Freedom of the Press
Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- Hungary’s largest independent daily, Népszabadság, which had uncovered a string of scandals involving the ruling party, was unexpectedly suspended in October. Soon afterward, its parent company was sold to a firm linked to an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
- Government-affiliated owners also purchased a number of regional newspapers and a major business weekly, and a progovernment tabloid was launched in the fall.
- In the lead-up to an October referendum on refugee resettlement, public media outlets’ bias came into sharp relief as they overwhelmingly echoed the government’s negative views on refugees.
- In September, police stopped and searched reporters from the German channel RTL who were attempting to film a controversial new soccer stadium and rail line in Prime Minister Orbán’s home village.
Hungary’s constitution protects freedoms of speech and the press, but complex and extensive media legislation enacted under Orbán’s administration has undermined these guarantees. Outlets friendly to his Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union, or Fidesz, dominate the media market. The public broadcaster clearly favors Fidesz and its policy goals, and has increasingly been used to discredit the party’s political opponents. The government also seeks to control the media through the selective awarding of advertising contracts and radio broadcasting frequencies. A number of outlets, most of them online, feature critical or investigative reporting, but their status is precarious in the face of government pressures.
In 2016, officials maintained pressure on independent outlets that are critical of the government, while progovernment media continued to expand through both acquisitions and the establishment of new outlets. Consequently, progovernment media dominated the media sector at the close of 2016, while critical voices experienced increasing difficulties in reaching audiences. The rapid series of acquisitions has also left the ownership of many outlets unclear. The closure of the left-leaning newspaper Népszabadság, the best-selling political daily, represented a particularly serious blow to media diversity in Hungary. Shortly after the paper’s formal suspension, its parent company was sold to the firm Opimus Press, which is linked to Orbán ally Lőrinc Mészáros. In December, Opimus announced that it did not plan to reopen Népszabadság.
State-owned media outlets continued to favor government policies, and this bias was particularly apparent during the lead-up to an October referendum on a European Union–backed refugee resettlement program. In October, the Berlin-based think tank Democracy Reporting International and Hungary’s Mérték Media Monitor released a study of news programs about refugees and the referendum broadcast by television stations before the vote. The research found that 91 percent of such programming by the state-owned M1 cast these issues in a negative light.
The government attempted to interfere with reporters’ work on several occasions. In April, four news websites were banned from the parliament after its speaker, László Kövér, was filmed in an area that is usually restricted; the footage showed him ignoring questions about irregularities at the country’s central bank. The ban was lifted in September, though another outlet was banned the following month after its reporters briefly obstructed the path of a Fidesz spokesperson in their attempts to question him. Also in September, police searched reporters from the German channel RTL who were attempting to film two controversial construction projects: a soccer stadium in Orbán’s home village of Felcsút, and a railway connecting Felcsút to another village where the prime minister’s family has roots. Months earlier, police seized a drone, camera, and memory card used by an online news portal to film the stadium, claiming that such filming violated aviation rules; the outlet argued that such rules were poorly defined. Separately, the government took several steps during the year to limit the scope of the country’s freedom of information law.
Legal Environment: 12 / 30
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. 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. However, in October 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that photos of police officers could be published without obtaining their permission if it served the public interest.
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 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. A 2016 law exempted the Hungarian Postal Services from the Freedom of Information Act, thus preventing members of the public from inquiring about its contracts and other operations. In March, the parliament adopted a law restricting the public’s access to information about the companies owned and the foundations funded by the central bank (MNB). However, the Constitutional Court weeks later ruled the law unconstitutional. On April 22, data regarding the foundations was published, revealing a number of questionable transactions, including ones that benefit the bank’s director and his allies. An amendment introduced in April created new categories of information exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests submitted to the MNB, including information deemed “in the interest of a central financial or foreign exchange policy.” Separately, it was reported in June 2016 that the Central and Eastern European History and Society Public Foundation for Research had rejected an information request under the Freedom of Information Act by asking for an amendment of the original inquiry, and then dismissing the amended submission as a repeat request. In December 2016, Hungary withdrew from the Open Government Partnership, an intergovernmental transparency initiative.
The government has implemented a number of reforms that give it greater influence over the regulatory system. The restructuring began in 2010, when Fidesz passed 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. The head of the Media Council has the right to nominate the executive directors of all public media. In 2016, the Media Council decided in August not to renew the license of Hungary’s only national private radio station, Class FM.
Online media are subject to blocking if they violate legal content restrictions.
