Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban has been been accused of consolidating power over the media in the Central European country. With his overwhelming victory in the April 8 election behind him, Orban and his Fidesz party now hold a two-thirds majority in the nation’s parliament, a ruling coalition which can change the Hungarian constitution as it sees fit.
In an open letter to the editor of The Washington Post, Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs declared that “for Hungarians, it’s Hungary first.” The parliamentary elections were monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which said that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.”
Along with a shrinking media landscape, influence from Russian soft power has also made its appearance in the country. Fidesz opposes EU governance, particularly its migrant policies, coinciding with Russia’s geopolitical goals in the region. Orban’s government not only opposes sanctions against Russia, but also applies pressure to Ukraine, whose Transcarpathia region has a significant Hungarian-speaking minority. Orban’s meteoric rise includes an important theme -- media consolidation under the state.
Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher with Freedom House, explained how Orban and Fidesz gradually brought the press to heel.
“There are still quite a few papers and online news sites that are critical of the government, but their numbers and their reach is decreasing by the day, and pro-government media has come to dominate the market to a previously unseen extent,” Csaky told Polygraph.info via email.
“This was made possible through a series of measures including turning the public media into a propaganda machine and the slow ‘bleeding out’ of private outlets by taking away their sources of income,” she said.
Csaky alleges the government diverts advertising away from critical outlets and, driving financially weakened outlets to either close down or be taken over by businessmen close to Fidesz.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, pointed to such consolidation in ranking Hungary 73rd in the world.
“Nevertheless, the Hungarian media landscape is still varied,” RSF reported. “...and both print and online outlets do not hesitate to publish investigative coverage of alleged corruption involving top Fidesz and government officials.”
In addition to media consolidation, outright disinformation has played a major role in Hungarian politics, said Csaky, who noted several examples of fabricated stories about Muslim migrants which were pushed in the media by pro-Fidesz sources.
“What’s more important for Fidesz’s purposes is that pro-government sites are flooded by stories of ‘migrant criminality,’” she said. “If you looked at origo.hu, for example, [in] the weeks leading up to the election, its landing page contained nothing but articles describing heinous crimes allegedly committed by Muslim immigrants.”
TV news, she said covered almost exclusively terrorism- and migration-related stories over the past two years.
“It’s very hard to overstate the effect of this ‘parallel reality’ on people’s perception of Hungary’s biggest problems,” she said.
When it comes to pushing fabricated or distorted stories about “migrant criminality,” Hungary’s far-right has a partner abroad -- Russia. Csaky noted how Hungarian outlets would “copy and paste” stories from Russian outlets such as RT. While a 2017 report from the think tank Political Capital found links between pro-Russian social media pages and the Hungarian far-right, Csaky said that, due to the language barrier, most of the xenophobic propaganda is produced in Hungary.
Peter Kreko, a social psychologist and political scientist, is the executive director of Political Capital agreed.
“In Hungary, the pro-Russian outlets aren’t the big issue. But the big story in Hungary is that [the] Hungarian government and pro-government media is doing this Russian propaganda work without any payment or without any direct order,” Kreko told Polygraph.info.
Kreko added that pro-government disinformation sometimes matches Kremlin narratives without any direct influence from Russia.
“There was a narrative before the election that the CIA was planning a plot like the Maidan revolution,” he said. “So the Maidan was depicted as it was by the Russian media -- as just a bad, evil American plot.”
Kreko sees disinformation as an even bigger problem than media consolidation.
“There were some very blatant cases where it turned out that the Hungarian government media is practically producing fake news, but of course it remains without any recognition,” he said.
According to Kreko, most fabricated news stories revolve around Muslim immigrants in Europe. Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative journalist and research associate with the Atlantic Council, provided Polygraph.info with other examples of fabricated stories about migrant crime.
“There have been a lot of fake anti-migrant videos and stories in Hungarian pro-government media before the election, or bogus stories aimed at proving that Western Europe has been overrun by Muslim hordes,” Panyi said.
Panyi cited a story that aired on the Hungarian government-controlled news channel M1. In it, a Hungarian woman with dual citizenship in Sweden claimed she was moving back to Hungary because she no longer felt safe in Sweden due to Muslim migrants. She said women in Sweden could not safely ride the metro during the day out of fear of being harassed by Muslim men, and Swedish police did nothing to prevent or punish such harassment. It subsequently emerged that the woman was wanted in Sweden for a number of crimes, including posing as a psychologist. Further investigation also found that, contrary to her claims, the woman had never lived in Stockholm, where many of her stories about harassment allegedly took place.
Apart from horror stories about migrants, George Soros has drawn the particular ire of pro-Fidesz media. The billionaire philanthropist regularly features in Fidesz’s electoral propaganda. Like members of the political opposition in many other countries, those who oppose Orban are often said to be in the pay of Soros. After Hungary’s election, the Russian state-funded news agency Sputnik published a story quoting Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs, who claimed that Soros would not accept the results of the election and was trying to “break Hungary.” Fidesz’s representatives in Hungary’s parliament have tried to ban organizations like Open Society Foundations, the international grant-making network founded by Soros. In response, the NGO recently announced that it will close its office in Budapest by August 31 of this year.
Despite its own researcher’s criticism, the U.S. watchdog Freedom House still rated Hungary in as a “free” in its yearly report, "Freedom in the World." Casky pointed out Hungary fell just one point above the next lower category, “partially free.”She added a Hungarian report called “Nations in Transit” placed Hungary as a “semi-consolidated democracy,” among countries like Romania and Croatia, which is below the top rating of “consolidated democracy.”
Despite backsliding in media freedoms and civil society, Hungarian opposition still exists. Since the election there have been several mass protests in the capital, where a recent Saturday demonstration brought an estimated 100,000 people into the streets.