On 8th October the largest Hungarian oppositional newspaper, Népszabadság was suddenly and unexpectedly shut down. The parent company owned by an organization with ties to the government invokes commercial reasons, but the wider Hungarian public is convinced that what happened has much more to do with politics. That media freedom is threatened by Hungary’s government is no secret; during its six years rule, the country’s Press Freedom Index dropped considerably, and Hungarian press today is regarded by Freedom House to be “partly free” as against “free” in 2010. Yet as Gábor Polyák, head of Mérték Media Monitor, an independent think tank, recently noted, the Népszabadság affair is a milestone – signalling the beginning of a new chapter in 21st century history of Hungarian media.
To understand why, let us see first what happened exactly to Népszabadság, the oldest and largest left liberal newspaper in the country. In 2014 its parent company Mediaworks was acquired by Vienna Capital Partners, an Austrian firm with ties to the business circles close to the Hungarian government. Since this acquisition many feared that the government’s grip might grow stronger on the newspaper. Concerns amplified significantly when rumours arose earlier this year about the selling of Mediaworks to companies even more entrenched in the government’s sphere of interest. In the meantime Népszabadság kept publishing incriminating stories on government officials making some kind of retaliation almost inevitable. On 8th October, the newspapers operations together with its website were shut down without any previous notice.
Heinrich Pecina, owner of Vienna Capital Partners, denies that there were political motives behind the closing. He insists that the reasons were purely commercial – the newspaper simply didn’t make enough revenue. True enough, as most print media today it wasn’t exactly a money cow, but during the time period leading up to the closing it wasn’t exactly treated as a falling business. Considerable investments were made into Népszabadság, new journalists were hired and the website was improved. And even if it was not a profitable business, those aren’t usually closed from one day to the other without the previous notification of the employers or, in fact, anyone. The editors and journalists of the newspaper were informed by the media that their employment had ended, and for a long time they weren’t even allowed to access their personal belongings that they left in the office. It’s hardly a surprise that for many people this doesn’t look like a simple closing of a business, but rather, as the editors
put it, as a coup.
This wouldn’t have been the first example of the Hungarian government destroying a media organization. In 2014 the editor-in-chief of Origo.hu, one of the online media giants in Hungary, was forced to leave after publishing compromising information on János Lázár, a prominent government official. Origo.hu has since changed owners and was turned into a government mouthpiece. The power of the governing party over Hungary’s media is overwhelming. Klubrádió, an opposition radio channel was prevented through legal means from expanding outside the capital, Budapest. One of the largest commercial TV channels is owned by government commissioner Andy Vajna. And there is of course the case of the state media, TV and radio, which, as Democracy Reporting International’s recent study concluded, essentially functions as the propaganda organ for the government.
What we are witnessing in Hungary today is the concentration of all power over media in the hands of a few government loyalists. Dissident voices are being supressed by excessive financial and political power. There is no open censorship, and journalists are not arbitrarily arrested, hurt or disappearing. They do wonder, however, if they can pursue this or that story freely or they will be pressured to stop their investigations. They do wonder if what they have to say can reach the wider public, or their voice will not – cannot – be loud enough to be heard over the noise of state channels shouting government propaganda. And since 8th October, they do fear that if they go too far in revealing the shady businesses of government officials, they might lose their jobs, their livelihood, from one day to the other. If the largest, oldest and most respected opposition media was not safe, who will be?
Hungarian media of course valiantly resists. Even right wing and conservative newspapers and radio channels have expressed their solidarity with the employees of Népszabadság. Its long term rival, Magyar Nemzet has offered to publish their stories on its own platforms until the future of the paper is decided. Many other media outlets made the same offer; the staff of Népszabadság chose at last Fedél nélkül, a free newspaper written and distributed by the homeless community of Budapest. Online media and blogs are relentlessly voicing their dissent and trying to make themselves independent of state funds through crowd-funding and other means. All these efforts, however, seem to be insufficient to counter government influence over media especially in the countryside where in most places only state TV and radio channels and government-affiliated newspapers are available.
We shouldn’t forget that it’s not journalists and editors who have the most to lose with the current deterioration of the free press in Hungary. It’s in fact the Hungarian public, and its democratic institutions. There cannot exist a plurality of political views without forums where they can be freely discussed. And holders of power cannot be held accountable to the public, if their secret workings are never brought to light. The freedom of the press, for this reason, is an essential element of democracy and its decline in Hungary should be a matter of utmost concern for all of us. The 8th October was in fact a milestone for Hungarian media. That day we passed the point where we can still say that situation in Hungary is really not that bad. We now have to realize that Hungary might be first of the V4 countries where the project of creating a free and democratic society failed, and the days of tyranny are back.
The author is philosopher and publicist.
Translated by Dagmar Frančíková.