Hungary’s political and media landscapes have undergone frequent changes over the past one hundred years. The country went through eleven political regimes, and most of the political elites instrumentalised the press and media in an effort to cement their positions by promoting their messages. As a result, media freedom has often been flawed and journalistic autonomy has been lacking. Many of the subsequent political regimes have captured the state/public media via the appointment of clients and have channelled private media outlets into the hands of political and business cronies. As a consequence, news media have been highly biased and political parallelism has often been high. A relatively underdeveloped media market and a high level of government intervention, including the favouritist distribution of advertising revenues, programme production funds, and broadcasting frequencies, have undermined the financial viability of most outlets and made the news media a non-lucrative investment. Political intervention has hindered the professionalisation of journalism.
Between the demise of the state socialist regime in 1989-1990 and a neo-authoritarian turn following the electoral victory of Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party and its Christian Democrats party ally in 2010, Hungary was among the forerunners of democratic change in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. Legislative and municipal elections, held every four years and based on a mixed electoral system, were competitive, free and fair. The country was ruled by coalition governments, while the President of the Republic, elected by parliament, had limited and mostly symbolic powers. Democratic consolidation was underway, and Hungary was admitted to NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. Press privatisation began as early as 1989 and, after the Radio and Television Act was passed in 1996, state broadcasters were transformed into public service media and nationwide private commercial outlets were launched. According to international press freedom watch organisations, the status of media freedom began to improve, and Freedom House listed Hungary among the ‘free press’ countries.
After the 2008 financial and economic crisis and following a number of corruption scandals involving members of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party, the 2010 legislative elections brought about a further major political transformation. Having earned a supermajority of seats in parliament, the Fidesz/Christian Democrats party alliance formed a government and introduced a new constitution and a new election law, as well as a new media regulation that established new media authorities with new appointment mechanisms. In the 2010-2014 parliamentary cycle, Fidesz took control of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, the Hungarian Wireless Agency and the Public Service Foundation via its appointees. In the current parliamentary cycle, following another electoral victory in 2014, the ruling coalition expanded its influence also over much of the private media, via a network of media oligarchs informally linked to the Fidesz party.
By the middle of the 2010s, the Fidesz/Christian Democrats party alliance had transformed most outlets into tools of pro-government propaganda, including a large-scale anti-immigration campaign in 2016. Ideological hegemony had been established, while critical and oppositional voices had largely been marginalised. Overtly pro-government outlets currently include: fourteen “public service” broadcasters, a nationwide commercial television channel (TV2), a cable news channel (Echo TV), several local and networked radio stations (Karc FM, Radio 1), quality dailies (Magyar Idők, Magyar Hírlap), a tabloid outlet (Riposzt), most of the regional dailies, several weekly magazines (Demokrata, Figyelő, Lokál) and a number of online news sites (Origo.hu, 888.hu, Ripost.hu). Most local commercial radio stations re-broadcast the news of the Hungarian Wireless Agency. As of today, apart from a few small-circulation political weeklies (such as Magyar Narancs, 168 Óra, HVG, and Élet és Irodalom) and one quality daily (Népszava) as well as a few independent news sites (Index.hu, 444.hu, Atlatszo.hu, Abcug.hu), the only nationwide outlet covering government policies in a highly critical way is the private commercial television channel RTL Klub. Outlets owned by Lajos Simicska, a former party cashier of Fidesz, who was involved in a conflict with his long-time friend the prime minister in 2015, promote a conservative and nationalist agenda while at the same time are moderately critical of the government. The status of media freedom has been downgraded by international press freedom watch organisations, and Freedom House now lists Hungary among the ‘partly free’ countries.
Despite attempts to introduce the standards and practices of the Anglo-Saxon journalism tradition after the 1989-1990 political transformation, opinionated and partisan journalism continues to prevail. Advertorial and kompromat are widely practiced. The professional community is divided along political and ideological cleavages. As a consequence, journalism associations and the only dedicated union are largely inactive and fail to protect journalists from political and business pressures. Self-regulatory mechanisms are only a formality with little practical outcome.
Even considering the scarce resources and limited access to public information, investigative journalism is vivid in Hungary and abuses of the taxpayers’ money are regularly exposed. Media scandals, however, have little impact on public opinion and in recent years have not undermined the relative popularity of the incumbent government (a notable exception being the resignation in 2012 of President Pál Schmitt, a former senior Fidesz representative, who was found to have committed plagiarism in his PhD thesis in his younger years). As a general rule, corruption cases uncovered by the press and media entail no moral, political or legal consequences, possibly because, according to a recent opinion survey by Medián Public Opinion and Market Research Ltd., less than 10 percent of the population has an intense interest in politics.
Like in many other third-wave democracies, television is the market-leading medium in terms of audience, with the dominance of commercial outlets, while the Internet is currently the number one medium on the advertising market. Internet penetration nears the European Union average. The circulation figures of nationwide quality dailies have been in decline for many years now, while most tabloid newspapers have preserved their readership figures, even though a free-distribution middlebrow newspaper is highly popular in urban areas. There is no press subsidies system. The state is, however, a major advertiser, and the favouritist distribution of state and government advertising funds is a powerful means of influencing the press and media markets. Under the impact of the 2008 crisis and as a result of favouritist media policies, many foreign investors have left Hungary in recent years and sold their outlets to domestic oligarchs, including, among others, Andy Vajna, government commissioner in charge of the film industry (Radio Plus Ltd. owning the Radio 1 network and the TV2 Média Csoport Plt. Owning a total of 9 channels), Árpád Habony, informal communication advisor to the Prime Minister (Modern Media Group owning the free distribution daily Lokál, the weekly Lokál Extra, the tabloid Riposzt, Local.hu, 888.hu) and Lőrinc Mészáros, a childhood friend to Viktor Orbán (Mediaworks owning 13 regional dailies, the business daily Világgazdaság, the sports daily Nemzeti Sport, Vg.hu, the weekly Vasárnap Reggel, Echo TV, as well as a number of lifestyle magazines).