On April 8, Hungarians will head to the polls in parliamentary elections touted as a matter of life and death by almost all of the country’s political actors. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his governing Fidesz party claim there is no less at stake than the future of Christian Europe, while many in the opposition believe this might be the last chance to defeat Orbán’s increasingly autocratic regime at the polls.
Battles of life and death need rousing, apocalyptic speeches, and the one Orbán gave to a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands on March 15 certainly lived up to the task:
“We are calm and good-humoured people, but we are neither blind nor gullible. After the election we will of course seek amends – moral, political and legal amends – but we cannot waste our strength or our time on that now. We shall shake off the attacks as a dog shakes off water. We shall focus our strength only on our mission, and only on our common goal: the defence of Hungary.”
Orbán did not specify whom he was referring to, or what exactly he meant by “moral, political and legal” amends, but the speech certainly made many people – not just politicians but journalists and various members of Hungary’s dwindling civil society as well – very nervous.
A few days after the speech, Index, the country’s largest online news site, published an article that sought to interpret Orbán’s words, quoting unnamed Fidesz officials. While some of the officials insisted the speech did not aim to threaten anyone, others hinted that Hungarian journalists “doing political work in the place of weak opposition parties” should perhaps “stop for a moment and think about what they are doing”.
“Orbán was menacing everyone who hasn’t yet surrendered to the Fidesz power machine”, Gábor Polyák, a leading Hungarian media law scholar, told the International Press Institute (IPI). “And yes, this includes the independent media that haven’t yet understood what role the media are supposed to play in this machine. Fidesz can’t accept autonomous actors, but only those that are willing to serve its daily political needs.”
According to Polyák, the seeds of Fidesz’s media policy were sown in the period from 1998 to 2002, when Orbán first served as the country’s prime minister. It was during this time that Orbán and his allies began talking about “media balance”, by which they meant offsetting a media landscape seen as dominated by left-leaning outlets.
“After 2010 (when Orbán and Fidesz returned to power), they continued the job, but with methods more commonly seen in autocracies like Russia and Turkey”, Polyák said.
In applying those methods over the past eight years, the Orbán government has completely transformed the Hungarian media landscape – and, of course, the country itself.
“The Hungarian media ecosystem was very vulnerable in 2010”, Polyák explained. “The global financial crisis (had) destroyed the advertising market, and this led to many foreign owners selling off their interests in Eastern Europe. Fidesz, through oligarchs connected to the party, pounced on everything that was on offer. I can’t overstate the responsibility of Western investors, because they knew perfectly well whom they were selling to and what these buyers’ intentions were.”
András Bódis, a journalist at the conservative weekly Heti Válasz who has written extensively about media issues, put Fidesz’s media policy into a larger context.
“I don’t think we should see the media as a separate entity from other parts of the market”, he told IPI. “Years ago, Orbán declared that he wanted industries of strategic importance in Hungarian hands, and he certainly sees media as strategically important. It’s easier for him when he just has to give orders to a bunch of his associates and not waste time convincing foreign owners.”
It was this strategy that resulted in the steamrolling of large sectors of the independent media. Origo, formerly the largest Hungarian news site, was sold by Deutsche Telekom’s Hungarian subsidiary and ended up in the hands of the son of the governor of the Hungarian National Bank. TV2, one of Hungary’s two national commercial TV channels, was bought by Andy Vajna, a former Hollywood film producer on friendly terms with Orbán. Népszabadság, a leftist newspaper with the largest circulation of all political dailies, was shut down, a decision its owner, Heinrich Pecina, an Austrian businessman with many links to the Fidesz media empire, claimed was purely financial. Pecina was also instrumental in another big media coup for Orbán: the purchasing of all of the country’s regional newspapers by companies known for safeguarding his media interests.
Orbán has certainly succeeded in silencing, or at least taming, many independent voices. Even outlets like Népszava, the last remaining leftist daily political newspaper, and ATV, a TV station long seen as sympathetic towards opposition causes, are now known to have either cut deals with, or received money from, government circles.
