crony Andrew Vajna. Also, a former government spokesman, András Gíró-Szász, owns Strategopolis, the market-leader company for radio news pieces that are sold to radio stations. As mentioned earlier, state-owned broadcasting stations have degenerated into propaganda-channels.
Interestingly, the central media authority (Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság) has not used the great sanctioning power towards media outlets which the internationally widely criticized media law of 2011 has given to it.
Who owns the classic media outlets, like publishing houses, broadcasting stations, etc. and does it interfere with journalistic work?
Many media outlets are owned by people sympathetic to the government. A lot of the content of this media hardly deserves the attribute “journalistic”. The content is often one-sided propaganda. The other owners of media outlets by and large do not seem to interfere with the journalistic work.
The Magyar Nemzet group is owned by the former government crony Lajos Simicska who has now turned into one of the greatest critics of the government. Media outlets of this group used to be very much pro-Government till 2015, now they work independently. Some international media houses own Hungarian outlets … such as RTL Group, Ringier, and Axel Springer. A notable Hungarian-owned media house is the Central group that specializes in life-style magazines. The publishing house HVG is owned by its employees.
Online portals play an important role in the Hungarian media landscape. There are also portals owned by government cronies and some independent sites owned by independent companies. There has been a very notable case in the online media that seemed to be a direct government interference. In 2014, the news-site Origo sacked its editor-in-chief, Gergö Sáling, shortly after the site has published an article on one minister’s lavish hotel spending from public funds during government trips. The then owner of Origo, Deutsche Telekom, denied that the article and the sacking of Sáling were related issues.
How did the move to digital media change the Hungarian media landscape?
The move to digital media had both positive and negative effects on the media landscape. Overall, I think there have been more positive changes. The Internet offers journalists the possibility to create and distribute journalistic content at a low price. The Internet allowed the start of a lot of independent, creative journalistic projects in Hungary. Hungarian entrepreneurs quickly discovered the possibilities and started news portals that became profitable. Most notable in this regard is Index.hu that has been in operation since the late 1990s and now is a well-established and trusted media brand. It offers some of the best investigative journalism in Hungary.
News portals play in Hungary a greater role than in most Western countries. Since in the communist era media was completely state-controlled, many Hungarians regarded printed newspapers with mistrust. A habit of reading newspapers did not develop, yet people were interested in news. Online media filled this void. The internet also allows journalistic projects to raise funds for themselves more easily. The highly active investigative journalism portal Atlatszo.hu relies to a great extent on crowd-funding.
On the downside, the rise of the Internet put printed newspapers under financial pressure, as the number of readers and advertisement revenues declined.
What sources do journalists usually use to access information?
Journalists in Hungary use in general the same sources as in other European countries. However, there is a tendency towards working solely at the desk. Newspapers publish more press releases, agency material and opinion pieces than Western counterparts. This is probably due to the lack of money which does not allow for extensive research. The same applies for radio and TV stations. You hear and see a lot more studio talk in Hungary than in Western countries. Extensively researched features where radio and camera teams have to travel to remote locations in the country or even abroad are much rarer than in Western media.
Hungarian journalists quote extensively from other media in their own journalistic work. It is worth noting that purely Internet-based portals like Index.hu enjoy a high reputation and are among the most quoted.
Do you have any tips for people who would like to get in touch with journalists in Hungary?
I think they value it a lot if you are willing to listen to them and make an effort to understand the circumstances they are in.