In Hungary, It Also Started with Local Media

PKN Orlen's Takeover of a Regional Press Network Echoes a Hungarian Political Script

10 December 2020

Wojciech Przybylski


Kaczyński, just like Orbán, is afraid of journalists, so he decided to buy or fire them. If he succeeds, Poles will lose their informational sovereignty, and their ties with the West will be dependent on drip feeding.

The announcement of PKN Orlen’s takeover of the regional press network from the hands of a German publisher evokes justified associations with Hungary. Viktor Orbán is exercising almost absolute power, due to, among other things, his monopoly over the media. He is exploiting nearly 500 bigger and smaller titles for party propaganda, on a scale unprecedented since the fall of communism.

That’s why, for example, József Szájer’s Brussels scandal is going unnoticed in Hungary; the media is dominated by the narrative of Soros’s conspiracy and the millions of immigrants constantly attacking national identity.

Orbán’s system cannot simply be copied in its entirety, but Poland has recently once again followed in the footsteps that led to the retreat of democracy in Hungary and the establishment of a political hybrid – one that is sometimes described as authoritarian. Voters are deliberately deprived of informational sovereignty: we are not controlling the authorities through the media, the authorities use the media to controls us, the citizens.

The return of Radio Free Europe

Illustration by Daniel Garcia

No wonder that the US Congress-funded Agency for Global Media decided to resume broadcasting of Radio Free Europe in Hungary. According to the agency, the monopolisation of broadcasting in this country has reached an alarming level: readers, viewers and listeners have no access to sources of information that are not controlled by the government. The radio has been officially operating since September this year, the conquest of the regional media has, however, been going on since 2014.

It is striking that the process of taking over local media in Poland begins with buying them from German owners – just as happened in Hungary six years ago. The political dynamic is also similar: back then, Orbán had radically turned to the right.

However, just because this process has started the same way in both countries, it does not imply that it will end in the same way. The methods and goals are alike though. Orbán always went for radical solutions when the ground burned under his feet. He stepped up instead of stepping down, and it worked for him.

Six years ago, many thousands of young people protested against the internet tax in Budapest. The form and scale of the demonstrations surprised the authorities, as well as the opposition: they took place in the autumn, just a few months after the prime minister’s second electoral triumph. However, the anti-establishment force did not translate into political capital. Orbán began a countercultural march through institutions and the opposition lost the next election.

The political scripts written by Orbán offer solutions that Jarosław Kaczyński has been willing to use for years: the media are next in line after the attack on the courts and the war with the European Union. Could a similar scenario come true in Poland?

Attack on information sovereignty

It does not have to, but Poland cannot afford to ignore the risk. One should remember that in consequence of warlike rhetoric, restricting the autonomy of universities and courts, corruption and nepotism, Budapest has undermined its security. The security of democratic countries is dependent on, among other things, so-called information sovereignty: the strength and diversity of the media space that allows society to control its own government on an ongoing basis.

For Orbán the removal of this safety net – a competitive media market – was just a means to reach his own ends. Because of it, he is able to hide from his compatriots the interests he is pursuing with strategic rivals of Europe and NATO: Russia and China.

Although most Hungarians are critical of these two countries, most of them do not know – because Orbán’s media do not inform them – that by doing business with the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin, their country weakens not only its own security but also the security of the entire west, including Poland. Let’s take a look at how Orbán initiated a hostile takeover of the independent press and media in his critical year, 2014.

It started with regional media

It was a strategic step within the prime minister’s competition to win the electorate of the radical right from the nationalist Jobbik party. Public television and the state news agency had been turned into party propaganda machines many years earlier.

The creation and consolidation of an oligarchic political model included one key element, which came in the form of a press holding company, the so-called KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation), with over 50 titles. Their main task, as Secretary of State Zoltán Kovács put it, is to keep the government line. The International Press Freedom Index can be treated as an indicator of how far such change can go: Hungary was the leader of pluralism and secured 10th place in the world in 2006, in 2020 it moved to 89th position.

At the same time, Poland has fallen by six places, but it has never been so high on this scale: it was 56th on the list in 2006, today it is in 62nd place. The year 2014 is even more telling: Hungary was then at 64th position.

