Freedom of the Press
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Laws passed in 2010 increased state regulation of the media and created new avenues for political interference, and the media environment deteriorated further in 2015. A new amendment allows public bodies to charge large fees for responding to information requests, and a public agency and police interfered with coverage of the refugee crisis, which emerged in the second half of the year. Meanwhile, a dispute between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and media mogul Lajos Simicska was reflected in shifts in the country’s conservative media landscape. Public media, which generally adhere to progovernment narratives, have enjoyed generous funding in recent years.
- Amendments to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act approved in July 2015 allow public bodies to charge fees for vaguely defined labor costs, potentially making the fulfillment of an information request very expensive.
- In August, a leaked memo revealed that a public agency had instructed public television workers to avoid showing images of women and children in their coverage of the refugee crisis.
- In September, Hungarian police reportedly attacked at least seven international journalists covering the refugee crisis.
- TV2, Hungary’s second-largest commercial television broadcaster, was sold in late 2015. But its buyer became a matter of dispute, as an ally of Orbán’s and an ally of Simicska’s each claimed to be its legitimate owner at the year’s end.
Legal Environment: 12 / 30 (↓1)
Hungary’s constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press, but media legislation adopted in 2010 and amended since is widely deemed to have undermined these guarantees.
The Hungarian penal code places a number of restrictions on freedom of speech through provisions that prohibit incitement to hatred, incitement to violence, incitement against a community, and denial of crimes “committed by national socialist or communist systems.” Defamation remains a criminal offense, and both defamation and related charges—for example, breach of good repute and hooliganism—are regularly brought against journalists and other writers. In November 2015, prosecutors brought a case against 17 people who had posted on Facebook about a suspicious property sale by the mayor of Siófok. In December, a blogger who had criticized a district mayor in Budapest was detained and charged with defamation. Separately, under a 2013 amendment to the penal code, anyone who knowingly creates or distributes false or defamatory video or audio recordings can face a prison sentence of one to three years. A civil code provision that took effect in 2014 allows for penalties on those who take pictures without the permission of everyone in the photograph; previously permission was only required for publication.
Amendments to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act approved in July 2015 allow public bodies to charge for vaguely defined labor costs, potentially making fulfillment of an information request very expensive. The changes also allow state bodies to reject claims if the requested data is “preparatory,” meaning that it could be used in future government decisions; or if it is copyrighted by a third party; or if the petition is a repeat request—even if the initial request went unanswered. The changes took effect in October; in December, the Budapest Chamber of Commerce determined that answering a freedom of information request by television market leader RTL Klub would cost between 3 and 5 million forints ($11,000 and $18,000). Earlier amendments limited the scope of the law by granting state bodies the discretion to reject requests for information on vaguely defined grounds.
The government has made a number of changes to the regulatory system for the media in recent years. The restructuring began in 2010, when the conservative Fidesz party used its new parliamentary supermajority to pass a series of laws that tightened government control of the broadcast sector and extended regulation to print and online media. It consolidated media regulation under the supervision of a single entity, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), whose leader also chairs a five-person Media Council tasked with content regulation; council members are elected by a two-thirds majority in the parliament. The law gives the head of the Media Council the right to nominate the executive directors of all public media. The structure and broadly defined competencies of the NMHH and Media Council were outlined in subsequent legislation, including the Press and Media Act of 2010 and the so-called Hungarian Media Law, which came into effect in 2011. Though they share a leader and consist entirely of Fidesz nominees, the NMHH and Media Council are theoretically autonomous, both from the government and from each other. Candidates for the presidency of the NMHH must be appointed by the president following a recommendation from the prime minister and nonbinding consultations with various stakeholders. Lawyer Monika Karas was elected to a nine-year term in 2013. Left-leaning opposition parties criticized the nomination, calling Karas a Fidesz “puppet” and alleging professional unsuitability.
All media outlets, including online services, must register with the government within 60 days of commencing operation, and can be fined for failing to do so. The Media Council has authority to fine any media outlet for “inciting hatred” against nations, communities, minorities, or even majorities. If found to be in violation of the law, radio and television stations may receive fines proportional to their “market power”—a number that may reach up to 200 million forints ($860,000). The Media Council can also initiate a regulatory procedure in the case of “unbalanced reporting,” and ultimately it can suspend the right to broadcast.
The laws governing broadcast media content include specific details on what type of programming may be aired and when. Radio broadcasters must devote over one-third of their airtime to Hungarian music, while 50 percent of television programming must be devoted to European productions. As under the previous media regulation authorities, broadcasters with expiring licenses are required to enter a new bid with the NMHH.
Online media are subject to blocking if they violate legal content restrictions. In May 2015, a court in Budapest ordered that a section of a far-right website dedicated to articles denying the Holocaust be blocked in Hungary; its server was based abroad, beyond the reach of Hungarian laws banning Holocaust denial.
