EU investigating whether Hungarian state aid spending is undermining media freedom

Press freedom watchdog warns that Hungarian Foreign Affairs Ministry has written to embassies instructing them to monitor Hungarian journalists.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

26 Oct 2020

European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager is investigating the use of state aid to undermine media pluralism in Hungary, it has emerged.

This comes in response to calls for an EU response to alleged abuses of press freedom in Hungary.

In a letter, Vestager says, “Contacts with the Hungarian government are ongoing and I am investigating both complaints with utmost care.”

Vestager also acknowledged the wider challenge posed by perceived threats to democracy in Hungary.

Citing the EU’s rule of law report, the forthcoming Democracy Action Plan, and the Audiovisual Media Services Directive she pointed to other measures in the Commission's “toolkit” which were being deployed to protect media freedom in Europe, including support for independent journalists.

The Hungarian government is alleged to have spent significant amounts of public funds on politically motivated advertisement campaigns through selected media outlets, unfairly starving independent media channels of revenue.

One complaint was made in 2019 by András Arató of Klubrádió, an independent Hungarian talk radio station, former MEP Benedek Jávor and Ágnes Urbán, of the Mérték media monitor group.

“While the Commission looks at these complaints, [Hungarian PM] Viktor Orbán is simply dismantling media freedom further. By failing to take swift action, Orban will just be encouraged to eliminate the little that still remains of independent media in Hungary” Eszter Nagy, a pro-EU activist based in Budapest

A second complaint dates back to 2016, again relating to the alleged misuse of public funds to skew advertising spending in a way that undermines media outlets that are not supportive of the government.

The European Commission says it needs to properly assess the evidence before it can take action. However, campaigners fear that any further delay will lead to “irreversible damage” to the independent media landscape in Hungary.

Eszter Nagy, a pro-EU activist based in Budapest, said, “While the Commission looks at these complaints, [Hungarian PM] Viktor Orbán is simply dismantling media freedom further. By failing to take swift action, Orban will just be encouraged to eliminate the little that still remains of independent media in Hungary.”

“Ever since the new one-party constitution and more restrictive media legislation were adopted, it has become crystal clear what is going on in Hungary. That is why the issue of media freedom cannot be resolved from within Hungary.”

Nagy says that independent media is under “continuous threat” in Hungary with the loss of the popular independent media platform INDEX.hu when 70 of its journalists walked out this summer being the latest example.

As well as allegedly misusing state aid to distort the market, Orban is also accused of restricting free media by controlling the regulatory framework in Hungary. The National Media Authority which decides on frequency permits, has just withdrawn the operating licence from Klubrádió, the nation’s last remaining independent radio station.

Povl Henningsen, a communications expert based in Aarhus, Denmark and co-signatory of one of the complaints about Hungary, said, “The rules should be the same for all of us in the EU and the Commission should be in a position to make sure that both citizens and governments uphold them.”

“Why is Hungary able to get away with things which the Danish government, for example, would never be given the space to do?”

“With each day that passes, more damage is being done to media independence in Hungary. It is good to hear there are steps the Commission can take to safeguard democratic freedoms. But in the case of Hungary, the lack of any real red lines means in practice that the government can disregard its European obligations” Roger Casale of the New Europeans campaign group

Hungary has found itself at loggerheads with the EU on various occasions in the past few years over the rule of law, corruption and media freedom.

Most recently, the EU’s top court, the Court of Justice, said that Hungary breached EU law with its reform of higher education rules, which forced a university founded by Hungarian-born American billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros to move most of its activities out of the country.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom also reported last week that the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has written to embassies in EU Member States instructing them to monitor Hungarian journalists. Information relating to work trips or training courses is allegedly being shared with the Hungarian government, according to the Centre.

Reacting to the Commissioner's letter, former UK Labour MP Roger Casale, of the New Europeans campaign group which has campaigned against attacks on the media in Hungary, said, "We understand that the Commission needs time to do the forensics and identify the culprit. The problem is that the culprit is still at large.”

“With each day that passes, more damage is being done to media independence in Hungary. It is good to hear there are steps the Commission can take to safeguard democratic freedoms. But in the case of Hungary, the lack of any real red lines means in practice that the government can disregard its European obligations.”

Meanwhile, Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch says that European People’s Party President and former council president Donald Tusk’s “problems with us certainly go far beyond the world of politics and belong to another profession — psychology.”

He was speaking after Tusk criticized Hungary’s leadership, saying, “This attempt to build a new ideology, which is called by Viktor Orbán an ‘illiberal democracy,’ means in fact degenerate democracy.”

The EPP has suspended Fidesz from its political party membership following concern about rule of law breaches in Hungary.

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