The United States said Monday it would fund rural media outlets in Hungary to help train and equip journalists in defense of an independent media it sees subject to growing pressure and intimidation.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has increased media control by legal changes, regulatory steps and takeovers of outlets by business sector associates. The moves have alarmed Western partners with the approach of elections, due in April 2018, which he is widely expected to win comfortably.
The trend was especially strong in rural Hungary, where government-controlled public media and a handful of outlets friendly to the ruling Fidesz party are the only news sources most people get.
That is where the $700,000 U.S. program focuses.
"The Department of State ... seeks a partner for the United States Government who will help educate journalists and aspiring journalists on how to practise their trade," a State Department official said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
"The United States has publicly and privately expressed our concerns about the status of the free press in Hungary on multiple occasions," the official said. "Hungary has committed to upholding these standards."
The government had no immediate comment.
The program offers technical and financial assistance to media outlets, as well as increased local and international exposure, small grants and other tools. They can use the funds after May 2018.
Washington denied entry to top officials of his government on corruption charges in 2014, and Orban ruffled feathers with attacks on the U.S.-chartered Central European University, an issue yet to be resolved.
The U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor launched the program after the top U.S. diplomat in Budapest cited an erosion of media freedoms.
"There are still independent and opposition media outlets here that are able to practice journalism with broad editorial freedom," Charge d'Affaires David Kostelancik said last month at a journalism conference. "That is a good thing."
"However, their numbers are dwindling, and they face challenges in the advertising market that the pro-government outlets do not. They face pressure and intimidation ... as a result, fewer and fewer Hungarians are exposed to the robust debate and discussion that is so important — in fact, fundamental — to a representative democracy."
Foreign Ministry State Secretary Levente Magyar, reacting to those comments, said the government would "continue to reject all statements that affect Hungarian internal affairs and are based on misrepresentation in the strongest possible terms."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental human rights and media freedom watchdog, has said media pluralism has declined in Hungary.