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From watchdogs to lapdogs: The slow decay of media freedom in Hungary and Poland

In an ideal world and in an ideal democracy, the media plays a crucial role as watchdog. It provides checks and balances and is the voice of scrutiny. It holds the people in power to account.

The reality of course is a lot murkier. The media always has stakeholders, with interests in one narrative over another, and bias is everywhere. Yet for the most part, democracies can boast considerable freedom and plurality in their media. Journalists are able to keep watch on the powerful.

In some of the more illiberal regimes of the emerging Europe region however, the watchdog is becoming the lapdog, where journalists do not assume a critical role but rather act as mouthpieces for ruling parties. Plurality is becoming subservient to the state and so too are checks and balances.

In this sense, the state of the media can be a litmus test for the state of democracy. A test which Hungary is seemingly failing, exemplified by the resignation earlier this month of over 70 staff from Index.hu, one of the country’s last independent news sites.

It’s the Index of the world as we know it

Earlier this year, after lunch with Maria Schmidt, a key advisor of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, Hungarian businessman Miklos Vaszily bought a 50 per cent stake in Index.hu, adding to it to his impressive collection of media outlets.

Then, late last month erstwhile editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull was fired. The official reason was his inability to control “newsroom tension”. Newsroom hacks disagreed, viewing his dismissal as a threat to their journalistic freedoms.

“We have emphasized for years that we have two requirements for Index to continue operating independently: that there be no outside interference in Index’s content or in the composition or structure of Index’s staff,” Index’s now former journalists said in a statement demanding his reinstatement. “The firing of Szabolcs Dull violated the latter of these requirements. His dismissal was a clear interference in the composition of the staff.”

On July 24, after the board president Laszlo Bodolai refused to reinstate Mr Dull, staff wrote an open letter stating that “the editorial board deemed that the conditions for independent operation are no longer in place and have initiated the termination of their employment.”

There were emotional scenes as more than half of the Index team walked out of the office in a very public show of protest at their editor’s firing. Yet they were also protesting against something much bigger: the firing of independence. Hours later, supporters gathered in central Budapest to show solidarity with the journalists.

The changes at Index were a major blow to independent Hungarian media. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the site was registering 1.5 million readers each day. Pro-government media conglomerate KESMA now dominates the media landscape, along with the Alphabet (Google) group, and while still present, independent media voices are becoming increasingly drowned out.

As the now former deputy editor-in-chief of Index, Veronika Munk, told Emerging Europe, “the end of Index.hu (in its real form) is a hard blow to the public debate, as extremely few independent media outlets now remain.” For an increasingly illiberal government that continues to erode the role of law, this poses a serious risk, explained Ms Munk, as “even some basic but important information will simply remain unknown to the public.”

Moreover, Hungarians have some of the weakest foreign language skills in the EU, insulating a large proportion of the population from alternative perspectives and voices critical of the government.

The case of Index is not new to the Hungarian media landscape. Back in 2014, news website Origo suffered a similar fate and turned from a beacon of impartiality into one echoing Mr Orbán’s attacks on migrants, his mortal enemy George Soros, and the opposition, amongst others. Nepszabadsag, the country’s main left-wing paper, ceased publication in 2016.

“The recent events around Index are more than troubling and definitely fit into the trend that we have witnessed since 2010,” Dr Áron Demeter from Amnesty International Hungary tells Emerging Europe, “Index has been an essential part of the Hungarian public discussion, therefore, the loss is a devastating blow for everyone who believes in freedom of press and expression.”

This latest attack on free media fits neatly into Mr Orbán’s wider agenda to suffocate criticism, rule of law and plurality. In this respect, Mr Orbán can be seen as a modern innovator of illiberalism. Since taking office for the second time in 2010, Hungary has seen its Freedom House democracy ranking downgraded time and time again. It is currently classified as being only “partly free”.

Hungary’s erosion of media freedom has been subtle yet determined. There have been no headline-grabbing jailings of journalists, or overt displays of repression so as to avoid too much international condemnation. Rather the erosion has been silent but deadly, where board meetings, legislation, and falls in advertising revenues have proven just as effective as police batons.

The Reporters Without Borders press freedom index has seen Hungary drop 34 places since the index began in 2013, already three years into Mr Orbán’s current time in office. From 53rd globally, the country now stands at 87th out of the 180 countries included in the ranking.

This is largely down to a series of laws enacted by Mr Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party. Back in 2010, they initiated this process with the creation of a media control body whose members are Fidesz appointments. All media outlets have to be registered with the body in order to operate lawfully. Through it, the government has the power to decide if reporting is “moral” and “balanced”, and has the power to issue large fines.

Index’s founder, Peter Uj, saw political interference as a problem just a year after Mr Orbán took office, and quit in 2011. Mr Uj has since founded 444.hu and has managed to quietly make it the seventh most read news site in the country, despite the government belittling it as “a blog”.