The takeover of state media bodies, the subordination of MTV (local public television) and press agency to the party, punishing independent titles by excluding them from circulation through subscriptions to institutions and state companies, cutting off sources of income in the form of advertising and public announcements – it all hit the media, which were particularly unstable after the global financial crisis.

Orbán’s attention, however, was focused elsewhere – where international public opinion rarely looks – that is, on local and regional media. It was about addressing a very specific political demand: to control the minds of key groups of voters who were a minority in society but were easier to isolate, to cut them off from the flow of information.

Provincial oligarchies

The changes in the market first affected 18 different press titles. By allowing the merger of national subsidiaries of the Swiss-German corporation Ringer-Axel Springer, the government also forced, by invoking antitrust arguments, the resale of certain titles to Mediaworks, which belong to Heinrich Pecina, the owner of Vienna Capital Partners.

The Austrian investor first consolidated the regional press market by purchasing further titles from Funke Mediengruppe: “Fejér Megyei Hírlap”, “Napló”, “Vas Népe”, “Zalai Hírlap” and “Dunaújvárosi Hírlap”, each with a circulation of 35-45 thousand copies. Pecina ruthlessly subordinated the entire editorial line to the publisher, thus eliminating journalistic independence and undermining the meaning and purpose of these institutions.

If this failed to achieve the desired effect – as in the case of “Népszabadság” in 2016 – he fired journalists and closed the title. In the infamous recording of Heinz-Christian Strache from Ibiza (from 2019), which shows how the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party uses the right-wing parties in Central Europe to build a network of influence, Pecina says that for years he served Orbán as an unofficial proxy.

The goal of Pecina and other oligarchs dependent on Orbán was to take control of the editorial offices, but also of the entire media ecosystem, including trade unions and even the advertising market. In the end, a repressive system was created in the local communities where, in the absence of civic control, pathological little oligarchies flourish – by using the independent press.

Today, journalists are treated hostilely in the Hungarian province, just like opposition politicians. They work almost without support, without institutional background and without the assistance of an editor or a trusted lawyer. The natural pursuit of the truth is suppressed by the corrupt groups controlling local authorities.

So far, revolts against this have been successful sporadically and only in larger centres, such as Budapest, because resources such as free capital and social capital, in the form of IT specialists helping the editors to get on their feet when takeovers take place, can be only found there.

Defending independent press as independence

As we wrote in our reports on information sovereignty in Central Europe, the free press in the region, or rather the entire continent, can be confronted with several scenarios of development. The market is changing with the expansion of online advertising, influenced by changes in reading habits and the crisis. In the face of the threat, the media may become dependent on government entities, be drained by local institutions, and eventually collapse, leaving a void.

This crisis is eagerly exploited by home-grown autocrats, and above all by professionals who have been working for years on behalf of the Kremlin, Tehran or Beijing. In the above-mentioned report, we point out how the lack of journalistic independence and the concentration of ownership in Hungary led to the reproduction of false messages disseminated by the Russian Sputnik or Russia Today, even without the presence of these agencies in the country.

So what can be done? Both the European Commission (EC), opposition parties and local communities have all the tools to prevent this scenario. So far, the EC has not reached for instruments allowing for intervention on the media market, but it has more and more reasons to do so and knowledge on how to go about it.

The opposition has every reason to mobilise and organise local support and monitoring centres for the independence of the press: providing legal assistance and focusing the attention of voters and advertisers on the risks associated with market corruption.

In addition, there is an increasing number of successful media startups that did not exist until a few years ago that rely on an efficient mix of internet crowdfunding and systems of monthly Netflix-style subscriptions and have a necessary IT back office, that give the press a chance to rebound from the bottom up again and ensure income. This is perhaps the most important thing because, without journalists who are financially independent, a free press does not exist.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Polish version is available at Polityka. Translation into English/French/Spanish/Germany/Greek provided by

Wojciech Przybylski


Political analyst heading Visegrad Insight's policy foresight on European affairs. His expertise includes foreign policy and political culture. Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight and President of the Res Publica Foundation. Europe's Future Fellow at IWM - Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and Erste Foundation. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. He has been published in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Journal of Democracy, EUObserver, Project Syndicate, VoxEurop, Hospodarske noviny, Internazionale, Zeit, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Onet, Gazeta Wyborcza and regularly appears in BBC, Al Jazeera Europe, Euronews, TRT World, TVN24, TOK FM, Swedish Radio and others.

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