Accountability systems

After the political transformation in 1989-1990, journalism organisations and media policy makers attempted to introduce the standards and practices of neutrality-seeking journalism, including investigative reporting. For example, the code of the Hungarian Journalists Association states that it is “both the right and the duty of journalists to provide fair, objective and well-funded information”. The 1996 Broadcasting Act prescribed in a similar vein that “information must be plural, factual, timely, objective and balanced”. The Hungarian Journalists Association has an Ethics Council, and the quality daily Népszabadság used to employ an ombudsperson for a few years in the 2000s.

However, while codes of ethics and laws promote the objectivity doctrine, most news outlets continue to offer engaged accounts of political events and issues in Hungary. As Guy Lázár observed in the early 1990s, “the one-party model of the press has not disappeared completely but has been transformed into a multi-party model that is still far away from the nonpartisan model of the press”. Many of the newsrooms have codes of ethics which, however, are largely unobserved. The line between news and views is often blurred; outlets routinely use double standards when reporting on political events, and tend to offer a black-and-white picture of the real world. Advertorial and kompromat are widely practiced.

While the majority of news outlets are now organisationally independent from political parties, many are still informally linked to these via their owners. In a similar vein, many journalists have become part of the political and business client systems, and act like ‘party soldiers’ rather than ‘democracy watchdogs.’ For example, the news site Pesti Srácok made a deal with the Ministry of Agriculture in 2015: in exchange for financial support, the editors sent over the articles for approval to the ministry before publication.

Journalism organisations, including the Hungarian Journalists Association gathering 3,500 members, typically do not represent the entire profession in an effort to jointly protect journalists vis-à-vis political and business pressures, but only parts of the community. For example, after Népszabadság, Hungary’s highest circulation quality daily was unexpectedly closed down on 8 October 2016 by its new owner, suspected to have close links to the government, the Hungarian Journalists Association did not protest.