Viktor Orban and disinformation: partners in power, Source: Depositphotos / Ale_Mi

How Hungary's government gained significant influence over the country's media sector

How Hungary's government gained significant influence over the country's media sector

And how this can be a step to sapping democracy's vibrancy

If you know anything about countering disinformation then you must know that one of the most effective ways to do it is to have different and independent media sources. It looks like, Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary since 2010, has also been aware of that since he's done a lot in his power to diminish the variety of media outlets in the country. How did it unfold?

Hungary's media oligarchs

First, in 2010, Orban's government passed a law that would de-facto allow the authorities to oversee all media within the country. This sparked outrage in Hungary, but also within the European Union. One of the more contentious parts of the bill was the issuing of significant fines, but this was just there to bait opposition into changing only that clause and thus keeping everything else intact.

Then, in under 2 years, Lajos Simicska, a Hungarian oligarch who is very close to Orban and the ruling Fidesz Party, managed to take control of Class FM, Lánchíd Rádió and TV2, which are some of the most popular information channels in Hungary. Also, the mergers of foreign media houses were blocked until they sold some of their assets to the Hungarian government.

Having control over these channels has given Orban the green light to control the mainstream dialogue within society, such as the case in 2015 when the word “refugee” was censored in the midst of the migrant crisis. This wouldn’t be the last time that the government would abuse its control over the media to shift the narrative.

In 2016 the relationship between Orban and Simicska, however, soured and that forced the prime minister to look for new partners. Orban’s aim then became to buy Simicska out of the national media outlets. A new group of owners emerged after Orban invited government-friendly entrepreneurs to invest in the media space. Among those interested were Árpád Habony, Andy Vajna, Miklós Ómolnár, Mária Schmidt, Tamás Szemerey and Lőrinc Mészáros – all of whom took part in the building of Orban’s new media empire.

As a nationalist, Orban believes in protectionism which means that state intervention can be justified as a tool for protecting national interest and security. The government’s ambition did not stop with the TV and radio sectors, however, as they are also interested in buying many other independent, quality news sites like Funke, Axel Springer, Ringier, Sanoma and others.

The media landscape is a delicate ecosystem

Some might wonder why independent, and sometimes wealthy, media outlets sell their assets to people close to Orban? The answer could be as simple as the government offering them a good price, but also Orban’s protectionist policies make it impossible for them to make a profit and these companies tend to just try and exit the market before suffering significant losses.

Oligarchs close to Orban also bought private news stations such as ECHO TV, and the publisher Mediaworks which owns 12 of the largest regional newspapers. After acquisition the new owners do a complete rearranging of their staff, some get fired, others are coerced to behave, and some simply accept the new worldview of the company since they would rather have a job. This, however, ends up being extremely dangerous for free expression and media objectivity in Hungary.

This state of affairs gives Victor Orban huge advantages come election time, and it is suspected that he might attempt to become a long-term, or even lifetime leader of Hungary, much like we are seeing this play out with Putin’s Russia.

Still, not every media outlet in Hungary is under Orban’s media empire’s control. For example, Magyar Narancs, and Direkt36 are fully independent, but they don’t have it easy competing in a market where the Hungarian Central Bank directly helps finance government-affiliated news outlets.

Use and abuse

We saw how Viktor Orban acquired his “media empire”, but how does he use it directly as a handy tool to further his agenda? That can be quite illustrative. Orban uses his friendly media outlets to create false stories about the opposition.

For example, these outlets spread the rumour about the far-right leader Gábor Vona being gay. Since most of his votes came from the far right or traditional voters this ruined all chances for this party to become the dominant force within Hungary. Other than spreading misinformation about opposition politicians, the media will also publish biased and misleading facts about the country’s prosperity and the dangers of outside threats.

It seems that right from Orban’s rise to power in the 2010’s, he wanted to centralize information sources in Hungary. To achieve this, he befriended many rich figures in Hungary and in exchange for political or business favours they would support his government. Such entrepreneurs motivated by economic interest bought up most of the media in Hungary giving Orban a permanent advantage in all of his campaigns considering that he can easily and quickly spread misinformation about opposition candidates.

Hungary’s showcase is very revealing of how a liberal democracy can transform into an illiberal one through clientelist politics and how illiberal politicians can be the source of disinformation themselves, as it serves their particular ambitions to hold onto power longer.

This article is part of Read Twice – an EU-funded project, coordinated by Euro Advance Association that targets young people and aims to counter disinformation and fake news by enhancing their skills to assess critically information, identify vicious and harmful media content and distinguish between facts and opinions, thus improving their media literacy competences.

The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union nor of TheMayor.EU



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