This piece is published in collaboration with HVG as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

The article is available in Hungarian on HVG’s website.

While subscribers to government-controlled county newspapers are rapidly turning away from them, even after decades of readership, Hungary’s pro-government media giant Mediaworks is spreading free propaganda papers in opposition-run towns.

“Dirt, filth, mess – Where is the downtown clean-up lagging?”, reads the front page of City7, a free regional newspaper published by Mediaworks, in one of its frequent attacks on the opposition local government. The weekly publications were launched last spring in opposition-run cities by the media company, which is heavily backed by state advertising funded by the public purse. In May-June 2020 alone, they received 2.6 billion HUF, more than 40 percent of the total state advertising budget.

The 450,000 copies of the publication, which attack opposition mayors, have a large degree of editorial and infrastructural overlap with the pro-government county newspapers.

Government-acquired local news brands have lost trust and readers

In recent years, the Orbán government has purchased all the county newspapers which had previously often published opinions critical of the government, and transformed them into mouthpieces for Fidesz, the ruling party.

They bought the existing papers – instead of establishing new ones – because they all have a very long history, and are embedded locally. The Délmagyarország in Csongrád-Csanád county was founded in 1910, and is Hungary’s oldest periodical, but is now effectively campaigning for the government. The fact that newspapers with long decades of tradition now belong to a single owner seriously undermines market competition in this sector. However, the Hungarian Competition Authority (GVH) has not been able to consider whether it should take action, as the prime minister has issued an edict declaring the merger of the publishing houses to be of national economic importance.

The county newspapers’ circulation has been falling rapidly since the decision. 

According to the 2021 fourth quarter flash report of the Hungarian Association of Distribution Control (MATESZ), the average number of copies of all county newspapers circulated has fallen by almost 6,000 copies – to 313,000 in total – compared to the previous quarter. Compared to 2010, the year in which the Orbán government took power: less than half as many newspapers are sold compared to the beginning of 2010. 

Pro-government messaging is distributed freely

This fall in circulation of these now pro-government media is probably why Mediaworks decided to spread free newspapers in opposition-majority towns.

This includes Hódmezővásárhely, where Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition’s joint candidate for prime minister in the April election, was mayor. It’s not that the governing party has been at a media disadvantage in the city so far: the mayor was not invited to the local radio station – whose owners are closely connected to Fidesz and the party’s local MP – since his election in 2018.

Free local newspapers, which are quite clearly politically motivated (campaigning for Fidesz candidates and spreading the content of the national pro-government newspapers), are distributed in the capital’s eighth district as well, where a leftist radio journalist was elected mayor in 2019, replacing a Fidesz MP. In addition to publishing political articles attacking the local leader and praising the government, these publications try to make themselves more “attractive to consumers” with popular tabloid and local colourful stories.

It is Mediaworks itself that advertises in these newspapers – promoting their own pro-government or tabloid publications. But they also receive plenty of state advertising. During the campaign period, for example, a trick was employed to ensure that the opposition’s political ads did not disturb the overall picture.

The newspapers announced to the authorities that they could not publish election ads, except in relation to the government’s so-called child protection referendum to be held at the same time; the referendum is on the promotion of gender-transformative surgery for children, labelled by the government as “sexual propaganda”, and was held at the same time as the general election. But apart from some civilian activism, only the government campaigned on this issue, effectively meaning that the government could place its ads in the papers while no other party had this ability.

Where Mediaworks may not have issued free local political newspapers, Fidesz publications criticizing the recently elected opposition leadership have often been launched. This was the case in Óbuda, the 3rd district of Budapest. The company that used to publish the district’s municipal newspaper started to run a paper that was very similar in appearance to the old district newspaper and sharply critical of the new mayor. The same formula is applied in other locations as well.

An opposition samizdat

In Hungary’s small towns, people are already mobilizing to counter the propaganda efforts.

Several hundred people are distributing about 100,000 photocopied sheets with news critical of the government from the online press in order to counterbalance the ruling party’s dominance of media in rural areas, in the central European tradition of the ‘samizdat’ clandestine newspaper. It is called “Nyomtass te is” or ‘Print it yourself’.

The “Print it yourself” leaflet was mentioned by Péter Márki-Zay, the joint candidate for prime minister of the opposition parties, in his speech after his victory in the primaries – he thanked the activists for the movement and encouraged people to continue spreading these independent leaflets. Activists use the half-folded, double-sided A4 photocopied sheet, to spread news inconvenient for the government, especially in small rural settlements and villages.

This is to counteract the fact that the basically monopolistic county papers have been brought under the absolute control of the ruling party and that public television is also a mouthpiece of the ruling party.

Formerly, four independent media outlets published the local daily county papers of the counties, but these were acquired by pro-government oligarchs, and merged into Mediaworks. Now all counties (except Pest) have one local daily, published by the same company, and filled with the same pro-government national and local news). Of course, people in rural areas also use the internet, but most of them do not usually look for political content.

The publication is distributed by a few hundred people, with an average of 100,000 copies reaching their target each week. Their distribution partners include opposition parties along with Márki-Zay’s movement. 

“They don’t only distribute it if they are included because they understand the importance of it,” says János L. László, who is in charge of the project.

The initiative has previously won the social innovation award of the Austrian NGO SozialMarie.

Local versions of the publication have been produced before, and 106 versions were edited for the opposition primaries: first, versions reporting on all local candidates and then on the winners. In early 2018 the Csongrád county version of the publication already included Márki-Zay’s mayoral campaign forums and contact details of his campaign office, and reached its highest circulation before the 2018 parliamentary elections, when half a million copies were delivered.

According to the spring 2018 representative survey by the pollster Medián, 14 percent of Budapest residents and 10 percent of those living in villages had encountered the publication. László L. says that a third of those who receive it read it, and a tenth of them admit to having changed their opinion on political issues after six weeks. 

Forged samizdats to damage credibility

The publications have evidently caught the attention of pro-government campaigners too.

One local publication in the Óbuda district of Budapest copied the style and format of an opposition “samizdat” publication distributed by civilians, but used it to smear Tímea Szabó, the local opposition candidate, a claim also spread by the pro-government media. There was another earlier attempt at copying, when the far-right Mi Hazánk party distributed a similar samizdat with the headline “print yourself”, but its design was at least clearly distinguishable.

While the samizdat publications have had a positive impact, it is clear that a structural solution is needed to counter the print news monopoly that the government has created by allowing a single pro-government owner to buy up the majority of local papers. Most other local online portals are managed by the municipalities. Despite a few independent news services such as in Pécs or Szeged, this means that there are now independent news deserts in Hungary, denying rural residents the right to accurate local news coverage and tightening the grip of Fidesz on the media.