"If the future government does not take concrete steps to dismantle this political system which has enabled the concentration of media ownership as well as the deliberate attacks on media independence, Hungary would risk becoming a black hole from which no reliable news and information emerges."
This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 30 March 2022.
As some Hungarian media continue to convey Russian propaganda, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the two leading candidates for prime minister in this weekend’s parliamentary elections in Hungary to give a concrete undertaking to improve access to reliable and verified news and information. Peter Marki-Zay, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s main challenger, has promised to make this a political priority.
RSF urges both of the main candidates to make press freedom and the right to information a priority for the future government. In recent years, many privately-owned media have been controlled or silenced by means of political and economic manoeuvres or by takeovers by oligarchs allied with the government, with the result that Hungary has become the antithesis of what a press freedom model should be in Europe.
The few remaining influential independent media are permanently subject to political, economic and judicial harassment, which has ranged from banning a radio station critical of the government to using the Pegasus spyware against some journalists.
The information war unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes even more urgent the need for independent and reliable information, as Hungary’s state-owned media and some of its privately-owned media, which have long acted as the government’s political mouthpieces, are now relaying some of the Kremlin’s propaganda. When Russia launched its invasion, Hungary’s very influential national news agency MTI – which operates under the government’s direct orders, according to a recent journalistic investigation – went so far as to use the term “military operation” instead of “war” in its reports, which are widely used by Hungarian media outlets because they are free. The use of these language elements employed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda outlets then served to support the Hungarian government’s ambiguous position on European Union sanctions against Russia.
“At a time when Russia is reverting to Soviet censorship and propaganda practices, Europe needs a Hungarian government that promotes reliable and independent information, and makes the European Union strong and credible in its defence of journalists and press freedom,” said Julie Majerczak, RSF’s representative to the EU. Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s EU and Balkans desk, added: “If the future government does not take concrete steps to dismantle this political system which has enabled the concentration of media ownership as well as the deliberate attacks on media independence, Hungary would risk becoming a black hole from which no reliable news and information emerges.”
In the course of March, Julie Majerczak and Pavol Szalai reached out to the main prime ministerial candidates in order to advocate for press freedom and the right to information. During a video-conference on 8 March, opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay pledged “to make freedom of the press and the right to information a priority and to raise them publicly during the election campaign.” He also described press freedom as “an important issue, if not the most important” in order to “safeguard democracy in Hungary.”
RSF also contacted Zoltán Kovács, the secretary of state for international communication and spokesperson for Viktor Orbán, who is seeking reelection as prime minister. Although not available for an interview due to the crisis in Ukraine, Kovács promised to respond to RSF’s requests by email. However, RSF did not receive any response within the agreed deadline.
RSF has urged Hungary’s leading political parties to focus their action in defence of press freedom and the right to information under four broad themes.
Independence of public media
Firstly, the candidates should undertake to ensure that Hungary’s public media as well as its media regulator are independent of the ruling party or coalition. This includes ensuring a balanced representation within the Media Council, which has exceeded its powers in order to render political services to the government, such as by arbitrarily refusing to renew the licence of an independent radio station, Klubradio, in early 2021.
Transparency about state advertising
Secondly, state advertising must stop being allocated and withheld without any transparency in order to subject media outlets to political pressure, as it was with the independent news website Index.hu before its demise in 2020.
Quicker response to information requests
Thirdly, the candidates must pledge to ensure fair access to information for all media, to reset the initial 15-day deadline for responding to requests made under the access to information law, instead of the current and extendable 45 days, and to ensure non-discriminatory access to press conferences for all journalists, especially in a pre-electoral period.
Repeal law criminalising fake news
Finally, the candidates must commit to reduce state pressure on journalists and their sources by repealing the law under which spreading fake news is punishable up to five years in prison, and by ensuring that a transparent and thorough criminal investigation is conducted into the use of the Pegasus spyware against journalists critical of the government.
Hungary is ranked 92nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.