While Western European countries are in a political turmoil, some Central and Eastern European countries face an even graver crisis. Bolstered by skepticism with regards to the European Union, which has been perceived to have failed to sufficiently deal with the financial crisis and the refugee issues, radical right-wing parties united by slogans such as “anti-EU” and “anti-globalism” have begun to emerge in CEE. The best such example is the Fidesz party in Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, who is known for his authoritarian political attitude.
The Fidesz party emerged following the collapse of the Hungarian economy that resulted from the 2008 financial crisis. By winning a two-thirds majority in the national parliament in 2010, Fidesz fulfilled the requirement for enacting constitutional amendments. Orban has repeatedly amended the Hungarian constitution, finally enacting a nationalistic new constitution in 2012. Since the inauguration of Orban in 2010, the health of democracy in Hungary has been threatened by a weakened judicial system, flawed rule of law, and clampdowns on a free media. Freedom House categorized Hungary as “not free” : it is for the first time such a rating has been applied to a European Union member county.
In common with other authoritarian-prone leaders, Orban’s conduct pays scant regard for democratic norms. As Levitsky and Ziblatt(2018) pointed out, the ‘soft guardrail’ of democracy supported by mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance had protected Hungary’s fragile democracy over the years. Yet once an elected leader with little respect for such norms start to ignore and deviate from this guardrail, various forms of democratic backsliding emerge.
In Orban’s case, his attack on the media is worthy of attnetion. Since his inauguration, Orban has exerted control over Hungarian media by threatening journalists and pressurizing media companies, which has resulted in a check-and-balance deficit. In this post, I list up three essential factors that have negatively impacted Hungarian media, and then I review examples of direct governmental interference in the media.
(1)The Media Council
Given its two-thirds majority in the national parliament, the Orban administration started to enact a series of new laws and regulations, finally consolidating the media supervision function into a single entity: the Media Council, which is a subordinating institute under the NMHH (the National Media and Infocommunications Authority.) The Media Council comprises five committees that are allocated together with parliamentary seats, appointed for renewable nine-year terms. Opposition party and European lawmakers insist that this system violates media independence by giving the Fidesz party de facto control over the Hungarian press. The Media Council’s wide-ranging of authority over Hungarian media includes its operation, public funding availability, and allocation of TV and radio frequency bands, which are vital for media companies.
(2) Overconcentration of national broadcasters
In 2014, the Hungarian parliament once again amended the media laws again to reorganize the public broadcasting services. Accordingly, Hungary’s four public broadcasters were merged into a single organization and legal successor: the Duna Media Service, which is controlled by the Media Council. This move destroyed the mutual surveillance function of the four companies, and endangered the independence of Hungarian journalism.
(3) Excessive advertisement taxation on media companies
Following Orban’s second election victory in 2014, parliament enacted a bill to impose advertising tax – up to 50% and progressive as corporate revenue – on media companies. Only the private Luxemburg-based broadcaster RTL is taxed at the maximum 50% rate, representing 80% of the new advertisement tax collected in 2014, while some pro-Orban private broadcasters are exempted completely. This arbitrary taxation system has led to compliant coverage of the government, damaged press independence, and strengthened the Media Council’s authority.
◯Direct attacks on media
Such indirect control and pressure on the media are accompanied by explicit and direct interference in the press. For example, in 2011 Klubradio – renowned for its anti-government stance – was prevented from renewing its radio broadcasting license.
In 2016, the anti-government center-left newspaper Nepszabadsag was shut down for ambiguous reasons, and then immediately acquired by a pro-Orban conglomerate. Many overseas media outlets and experts interpreted this as direct pressure from the Orban administration. Such events were reflected in Hungary’s position on the World Press Freedom Index – dropping from 25th (2009) to 73rd (2018) out of 180 countries.
Poland and Romania are also experiencing a similar trend of press freedom being eroded. Control over the media fundamentally destroys democracy, and gives leaders that pay lip service to democracy the power to ignore democratic principles. Media control in Hungary should be closely monitored, as it serves as an example of the potential future weakening of democracy in Europe.