In illiberal regimes, it is not necessary to imprison dissident journalists massively á la the Turkish method; due to the shrinking market opportunities, it is sufficient to capture enough of the media landscape.
This phenomenon is increasingly common in the Visegrad countries leading to the deteriorating media freedom indicators, where another 2/3 majority of Viktor Orbán resulted in an unprecedented centralisation in Hungary.
A policy of subterfuge
No investigation is going to be launched against the reporter working for US-owned TVN who was about to be questioned by the Polish Homeland Security Office for propagating Fascist materials. The incident in question involved the journalist Piotr Wacowski who infiltrated a neo-Nazi group last year and filmed the group celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday in a Polish forest.
It was not the first time that TVN ended up on the radar of the Polish authorities: last year, the government imposed a fine of 1.5 million zlotys on the network for broadcasting an allegedly “biased” report of an anti-government demonstration. At the end of the day, none of these initiatives were successful thanks to pressure coming from Washington.
This unusually fast u-turn suggests that the attack on Wacowski was most likely a to serve as a distraction from the corruption scandal affecting PiS as well as their retreat on the supreme court reform.
However, with this attack on one of the largest foreign-owned television networks, Kaczyński is also making a gesture towards the radical wing of his own party. Nonetheless, recent warnings from the US Ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, reflected a complex regional problem.
All Visegrad governments have been trying to capture the media in their respective countries although to varying degrees and with the help of different tools. As a result, journalists are unable to provide balanced, fact-based information to monitor those in power due to either conflict of interests with the owners of the media or direct political pressure.
Although the Polish media market is still diversified, PiS has transformed the public media into a propaganda channel through “re-Polonizing” and tried to limit foreign subsidiaries to 15% – a similar level to Russia – but so far this policy has not yet been accepted, presumably again due to pressure from Washington. Nevertheless, Kaczynski has been highlighting the necessity of re-Polonization since the local elections in October.
Standing in the crosshairs
The murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak was a milestone in the post-communist history of Slovakia. It shed light not only on the nature of corruption but also the lack of government transparency and the fragility of the justice system.
Journalists critical of the governments have also had to face more and more verbal attacks. Former Prime Minister Robert Fico labelled
journalists investigating the abuse of public procurements as “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes” in 2016.
Czechia is definitely a unique case in a sense that the Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš , may exert considerable influence on the local media through his own empire which includes a publishing house and the largest radio station in the country.
The Czech media market has undergone a major transformation in the recent years: foreign investors have gradually withdrawn and their assets have been purchased by local moguls.
Babiš has shown substantial interest in these investor networks led by Czech oligarchs that bought up most of the exiting German media’s assets after the economic crisis in 2008. The publishing house of Argofert, linked directly to Babiš, has just bought the Czech and Slovakian assets of the German Bauer Media in October.
But within the V4 group, the illiberal system which is most advanced is in Hungary and reflects the current condition of the media there.
The delegitimization of journalists independent of the government goes beyond the fact that Viktor Orbán – similarly to the American President Donald Trump – labelled the biggest Hungarian news portal as “fake news” or that pro-government mouthpieces has listed unfavoured journalists as “Soros propagandists”.
The new normality is that the chief prosecutor is launching an investigation against investigative journalists who are just doing their jobs.
The media war has shifted into a higher gear after the elections in April, and the space for the media independent of the government has been shrinking further in unprecedented ways across the region.
Moreover, another 2/3 majority of Fidesz resulted in an unprecedented centralisation by creating a huge right-wing media conglomerate: among the brands to be under its control are Hir TV, Echo TV, Origo.hu, Nemzeti Sport, Bors, Magyar Idok and Figyelo. It will make it even harder to operate for the few remaining independent media companies since they will have to stand against a single, giant competitor.
As Marius Dragomir has rightly pointed it out, Hungary is a classic example of media-capture where the government, in cooperation with its own oligarchs, turned most of the independent media outlets into propaganda instruments becoming essentially political tools with public funds.
As a result, 90% of the media outlets have been put under the direct or indirect control of the Orbán government.
Besides smaller outlets, RTL Hungary and the Central Media Group have remained the only independent portfolios in Hungary where part of the critical media is still dependent on the government due to its influence on the advertising market.
Most of the mediums are being bled by the state which has spent 87% of state advertisement on the three least read pro-government mouthpieces.
In addition to the long list of media being shut down or overturned since 2014, new government propaganda products have also appeared on the market, such as Ripost spreading fake news and conspiracy theories.
The tabloid magazine copy-pasting the Serbian Informer is a good example of the fact that the Orbán regime has simply imported “anti-Soros” narratives from the Balkans.
The first “Stop-Soros” Movements were established in 2015 under Nikolai Gruevski’s government, who has recently fled to Hungary to avoid serving a prison term after being found guilty of corruption.
Orbán is also exporting his own political views through the media shopping acquisitions of pro-governmental investors in Macedonian and Slovenia.
Although the acquisition of media outlets supporting the failed party of Gruevski is not lucrative economically, it is paying off politically. It is a soft power tool aiming to expand the regional influence of Orbán.
Besides supporting his regional allies, it helps to propagate his anti-refugee, Eurosceptic, illiberal views and provides guidelines about how to lead propaganda machines and how to manipulate public discourse.
Although media capture is a global phenomenon, the Visegrad countries are serving as a warning system to the West where a low level of trust in democratic institutions and mainstream media make societies even more vulnerable to political manipulation.
The case of Hungary is also exemplary on what sort of systemic risks stem from over-politicised media watchdog bodies. Both the Economic Competition Authority and the Media Council played significant roles in the expansion of the pro-government media. Not to mention the dangers and risks posed by the Russian or Chinese disinformation warfare to which the governments of the V4 countries reacted differently; the Hungarian government did not counter it at all.
What should be done?
In order to achieve a more conscious consumer behaviour, it is essential to develop media literacy for the society as a whole. The most difficult challenge is that it can only be accomplished through the establishment of a regulatory and institutional environment based on the cooperation of all the areas involved.
Checkology is one such practical educational tool: it serves as a virtual classroom through which teachers can educate students how to distinguish between political propaganda and op-eds, or fake and real news.
But due to the shrinking space of the advertisement market and fewer available state funds, independent media can hardly survive without a strong constituency of empowered consumers. Although crowdfunding is becoming more frequent, a profitable model of pure subscribers still does not exist in Hungary. Positive examples could be the best-known regional success story, Slovak Dennik N, which has 21,000 active subscribers in Slovakia with a population of only 5.4 million people.
While Washington could bring Warsaw to its senses twice with the amendment of the Holocaust law and the recent issue with TVN, not much external constrains have been seen in case of Hungary. Yet the Trump Administration should take into consideration the fact that since Washington announced its new “engagement with Hungary”, the Orbán government has officially forced the CEU out, smuggled the convicted pro-Russian Gruevski through a Balkan border, extradited two arms traders to Moscow instead of the US and continued to block Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic accession.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project series run by Visegrad/Insight and the Res Publica Foundation in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as editors of leading newspapers across Central Europe. It originally appeared in Hungarian on HGV and can be found here.