Sat, 31 Oct 2020

BUDAPEST - Significant changes to Hungary's media sector over the summer could have a lasting impact on the country's media freedom and work to strengthen Prime Minister Viktor Orban's tight grip on the independent press.

In July, more than 80 journalists at Hungary's largest news portal Index resigned in protest over the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull, who had warned the outlet's independence was at risk. And in September, the Parliament-appointed Media Council announced the license of independent Budapest broadcaster Klubradio would not be renewed. Both outlets have reported critically on the Orban government, which has spent a decade using regulatory and financial means and ownership changes to clamp down on media freedom.

The Index walkout came after a businessman with close ties to the prime minister purchased a 50% stake in its parent company in March. Plans for the site's radical restructuring announced in June, which included outsourcing content creation to external companies, convinced many staff their editorial independence was "in grave danger."

Miklos Vaszily, the businessman who bought into Index's parent company, earlier oversaw a pro-government shift at Hungary's then-largest news outlet Origo. Vaszily told local media he had no intention of doing the same with Index.

The walkout dealt a powerful blow to Hungarian media. Reaching more than one million readers per day in a country of fewer than 10 million, the site was the flagship of critical reporting in a country where media observers say forced closures and acquisitions of outlets by government-allied businessmen have brought many critical news sites to heel.

Even before the takeover, media control in Hungary was described by Reporters Without Borders as "unprecedented in the European Union." The establishment of a media conglomerate in 2018, known by its Hungarian acronym KESMA, consolidated nearly 500 outlets mostly owned by pro-government businessmen and put them under the control of a foundation headed by Orban loyalists. The affiliated outlets take in around 40% of all media revenues in Hungary, but the conglomerate was exempted from review by competition authorities when Orban designated it "of strategic national importance."

In early September, former Index staff announced a crowdfunding campaign for a new outlet. Telex, they wrote, would be a "diverse, interesting, entertaining and impartial news site" that "does not toe the lines of either the opposition or the government."

More than 33,000 people have given donations so far, including Economia, one of the Czech Republic's largest media groups, which pledged €200,000 ($234,000) to Telex on Tuesday.

"Telex's commitment to delivering outstanding journalism, particularly at a time when it is most needed, resonated strongly with us," Economia board chair Zuzana Reznickova said in a statement. Economia will not receive a stake in the new site.

Veronika Munk, Telex's editor-in-chief, resigned as Dull's former deputy at Index along with her colleagues in July. While no outlet could fill the role Index played in Hungarian democracy, she said, former staff aim to create a news service that can change the model for how independent media in Hungary operates.

"Traditional revenue sources like advertising cannot safely and reliably sustain a media company in a balanced way, largely because the Hungarian state itself is the biggest advertiser and chooses which outlets it will spend advertising money on and where it won't," Munk told VOA.

Many Hungarian businesses refrain from placing advertisements with government-critical outlets out of fear of reprisals, she said, requiring a new approach to financially sustaining independent media.

"Hungarians have to learn that they have to pay for news, not just on the street at the news stand, but on the internet as well," Munk said.

Last independent radio station

Just as Telex began its crowdfunding campaign, liberal commercial broadcaster Klubradio learned that Hungary's media regulator would not renew its broadcast license when it expires in February.

The Media Council said the news and talk station committed "repeated infractions" of media laws, including twice failing to provide monthly data on program quotas, which require a certain amount of Hungarian music to be broadcast.

Klubradio chief executive Richard Stock described the decision to VOA as political, and denied the broadcaster committed any violation that could result in the removal of its frequency.

The channel's president Andras Arato agreed, telling news site 444, "We read the Media Council's announcement, but the references to [our] repeated violations simply don't hold water. They could have just said that they don't like Klubradio."

Klubradio broadcasts only in Budapest after the media regulator stripped it of its countryside frequencies in 2013. If the broadcaster does not regain its frequency, it will exist only online. Around 4% of Hungarians listen to the station at least once a week, a survey by media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor found.

The regulatory Media Authority, which the Council is part of, denied it was attempting to silence Klubradio and told VOA the station could apply to regain its frequency through an open tendering process.

The head of Mertek Media Monitor, Gabor Polyak, said that while the decision is legal, the council's composition raises questions over its impartiality - and whether it will approve the station's application to regain its frequency. Each of the council's five members, appointed in December to nine-year terms, were nominated by Hungary's governing Fidesz party.

"The Media Council is not an independent regulatory body in Hungary," Polyak said. "Its members have strong political affiliations, and it is full of former politicians, not professionals. Whether Klubradio can continue or not is a political question."

Munk, of Telex, said the station's liberal leanings may have played a role in the council's decision.

"Klubradio is critical of the government and regularly hosts opposition politicians, so I was not really surprised when I heard that the Media Council did not want to extend their license," Munk said.

In a statement, Klubradio vowed to turn to Hungarian and, if necessary, European courts "to ensure that Hungary's last independent radio station [...] is not silenced."

The Orban government's crackdowns on the media since 2010 have also caught the attention of the U.S. Congress, which last year approved the re-establishment of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Hungary after a 27-year absence.

RFE/RL and Voice of America are both funded by United States taxpayers to provide independent and unbiased news to foreign audiences.

Serving Hungary with radio broadcasts from Munich during the Cold War, RFE/RL (Szabad Europa in Hungarian) relaunched in September in response to what it called "the dramatic constriction of the country's media landscape."

Hungary's Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, opposed the return, calling it "an insult" in an October interview with U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR). U.S. Ambassador to Budapest David Cornstein sought assurances from the U.S. agency that oversees RFE/RL that it would not be overly critical of the Hungarian government, according to unidentified sources quoted last year by the New York Times. The Times identified Cornstein as a personal friend of U.S. President Donald Trump and an admirer of Orban. The allegations prompted 11 members of Congress in 2019 to sign a letter to Cornstein asking him and his staff to respect the broadcaster's editorial independence.

RFE/RL did not respond to VOA's request for comment.

Cornstein did not respond to a request for comment. But in an interview with Hungarian website 24.hu, Cornstein addressed the allegations, saying, "All I ask is that if [RFE/RL] write something critical, they give the Hungarian government the opportunity to react."

Europe stalls

While the retreat of media freedom and other rule of law concerns in Hungary has led some European officials to take action, critics argue the EU's reluctance to take stronger measures have allowed a bad situation to get worse.

In early September, 16 media advocacy groups sent a letter to the European Commission urging it to act on complaints that the government had violated state aid rules to undermine media pluralism. Over the past 10 years, the groups wrote, the government has dismantled press freedom by manipulating the media market, weaponizing state resources to punish critical media and rewarding government mouthpieces.

Article 7 proceedings, which the European Union uses to sanction member states that break with EU values, are ongoing against Hungary. But no concrete sanctions have been imposed, and threats of action have thus far failed to produce results.

In response to the possible closure of Klubradio, the media rights organization International Press Institute criticized the EU for failing to take meaningful action as Hungary's free press is eradicated.

Munk says that she's skeptical of the role of the European Union in protecting Hungary's media environment "because these things have happened and there have been no consequences." She believes that the future of Hungarian media will depend on audiences.

"Readers themselves need to step up and protect their independent media. I think that the society itself can help this situation," she said.

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