The debate on the fake news has engulfed editorial pages, prompted hosts of news stories and provoked myriads of Twitter posts
This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.
With Donald Trump rising to power, the debate on the fake news has engulfed editorial pages, prompted hosts of news stories and provoked myriads of Twitter posts all over Europe and in the United States. Less attention has been paid though to another dangerous phenomenon. One that I would call the “fake media”.
In Hungary, the government has managed to create one so successfully that newspapers, television stations and online news sites belonging to its propaganda machine now threaten to suffocate the real thing: those who still try to maintain editorial independence and work with the traditional watchdog approach to those in power.
In the last three or four years, through friendly businessmen and thinly veiled direct funding, the Hungarian government has channeled hundreds of billions of forints into buying existing media companies and creating new ones. Now, it effectively controls (through its cronies) one of the two overthe-air commercial television channels (Tv2), two national newspapers (Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap), a free daily distributed on mass transit lines (Lokál), two national tabloid daily newspapers (Ripost and Bors), the biggest Hungarian online news site (Origo), a television news channel (Echo TV), a news radio channel (Karc FM), all of the regional daily newspapers (!) and their associated online news sites, and an additional two, relatively new, online news sites (Pesti Srácok and 888) – besides weekly newspapers and several smaller scale news operations on the internet.
Of course, the government is also served by the whole public media, which has practically been enslaved and reduced to a propaganda machine on steroids, including the state-run news agency, multiple television channels, radio stations and an online news site. All financed with taxpayer money, of course.
To make things worse for those Hungarian news outlets that still try to resist this surge, the government has become one of the biggest advertisers in the media market. In fact, according to the CANnual Report 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office was the second biggest advertiser in Hungary in 2016, following the German telecommunication giant Telekom.
Of course, this advertisement money goes to friendly media companies. To add more insult to injury, there is a widespread perception that private companies are under pressure by the Hungarian government not to place ads in news outlets that are perceived as enemies by Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party.
This brutal interference has resulted in an extremely distorted media market, where independent players are bound to compete with a thinly-veiled state-run media conglomerate that is awash with public and (scared) private money in an economic system that is more and more controlled and bullied by the state.
Meanwhile, market trends that have hit media companies hard in other countries of Europe are of course present in Hungary as well. The decline of print ad revenue coupled with the growing amount of money that Google and Facebook are diverting from these companies are huge problems for Hungarian media companies.
Thus, under these circumstances, the Hungarian government does not have to curb press freedom to silence dissent: all it has to do is to create competitors to private companies that are already under siege by market forces, in order to create fake media that tries to behave like the real one. Except for its main goal is not to hold the government accountable, but to assist it, not to expose propaganda, but to spread it, and not to unveil the truth but to hide it in an artificially created noise.
Szabolcs Töhötöm Tóth is the Editor-in-Chief of Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian nation), a Hungarian daily founded by Sándor Pethő in 1938. He is also project leader for the online development of the newspaper.