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IFEX members call on EU leaders to support media freedom in Hungary

An employee of the Hungarian news channel, Hir TV, walks in front of its headquarters in Budapest, 1 August 2018
An employee of the Hungarian news channel, Hir TV, walks in front of its headquarters in Budapest, 1 August 2018

REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

This statement was originally published on ipi.media on 7 August 2018.

The International Press Institute (IPI) today joined three other international press freedom groups in an open letter urging European Union officials to stand in support of media freedom in Hungary after an ally of President Viktor Orbán purchased the country's last domestically owned independent television broadcaster.

The takeover of Hír TV, announced on August 1, further strengthens Orbán's control of Hungary's media. The station sold by Lajos Simicska, an oligarch and former Orbán supporter until the pair fell out publicly in 2015, after which Simicska's media holdings, which also included the daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet, the weekly Heti Válasz and the radio broadcaster Lánchíd rádió, increasingly became a thorn in Orbán's side. Magyar Nemzet and Lánchíd rádió were abruptly closed following Orbán's resounding victory in parliamentary elections this April.

Through allied businessmen, Orbán has gobbled up large swathes of the media landscape in Hungary in recent years. Origo, formerly the largest Hungarian news site, was sold by Deutsche Telekom's Hungarian subsidiary and ended up in the hands of the son of the governor of the Hungarian National Bank. TV2, one of Hungary's two national commercial TV channels, was bought by Andy Vajna, a former Hollywood film producer on friendly terms with Orbán. Népszabadság, a leftist newspaper with the largest circulation of all political dailies, was shut down, a decision its owner, Heinrich Pecina, an Austrian businessman with many links to the Fidesz media empire, claimed was purely financial. Orbán also successfully purchased all of the country's regional newspapers through companies known for safeguarding his media interests.

With the purchase of Hír TV, efforts to protect the independence of foreign-owned broadcasters operating in Hungary gain renewed importance. The market leader is RTL Klub, owned by the Luxembourg-based RTL Group, whose majority shareholder is the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. RTL Klub is seen as Hungary's most powerful media outlet that is independent of the government and in the past has demonstrated a willingness to push back against efforts to silence its reporting.

Read the full letter below.

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President, European Commission
Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner, European Commission
Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner, European Commission
Antonio Tajani, President, European Parliament

The undersigned media freedom organizations are writing to draw your attention to the deteriorating situation of press and media freedom in Hungary, in particular the recent case of Hir TV.

Hir TV was the last domestically owned independent TV company in Hungary. On August 1, 2018 a sudden change in ownership resulted in dismissals of outspoken leading journalists and an abrupt change of editorial policy. Programmes that had previously reflected independent views were cancelled and replaced with government-friendly programmes. One cancelled talk show was replaced with a broadcast of a speech that Viktor Orbán had made some days earlier.

The case of Hir TV has been reported to Index on Censorship's platform Mapping Media Freedom, which monitors threats, limitations and violations related to media freedom in Europe.The loss of independence of the last remaining domestically owned TV company in Hungary is deeply discouraging. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for media freedom and shows how far Hungary has distanced itself from European values.

We ask you to condemn these developments in the strongest possible terms. We strongly urge the European Union to strengthen the link between eligibility for funding under the next Multiannual Financial Framework and respect for media freedom.

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Index on Censorship
International Press Institute (IPI)
South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

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