Still, despite all the efforts of Orbán’s media advisors, the machine built over the past eight years is far from perfect. In an article published in February, Bódis argued that Hungarian government-friendly media are only effective when they have no competitors.
“It’s not as easy as they think at Fidesz headquarters when they give out their orders”, he explained recently to IPI.
“I’m sure Orbán believes the numbers his media advisors put in front of him, but these numbers fall apart even after a little bit of scratching. The regional newspapers are selling fewer and fewer (copies), and their readership is getting very old. Hardly anyone reads Magyar Idők (a political daily set up by Fidesz-friendly businessmen). TV2, despite all the help it gets from the government, cannot catch up with RTL Klub (the other national commercial TV station). On paper Origo’s numbers look good, but many of their page impressions are simply bought from Facebook and other sources and are therefore politically useless. The new websites they’ve set up are reaching even fewer people.”
For his part, Polyák suggested that Hungarian society was slowly becoming immune to influencing via government-friendly media because what people saw in their daily lives was different from the government’s propaganda.
“Blaming everything on migrants, on George Soros, and now even on the U.N. has nothing to do with people’s everyday problems”, he said. “It does create a terrifying virtual world, but this only seems enough to hold together (Fidesz’s) own voting base, not to convince anybody outside of it. Yes, this might be enough to win the upcoming elections, but only because Fidesz has tilted the electoral playing field in such a way that it strongly disfavours a fractured opposition like the one we have now in Hungary”.
How ineffective Orbán’s media machine can be was made evident in late February when Fidesz lost a mayoral election to a candidate who had managed to unite the entire opposition. What made the loss even more striking was that it happened in the town of Hódmezővásárhely, where Fidesz had been in power for twenty years, and where few people were expecting this kind of upset. But despite all government-friendly media outlets’ openly campaigning for him, the Fidesz candidate only received 42 percent of the vote to the opposition’s 58 percent.
That loss may provide extra motivation for Fidesz to patch up vulnerabilities in its media empire by moving against key outlets still outside government control. Bódis published his February article before the Hódemzővásárhely surprise, but he was certain even then that after the elections Orbán would target the two largest fish left in the media tank: Index and RTL Klub.
“The Fidesz media policy is very simple: ‘we need to control everything’”, he told IPI. “They can only move ahead with this strategy, and they will never abandon their plan. Everything that I’ve heard from Fidesz politicians indicates that they will try to get those two. RTL Klub and Index reach more people than their whole (current) media empire combined.”
While RTL Klub – which is owned by the Luxembourg-based RTL Group, whose majority shareholder is the German conglomerate Bertelsmann – and Index would certainly be the jewels in Orbán’s media crown, they will be tough nuts to crack.
“RTL Klub is financially very stable, and is protected by German politicians”, Polyák noted. “Still, its life could be made difficult, for example, by somehow meddling in the advertising market or the cable network.”
Bódis sees other options, too: “They don’t necessarily have to buy RTL Klub, they could just make a deal with the Germans that would result in RTL Klub’s toning down its nightly news show. A deal like this can only be made at the Orbán-Merkel level, but I can see some wider political and economic deal in which they include the media.”
Index might prove the easier fish to reel in. Polyák believes the site’s financial stability is not assured on the long run.
Whatever happens to RTL Klub and Index, the likely Fidesz victory on April 8 is bad news for Hungarian media.
Polyák told IPI that he is less worried by possible new acquisitions by government-friendly oligarchs than by the remaining independent outlets’ slowly dying off.
“If Fidesz stays in power, the best-case scenario is that no independent outlets disappear in the next four years”, he said.
Bódis, who also thinks that Orbán’s speech about moral, political and legal amends was meant to calm his own supporters and was not directed at the media, told IPI that he, as anybody working in Hungarian media, does worry about his future. But he feels his job is safer at Heti Válasz than at the government-friendly outlets that have, in his view, proven themselves highly ineffective.