Political Environment: 17 / 40 (↓2)
Editorial bias and political pressure persist at both public and private media outlets. The media landscape is politically polarized, and the public broadcaster favors the government. The dominance of print and broadcast media by progovernment outlets intensified in 2016, fueled by both the acquisition and creation of progovernment media outlets, and pressure on independent media outlets to exit the market. The closure of Hungary’s largest independent daily, Népszabadság, was a particularly serious blow to media diversity. The paper, which had uncovered a string of scandals involving the ruling party, was unexpectedly suspended in October. Shortly after its formal suspension, its parent company was sold to the firm Opimus Press, which is linked to Mészáros, an ally of Orbán. In December, Opimus announced that it did not plan to reopen Népszabadság.
Meanwhile, progovernment media proliferated both through acquisitions and the establishment of new outlets. In October 2016, Opimus Press bought the publisher Mediaworks, which had recently merged with Pannon Lapok Társasága, which controlled numerous regional newspapers. The business weekly Figyelő, was acquired by Mária Schmidt, a government ally. Ripost, a progovernment print tabloid, was launched in the fall of 2016. The free daily newspaper Metropol shut down in June 2016, after it lost a contract that had allowed its distribution at metro stations. A government-affiliated free newspaper, Lokál, soon emerged in its place. The license of Hungary’s only national private radio station, Class FM, was not renewed in 2016. Meanwhile, a new station with a Fidesz-affiliated owner, Rádió 1, was launched in Budapest and began to expand nationally in October.
State media heavily favors the government. This slant was pronounced in the lead-up to an October 2016, government-initiated referendum on a European Union (EU) asylum quota plan that would require Hungary to take in about 1,300 refugees. A joint study by the Berlin-based think tank Democracy Reporting International and Hungary’s Mérték Media Monitor found that 91 percent of programming about refugees by the state-owned M1 television channel ahead of the vote had cast them in a negative light. During an interview in February 2016, an executive of Hír TV, which has recently become more critical of the government, revealed that government officials had regularly briefed its staff on the current party message, and noted what should be integrated into news programs.
The government during 2016 made some moves to restrict journalists’ access to the parliament. In April, four news websites were banned from the parliament after its speaker, László Kövér, was filmed in an area that is restricted; the footage showed him ignoring questions about irregularities at the country’s central bank. The ban was lifted in September, though another outlet was banned the following month after its reporters briefly obstructed the path of a Fidesz spokesperson while trying to question him.
Reporters have spoken to international watchdog organizations about growing self-censorship in the face of possible lawsuits, fines, or dismissals. According to a survey published in March 2016 by the Mérték Media Monitor, 41 percent of journalists and 52 percent of editors reported that they had concealed a political fact to avoid adverse consequences, and 47 percent of responding journalists said they had experienced political pressure.
Progovernment media have become more dominant compared to independent media. Critical media are represented by only a few television channels, radio stations, and print and online outlets.
Officials prevented reporters from covering newsworthy events on a number of occasions in 2016. In September, police searched reporters from the German channel RTL who were attempting to film two controversial construction projects: a soccer stadium in Orbán’s home village of Felcsút, and a railway connecting Felcsút to another village where the prime minister’s family has roots. Months earlier, police seized a drone, camera, and memory card used by an online news portal to film the stadium, claiming that such filming violated aviation rules; the outlet argued that such rules were poorly defined.
Violence against journalists is rare in Hungary, but cases of intimidation have been reported. According to an investigation published by the 444.hu news outlet in September 2016, officials from an internal security agency the previous December had sought to compel a journalist to cooperate with them; they confronted the with journalist information about his private life, claiming that an unidentified but harmful actor had disclosed it and they would assist him only if he agreed to report to them. (The journalist refused.)
Economic Environment: 15 / 30 (↓2)
The media landscape is dominated by private companies, with decreasing levels of foreign investment in newspapers and other news outlets. The conservative media scene has expanded rapidly since 2010. Public media, which is in essence controlled by the government, has seen increased funding in recent years. A high number of media transactions in 2016 contributed to existing confusion about the ownership of many outlets, both progovernment and critical.
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 such “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.
The current government dominates all elements of the media value chain. It has used political influence to allocate digital, terrestrial, and cable frequencies on the basis of political criteria, and offers financial support to progovernment media through advertising contracts, while squeezing critical media out of the market. The government’s tax policies toward the media have also generated controversy over the past few years for disproportionately burdening middle-sized, domestically owned outlets.
Opimus Press, though its 2016 acquisitions, at year’s end controlled about half of newspaper printing capacities in Hungary.
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 December 2016, a government-affiliated businessman bought Atmedia, a major advertising sales house whose current portfolio includes public television channels.