This piece is published in collaboration with Delo as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.
The article is also available to read in Slovenian on Delo’s website.
During the last few years, when Janez Janša, a good friend of the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, was the Slovenian Prime Minister, Hungarian owners have solidified their media empire in Slovenia.
Despite reporting which was extremely in favour of Janša and critical of his biggest challenger Robert Golob, this failed to secure the election outcome the SDS party wanted, and Golob’s party won with record-high support.
So what does this mean for Hungarian media ownership?
This media-political project in Slovenia is costly. But although it is too soon to speculate on the ultimate fate of the media empire that advocates extreme right-wing politics, the experience of North Macedonia shows that Hungarian investments in foreign media are not a fad. If these media decide to stay, one possible outcome is that they would lose their edge with time and soften their radical rhetoric.
The role of Hungarian-owned media in Slovenia
The media in Slovenia funded by Hungarian capital include the government-friendly Nova24TV television and web portal and the Demokracija weekly newspaper, along with a number of informative web portals which have consistently been sharing the content of both. They have worked to polish the public image of the until-recently ruling party SDS (Slovenian Democratic Party).
Despite being solidly supported by these media tentacles, Janša’s party, which up to then had been the biggest and wealthiest political party in the country, was defeated by the Freedom Movement, formed only a few months before the election. The newly-founded party of Robert Golob won a record-high number of seats in the Parliament, 41 of a total 90.
After SDS’ election failure a logical question arises: How long will Hungarian investors be willing to invest their money in this extremely costly media apparatus? While magazine Demokracija remains financially self-sufficient, Nova24TV generates relatively high losses that reportedly total one million euros per month.
Already, the Hungarian company R-Post-R has sold its majority stake in Demokracija to Nova24TV, 45 percent of which is still owned by three different Hungarian companies. The remaining shares are controlled by SDS and one of the party’s members of parliament.
Opponents see this move as a withdrawal of Hungarian capital from Slovenia’s media market and believe that the Hungarian media empire in Slovenia would share the same fate with Slovenski tednik and Ekspres, two free newspapers whose purpose was to polish the image of the SDS image before the 2008 election. Janša was at the helm of the government from 2004 to 2008, but the victory went to the centre-left Social Democrats (SD). The above-mentioned free newspapers vanished after the loss.
On the other hand, acting director of Nova24TV Boris Tomašič claims the sale of the stake in Demokracija was just a restructuring move and not an indication of withdrawal of Hungarian investors from Slovenia.
Indeed, nobody doubts the seriousness and competence of Hungarian investors who are the biggest owners of Janša’s current media network and are close to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. If Janša’s allies from Hungary are willing to continue funding this complex media project, despite the negative outlook on its profitability in the near future, his defeat does not necessarily mean the end of his media outlets.
Those who had helped build and manage the SDS media empire also include the Minister of the Interior Aleš Hojs, the former General Secretary of the Government Božo Predalič, the SDS member of parliament Dejan Kaloh and their party colleague Boris Tomašič, Director of Nova24TV.
The SDS-friendly television, website and weekly newspaper media outlets are owned by the R-Post-R company, founded by the Hungarian mogul Peter Schatz. Between March 2017 and January 2019 a Slovenian company which manages the SDS media empire received from two Hungarian companies, Belfry and Ripost, nearly eight million euros and allocated the entire amount for the SDS-controlled media.
The owner and indirect financier of the SDS media is more or less directly connected with the Hungarian Prime Minister, whereas co-owners of the empire also include some people suspected of being involved in money laundering and tax evasion.
More costs than revenue
Marko Milosavljević, Chair of Journalism of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana, says that the media projects under Hungarian ownership in Slovenia have never been successful in economic terms.
“Three years ago the Nova24 media house advised the shareholders to forgo their shares, because they incurred more costs than revenue from the ownership,” Milosavljević explains.
From the very start, this project failed to score any market, economic or business success and even its media reach was disappointing.
Even if it was praised by the influential politicians on the right side of the political spectrum, its ratings were not even detected by AGB Nielsen which conducts TV audience measurements. This means that less than 0.1 percent of viewers watched Nova24, which is only about 2,000 people, Milosavljević points out.
“This project was not economically feasible and, considering what it has developed into, it is hard to believe it will ever be. Its political influence is limited to a very small circle of loyal supporters of only one political party. Wise owners – and Hungarian owners undoubtedly are wise – would seriously reconsider how to withdraw from the project with a minimum loss,” Milosavljević says.
The North Macedonian example
Manipulations with investments in the media in Slovenia have a lot in common with the model that the same Hungarian investors employed years ago to establish their own media in North Macedonia under the auspices of the then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, a political companion of Janez Janša.
After his defeat in the 2016 election, Gruevski was accused of being involved in corruption and fled to Budapest. Skopje’s requests for his extradition have been refused for five years.
“These media have not had crucial political influence, but were still unabashed promoters of government propaganda. They were the loudest and the most aggressive. They created a smear campaign against all opponents of the regime to compromise them publicly. This type of propaganda and vocabulary spread across the main media in the country that were also under Gruevski’s control,” – this is how Naser Selmani, Macedonian journalist and former chairman of the Press Association, describes the characteristics of the Hungarian media empire in his home country.
After the fall of Gruevski and his flight to Hungary, the Hungarian media stayed in North Macedonia and are still operating and supporting the VMRO-DPMNE opposition party. However, their rhetoric has softened a great deal compared to what we saw in the era ruled by Gruevski.
The Hungarian media network consists of five to six web portals and the fourth most viewed television out of five with a national frequency. It is not too influential, yet it persistently advocates the views of the party that was once led by Gruevski. These media do not earn big profits, but have a stable funding. The only exception is Alfa TV which ran into financial problems in the past two years and was unable to pay salaries, so its employees went on strike several times, Selmani explains.
What next in Slovenia?
“As far as we know Orbán and his ways, he never gives in and never gives up. He will do everything in his power to protect his supporters in Slovenia or anywhere else. I do not know if that means the Hungarian owners will sell their investments in the media. It will probably depend on how good their relations with the new government will be,” Lászlo Takács, a Hungarian from Lenti, comments on the possibility of Hungarian owners’ withdrawal from the Slovenian media.
However, Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, historian and researcher at the Central European University in Budapest, thinks just the opposite of Orbán’s loyalty to Janša.
“I expect from the new government to shift from pro-American to pro-German politics. A block of countries will gather around Germany and try their best to fix their relationships with Russia. As Orbán does not like losers and loves talking to winners, he will quickly find an agreement with the government of Robert Golob. And if he will have to sacrifice Janša as a pawn in chess, he will do it,” Gabrijelčič comments.
He agrees that Hungarian media were not commercially successful, but they surely generated some benefits to Hungarian investors and Hungarian politics, at the expense of the Slovenian public’s right to access independent and unbiased media.
This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Any viewpoints expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of IPI. Read more.