Subsequent laws such as those restricting foreign ownership, parliamentary questions, and access to information have further worsened the situation.

A recent Hungarian law that has independent journalists such as Mr Uj particularly worried was enacted on March 30 of this year, supposedly to help fight disinformation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. It legislates for those spreading “disinformation” to face up to five years in prison. The law’s critics say it will make all objective reporting harder, now that jail time could be a real possibility for journalists.

A spokesperson for Mr Orbán, Zoltán Kovács, leapt to the law’s defence, saying that “to intentionally spread false information and distortions that could undermine or thwart efforts to protect the public against the spread of the virus”. However, he has done little to reassure independent journalists that it won’t be used otherwise.

Péter Erdélyi, a senior editor at 444.hu, says the law could have “a chilling effect” on the media landscape. While he believes it won’t change the way his outlet works, it could lead to self-censorship. “When people are openly calling for your arrest, even if you don’t think it’s going to happen, it can affect you.”

On top of this, journalists and media outlets have been subjected to various lawsuits with the courts stacked against them. More subtle techniques see politicians simply refusing to answer questions from outlets critical of them, or burying information that may not be useful to their image.

For example, “the public broadcast media is censoring Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, our press statements, and reports are no longer reported by the state media,” explains Dr Demeter. “Harassment and stigmatisation campaigns against opposition politicians, NGOs, activists, and journalists are frequent.”

All of this can create a dangerous environment, where what is the truth becomes a grey area. Fake news is paraded as fact, and facts are denounced as fake.

The death of independent media can have financial causes too. Many state-owned companies only advertise with pro-government publications and are given disproportionate amounts of money to do so.

“In Hungary, when it comes to advertising, businesses have to consider the political background of news media, rather than just the performance of the media they choose to advertise with,” explains Kinga Incze, founder and CEO of Whitereport, a Hungarian-UK media analytics company. However, she explains that independent outlets can be attractive in a different way by providing an easy choice for brands. “There are many brands that want to look neutral, they have to appear on both sides.” In this respect, the independent Index was the obvious choice.

Exporting the Hungarian model

For Mr Orbán, preventing media access to information, instilling an atmosphere of fear in journalists and sources, restricting profits, reducing foreign ownership, and stacking laws against media freedom is the perfect recipe for ensuring a pro-government media narrative.

This is where a look into Poland’s media landscape becomes concerning.

Poland currently has the benefit of de facto diversity, which is used as an argument by politicians from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) against accusations that it too wants to limit the freedom of the press. Some analysts view Poland’s media as balanced, if somewhat polarised, where state-run, pro-government platforms are balanced out by privately-owned media that favours the opposition.

While less than ideal, the current situation does provide the opposition with a voice. Now, however, after a tight election victory, PiS may be casting envious eyes towards Hungary.

Critical and independent media already suffer from not getting the same level of advertising from state-owned firms as pro-government outlets, putting them in a financially precarious position. Large companies such as the oil firm PKN Orlen or even the post office are only advertised on outlets that satisfy PiS’s editorial standards.

As Bartosz Wieliński, the deputy editor-in-chief of Poland’s largest independent outlet, Gazeta Wyborcza told Emerging Europe, “right after the change of government in 2015, all the subscriptions of state institutions were cancelled, as well as adverting deals from state-owned enterprises, such as PTQ Insurance. They cancelled everything, and in days they signed with small outlets lacking in our range or quality, but run by their people. These outlets get a lot of money, and with that kind of money you could use the New York Times’ advertising.”

“They wanted to take the oxygen out of us, suffocate us,” he adds. “They failed, but it was a hard blow.”

Gazeta Wyborcza found a way to adapt to this financial suffocation, creating a paywall and developing its digital business. However, the battle was not over. “They failed to destroy us financially, so PiS began legal harassment cases,” says Mr Wieliński. The outlet has faced no fewer than 55 cases, but has won all but one.

As a large outlet, Gazeta Wyborcza has been able to weather the storm better than others. Smaller, regional news platforms have not been so successful, many closing having been unable to financially or legally withstand the pressure.

Even public broadcasters are not immune. A recent scandal saw public radio station Trójka accused of censoring an anti-government song, Your pain is better than mine, that topped the Polish pop charts. The song criticised PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński for visiting the grave of his mother and twin brother during the Covid-19 lockdown, at a time when people were not allowed to leave their homes. The song quickly disappeared from the charts and in response, many journalists from the radio station resigned.

Aside from financial and legal harassment, other proposed laws ring eerily similar to those in Hungary. Mr Kaczyński recently vowed to press ahead with plans to limit foreign ownership of media platforms, stating that “the media in Poland should be Polish”.