Political Environment: 15 / 40 (↓1)
Editorial bias and political pressure persist as problems at both public and private media outlets. The media landscape is politically polarized, and the public broadcaster favors the government. In 2015, a dispute between Prime Minister Orbán and Simicska, a Hungarian media mogul, was reflected in shifts in the country’s conservative media landscape. Previously, Simicska’s outlets had been largely supportive of Orbán, but became more critical of his government following the rift. In October, it was reported that Andras Vajna, an ally of Orbán’s and the head of Hungary’s film commission, had purchased TV2, the country’s second-largest commercial television station. However, the transaction was being disputed at the year’s end, with another media mogul—Károly Fonyó, an associate of Simicska’s—saying he had rightfully bought the station. Separately, in September, businessmen close to Fidesz purchased the financial daily Napi Gazdaság, which subsequently changed its name to Magyar Idők and became more progovernment, while the head of a think tank close to Fidesz launched a news site, 888.hu. Also, RTL Klub ramped up criticism of the government in its news programs after the Orbán administration in 2014 implemented a tax policy that disproportionately affected it; the policy was later rolled back.
Under the Media Law, the funding and content production for all public media is centralized under one body, the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), supervised by the Media Council. Concerns persist regarding the transparency of public-media funding. Following large layoffs at MTVA in 2011 amid government claims of budgetary concerns, public media began to receive significant budget increases, adding to suspicions that the firings were politically motivated. In March, the general-interest public channel M1 was relaunched as a news-only channel, supposedly to offset the loss of Simicska-owned HírTV.
Reporters have spoken to international watchdog organizations about growing self-censorship in the face of possible lawsuits, fines, or dismissal. Occasionally, there have been reports of censorship in the public media. In August 2015, a leaked memo revealed that the MTVA had instructed public television workers to avoid showing images of women and children in their coverage of the refugee crisis.
Violence against journalists is rare in Hungary. However, in September 2015, Hungarian police reportedly attacked at least seven international journalists—including a crew from Radio Television of Serbia and a reporter from Polish public broadcaster TVP—covering the refugee crisis at the Serbian-Hungarian border, prompting condemnations from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and human rights groups. Authorities on several occasions denied journalists access to areas where refugees and migrants were being housed.
Economic Environment: 13 / 30 (↓1)
Hungary enjoys a broad array of print, broadcast, and online media, although most outlets identify with one or the other side of the political spectrum. The media landscape is dominated by private companies, with decreasing levels of foreign investment in national and local newspapers. Two terrestrial commercial television stations, TV2 and RTL Klub, remain the principal sources of news for most people in Hungary, along with a number of cable channels. RTL Klub’s Luxembourg-based parent company is owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. TV2 was sold in 2015, but its ownership at the year’s end was being disputed by Vajna, a close ally of the prime minster, and Fonyó, an associate of Simicska’s. The conservative media scene has expanded rapidly since 2010, and almost all state advertising is directed toward public media and outlets owned by progovernment businessmen. Public media, which is in essence controlled by the government, has seen increased funding in recent years.
The state-funded news agency MTI publishes nearly all of its news and photographs online for free, and offers media service providers the ability to download and republish them. The 2010 media laws include a provision that require broadcasters to carry news, but they are not allowed to run advertisements during their newscasts. As a result, most local and regional outlets that cannot compete with MTI take its news services and packages, and the incentive to practice “copy-and-paste journalism” is high. The accuracy and objectivity of MTI reporting has come under criticism since the Fidesz government came to power in 2010.
There has been an increase in domestically owned internet-based news outlets in recent years. The internet penetration was 72 percent as of 2015. Data published by the NMHH in 2013 indicated the persistence of a significant gap between usage rates in Budapest and the rest of the country.
The government’s tax policies toward the media have generated controversy over the past few years. In 2013, the government proposed a controversial, progressive advertising tax that critics charge was intended to deter TV2’s potential foreign buyers. The final version of the tax, adopted in 2014, disproportionately impacted TV2’s main competitor, the market leader RTL Klub. The station filed an official complaint with the European Commission, and the government eventually backed down and replaced the progressive tax with a flat tax of 5.3 percent in May 2015. While the rate only applies to companies with a revenue of 100 million forints ($350,000) or more, it still disproportionately burdens middle-sized, domestically owned outlets.
State and state-dependent advertisers usually buy space in progovernment media, and many private companies have followed suit, helping to fuel the expansion of pro-Fidesz media groups. In 2014 the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers—in cooperation with other international media monitors—released a report on “soft censorship” practices in the Hungarian media, alleging that the state’s biased advertising spending influences editorial policies. While the recipients changed after the Simicska-Orbán rift, state advertising continues to distort the market by, among other things, keeping afloat progovernment outlets that would otherwise not be able to operate.
The community radio sector in Hungary, once a model for the region, has been reduced to a small handful of stations since 2010. This is attributed in large part to changes in the new media laws, including the redefinition of what constitutes a community radio station; the imposition of burdensome reporting regulations; a laborious application processes for licenses; and the reallocation of broadcast frequencies and public funds toward religious and municipal radio stations.