Press freedom is being eroded in insidious ways. The EU needs the tools to defend it

Curbs on press freedom do not always entail imprisoned journalists. As the Hungarian media market has shown, such attacks can also take the form of politically connected oligarchs capturing newsrooms
TV screens displaying the logo for Hungarian channel TV2 | Photo: Alamy

By Katalin Cseh

Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh is Vice-Chair of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament and a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Human Rights

08 Mar 2023

“Good evening, and welcome to the evening news. Viktor Orbàn changed his profile picture. The photo got 60,000 likes in a few hours. Not just likes, but comments too. Many think the Prime Minister looks more handsome than earlier. Others believe the photo depicts a confident and strong leader.”

This is a genuine quote from a “news show” broadcast on TV2, Hungary’s second-largest television channel, on 21 June 2020.

The channel happens to be owned by József Vida, a businessman closely linked to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s childhood friend Lőrinc Mészáros, who, in a matter of years, evolved from his origins as a humble pipe-fitter into one of the country’s richest men, with a company growing faster than some American tech giants.

The European Union’s Media Freedom Act needs to understand and reflect on its new reality: assault against media freedom doesn’t always entail imprisoned journalists. Autocrats have become much more sophisticated. Oppression of media freedom can also happen through politically connected oligarchs capturing newsrooms.

Viktor Orbán has built an entire media empire using this playbook. Hungary’s biggest news portals, Index and Origo, were both muzzled in this way.

In 2020, a well-known pro-government media mogul took over Index. Editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull was dismissed, triggering the collective resignation of the portal’s journalists, thus marking the end of the outlet as we know it.

An eerily similar chain of events occurred in 2014 at Origo. The owner, Deutsche Telekom, unexpectedly fired editor-in-chief Gergő Sáling. Scores of journalists resigned. Slowly but surely, the news site was transformed into the nastiest of government mouthpieces. It was a clear (and ultimately, successful) attempt to silence a newsroom that broke multiple corruption scandals about top officials in Orbán’s Fidesz Party that year.

Renew Europe has long been calling for a strong and enforceable Media Freedom Act – one capable of tackling the critical problem of media market concentration.

In Hungary in 2018, around 400 local newspapers, news channels, radio stations and more were merged into the newly created Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) conglomerate.

According to Hungarian investigative media outlet Atlatszo, full ownership of KESMA was transferred to a lawyer associated with Mészáros, Orbàn’s childhood friend-turned-billionaire, in 2020. In a report published that same year, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom found that KESMA “represents a huge and unprecedented concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs who are friendly to the ruling party.”

Oppression of media freedom can also happen through politically connected oligarchs capturing newsrooms

While the creation of KESMA is clearly at odds with both fair competition and media pluralism, the EU has been reluctant to look into it. EU rules must ensure transparency of ownership structures, public media finances, and state advertising.

In the wake of the Pegasus spyware scandal, which targeted journalists not only in Hungary but Poland, Greece and Spain, it has also become clear the EU needs effective protection from spying. This should be in the form of strong and enforceable EU-level rules that prohibit the use of military-grade spyware from infiltrating and tracking a journalist's device. And, importantly, there should be no loopholes.

Europe needs to honour the memory of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and Slovak journalist Jàn Kuciak, both of whom were murdered for doing their job. And the best way to do so is to stand up against predators of media freedom.