Moves by Hungary’s Viktor Orban to impose a state of emergency just weeks after embarking on his fourth consecutive term have many of the country’s journalists on edge.
In announcing the state of emergency, Prime Minister Orban said Hungary must stay out of the war in Ukraine, and cited concerns over the impact sanctions on Russia may have on the economy and inflation.
Orban, seen as Russia’s ally within the EU, previously pushed back on tougher sanctions imposed by the bloc on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
Under the state of emergency, Orban and his Fidesz party can bypass Hungary’s usual law-making process, prompting fears it will use that power to further restrict media.
“I see this as a new stage of a long ongoing process, because ever since 2010, we have seen a step-by-step takeover and a tightening grip on the Hungarian independent media landscape by the government,” said Blanka Zoldi, a journalist based in Budapest, Hungary’s capital.
Zoldi is editor-in-chief of Lakmusz, a fact-checking website co-funded by the European Union to counter misinformation in Hungary.
The United Nations, Council of Europe, media advocates, and Hungary’s independent journalists have criticized the shrinking space for independent journalism since Orban came to power in 2010.
An agency charged with regulating the media has been criticized for failing to renew the licenses of independent outlets, and in 2020 around 80 journalists walked out from the popular website Index after a businessman with close ties to the government brought a 50% stake in the outlet.
Earlier emergency measures linked to the coronavirus pandemic have given Hungary’s media industry an inkling of what may be coming.
During that time, speech deemed as hampering government’s efforts to combat the pandemic or determined as scaremongering was made punishable by up to five years in jail.
Authorities detained at least two people under the law over social media posts. Both were later released without charge, according to Hungarian media.
For journalists, the law impacted their ability to work.
“When we tried to talk to ordinary people for our reporting, people got cagier,” said Peter Erdelyi, director and senior editor of 444.hu, an independent news site in Budapest.
“There was a blanket ban on medical professionals to speak to the press. There was this massive effort to limit speech.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that if all these things happened during the pandemic, that some similar stuff can happen around the invasion of Ukraine by Russia,” Erdelyi told VOA.
Hungary’s government spokesperson did not respond to VOA’s calls and emails requesting comment. But Orban and his administration have said previously they believe media is dominated by the left.
In a speech in May to the U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference, Orban said changing the media landscape is the only way to address that political bias.
“Have your own media. It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left,” he told the conference, which was held in Budapest. “The problem is that the Western media is adjusted to the leftist viewpoint.”
Control of airwaves
Experts say Orban’s government is careful to control the traditional media in the country without directly interfering in newsroom operations.
“He’s smart enough not to introduce a very direct propaganda against the newsrooms and journalists,” said Agnes Urban, from the Mertek Media Monitor. “He tries to control the media with market-like tools, and the essence of that strategy is basically to capture the whole media ecosystem.”
Based in Budapest, the Mertek group analyzes the impact of media laws and policy.
“It is rather easy to control the traditional media sectors without intervening directly in the journalism world,” Urban told VOA, adding, “The strategy of the ruling party is to buy up the most popular news broadcasters.”
In 2018, a media conglomerate known as KESMA consolidated nearly 500 outlets under a foundation headed by Orban loyalists. The media groups accounted for around 40% of all media revenues, VOA reported at the time.
Attila Mong, Europe representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Hungary’s traditional media landscape has largely been dominated by pro-government businesses.
“There are a lot of investors linked to Orban who make huge profits through infrastructure deals,” he told VOA from Berlin, Germany. “Part of this profit is reinvested into media, and these media outlets serve the interests of the government.”
A handful of independent online outlets do still exist, Mong said, “but in order for them to reach audiences, either the audiences should actively look for what they are writing, or these outlets would need TV stations, which reach greater audiences, to repeat or redistribute what they are saying.”
So far, he said, that hasn’t been happening.
At the same time that Hungarian audiences find fewer options for independent media, the country has seen a rise in disinformation on issues from the pandemic and elections to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
For Zoldi of the fact-checking website Lakmusz, that makes her group’s work more vital.
Founded in January, the website is dedicated to countering mis- and disinformation. Its web articles debunk false claims or add context that is missing from news reports seen elsewhere in the Hungarian media.
Since the Russian invasion in Ukraine, a lot of that focus has been on correcting false narratives about the conflict.
“In Hungary, Russia’s narrative is spread by the highest level of politicians and powerful people connected to the Hungarian state,” Zoldi said. “Because there has been a constant takeover of the Hungarian media landscape, turning it into very pro-government, it’s actually why we see that these types of pro-Russian messages are on the record and also actually strengthened by the pro-government media.”
Zoldi said a well-known TV host at a pro-government station shared several misleading or false claims on his blog and his show, including a claim that scenes of attacks on civilians in Bucha and elsewhere had been staged.
The Lakmusz fact-checking website also highlighted posts designed to look like CNN articles and debunked claims that a photograph of a man covered in Nazi tattoos was a Kyiv police chief.
Despite being relatively new, Zoldi said her website is gaining popularity among readers, who contact them, asking for help in authenticating web articles and videos.
“In this environment it’s very difficult to see what is real and valuable information, and what is not,” she said. “We have seen a huge spike in our readership since the start of the war.”