Time to address the decline of independent media in Hungary

As we mark World Press Freedom Day, a worrying trend continues in Hungary, as the Member State slides further in the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, writes Gabor Polyak.
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By Gabor Polyak

Gabor Polyak is head of the Mertek Media Monitor, a Hungarian watchdog group

04 May 2021

World Press Freedom Day on May 3 is an annual event which was established in 1993 by the United Nations to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold freedom of expression.

Hungary, however, has dropped further in the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, coming in 92nd out of 180 countries, a drop of three places in comparison to last year.

RSF named Hungary as one of the 130 countries that partly or completely block journalism. The authors note that emergency legislation in force since March 2020, despite a name change, “continues to criminalise ‘fake news’ about the Coronavirus and to block access to information” in Hungary.

Foreign media in Hungary, meanwhile, have reportedly been targeted by an intimidation campaign and Hungary is exporting its media capture practices to neighbouring countries.

Conditions for journalists in Hungary have changed with respect to independent media, with the demise of Klubradio and the takeover of Index.

Index was the biggest news site in Hungary until the summer of 2020, read by voters on all political sides. The final political occupation of the portal leaves a serious void in the Hungarian public sphere.

Although Telex.hu, a new project by former Index journalists, has had a successful start, with significant readership and donors, it cannot replace Index.

“Index was the biggest news site in Hungary until the summer of 2020, read by voters on all political sides. The final political occupation of the portal leaves a serious void in the Hungarian public sphere”

Index was not just a political news portal; it also offered a wide range of coverage, from tabloid news to women's and tech issues, which is why it was able to reach so many readers.

Index is still in operation, with a new team, and it cannot be said that it has become another propaganda paper. At the same time, it is completely at the mercy of Fidesz, the right-wing political party.

It could be transformed at any point into a party mouthpiece and even abolished. This is the new phenomenon in the Hungarian media system, which is very worrying.

There is an increasing number of media products on the Hungarian media market which are still independent in content, which do not convey the government's messages, but are dependent on the government and Fidesz for their ownership or funding.

Besides Index, this includes the largest news television station (ATV) and even the largest left-wing daily newspaper (Népszabadság).

So, how should the European Union and other international bodies respond to the decline of independent media in the country?

Well, the EU has been expressing its concern about the state of press freedom in Hungary for ten years.

“Although the EU consults Hungarian NGOs and independent experts in the preparation of its rule of law reports, only the Hungarian government has a meaningful say in the actual decision-making process”

In the meantime, an illiberal media policy has also proved to be highly contagious. Among EU member states, Poland and Slovenia see the Fidesz government as a role model, but Serbia and Northern Macedonia, as acceding states, also look to Viktor Orbán as a role model.

Since 2016, the EU has failed to decide on two state aid complaints that would significantly improve the media situation in Hungary.

One complaint concerns the funding of state media, the other the discriminatory distribution of state advertising.

These are pure competition cases, backed by well-developed case law. The EU 's Audiovisual Media Services Directive would give the Commission the means to control the seriously biased Media Council.

Monitoring the functioning of the media authority would also clearly show the Commission that the Hungarian authority is not independent.

An Eastern European media freedom research centre is absolutely necessary. Currently, the EU only funds centres in Western Europe, which only have second-hand information about the situation here.

Although the EU consults Hungarian NGOs and independent experts in the preparation of its rule of law reports, only the Hungarian government has a meaningful say in the actual decision-making process.

For example, in addition to the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA), a civil and academic consultative body would be justified so that the political interests of the governing parties are not the only ones reflected in decision-making.

The EU has so far used neither its legal nor its political instruments effectively. Sadly, this is now a threat to democracy in Europe as a whole.

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