This comes as no surprise, given that foreign-owned media have a track record of embarrassing PiS. In the run-up to Poland’s recent presidential election, German-owned Fakt published an exposé detailing how the election’s eventual winner, Andrzej Duda, had pardoned a convicted child sex abuser. In response, Mr Duda’s team accused Germany of election interference.

Then there are the existing laws that do not help matters. Just a year after the party took office in 2015, the National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television was abolished and replaced by a National Media Council, the majority of whose members are loyal to PiS.

Recent discourse from the ruling party, in particular the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, to “repolonise” and decentralise the media has aroused concern that large private media companies, such as Gazeta Wyborcza’s mother company, Agora, will have to split, or be forced to sell at least parts of their business to pro-government owners. There has been talk of a new law to force a split of media companies by limiting them to the publication of just one newspaper each, dividing the market and significantly weakening the independent press. This of course, would not apply to state-owned media outlets.

PiS is also employing the Hungarian tactic of ignoring independent journalists.

“We can no longer influence [PiS] politicians,” says Mr Wieliński, “they haven’t talked with us since 2015.”

On top of this, the deputy editor-in-chief describes a climate of abuse and hate against all independent news outlets, not just Gazeta Wyborcza. “When we publish a story on their misdealings and scandals it is denounced as fake news, Duda tweets that it is lies. This is a copy and paste of [US President Donald] Trump’s rhetoric.”

“Polish journalists and foreign journalists working in Poland that are not enthusiastic about PiS or Duda suffer constant abuse on social networks and TVP [the state-owned broadcaster],” adds Mr Wieliński, “I have been personally attacked twice, maybe three times, on public TV, not to mention countless cases of harassment on social media.”

Inciting hate against independent media is a huge cause for concern for Mr Wieliński. “The thing I’m afraid of the most is that PiS will incite hate in the public. They don’t hesitate to use anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs,” he continues. “In January 2019, somebody stabbed the mayor of Gdańsk, who was a longtime victim of harassment. There is a clear relationship between media harassment and the mayor’s death.”

“They can do the same stuff with my colleagues and others from independent outlets. One day a ‘true patriot’ could come along with a knife.”

Aside from encouraging hate, this hostile climate leads to a culture of self-censorship, not only of journalists themselves, but those willing to speak out. In this, there are again striking similarities with Hungary.

“It seems that Hungary may be the role model for the Polish government nowadays,” says Ms Munk. “After Mr Kaczyński’s recent statements about the media, it is obvious that independent media outlets and their editorial staff will be under heavy attack in the near future.”

What lies ahead for Hungarian and Polish media freedom?

No country can claim its media is truly independent and free from bias. There are always stakeholders interested in curation, but in most countries the media almost always clearly sits somewhere on the political compass, and readers are usually aware of where their preferred outlet stands. Studies have even shown that many people in fact read media out of confirmation bias.

However, when media outlets are owned by increasingly illiberal governments – either directly or indirectly – that have proven track records of silencing minorities, being selective with the truth, and disregard for rule of law, it is another matter entirely.

What’s more, a multi-pronged attack of both soft and hard repression against what remains of critical journalism does not bode well for the state of their democracies.

In Hungary, and increasingly in Poland, much of the media is transforming from watchdog to lapdog. Even if Hungarians or Poles wanted to access certain information, it is simply becoming unavailable.

However, not all hope is lost, there are still some smaller independent outlets trying their best to keep free media alive. In Hungary, the former Index team has big plans, and is currently crowdfunding for an ‘Index 2.0’, and 444.hu is still going strong. In Poland, the former staff of the Trójka radio station began a new station called Nowy Swiat, whose launch saw a record number of listeners on the first day.

Nevertheless, the amount of space in which independent media has to operate is shrinking.

“Independent, public-oriented and unbiased media coverage is shrinking further and becoming harder to sustain,” said a Hungarian public servant, who prefers to remain anonymous. “Yet the demand for that sort of news coverage is probably stable, or maybe even on the rise in Hungary.”

However, this demand does split across age boundaries, and the rural-urban divide, in both Hungary and Poland. Smaller, rural, and independent media outlets are being drowned out at a faster rate than those in urban areas, leaving the residents of big cities like Budapest, Warsaw, Gdańsk, and Kraków with far more independent coverage and deepening cleavages.

For Dr Demeter, “Hungary, and all countries, need free media so people can exchange ideas and opinions, get to know what their elected leaders are up to so they can make their own decisions. Free media is an essential part of any rule of law system.”

Yet like the rule of law in Hungary, free media is rapidly decaying, and Poland is not far behind.

When I asked Mr Wieliński if he had any last comments, he simply said that “in a few months, the situation could deteriorate further,” before concluding, “pray for us.”

State-owned and pro-government outlets in both Hungary and Poland were approached for this article but failed to comment. 

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