Orbán's voters look at the first news they get; they do not search out independent media. His methods are also being adopted in other countries, which is why we need to be alert to any change the government makes that creates an unfavourable environment for journalists, thinks Attila Mong of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Attila Mong, based in Berlin, is a representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists for Europe. He is a former research fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In Hungary, he won the Pulitzer Memorial Prize for Best Investigative Journalism in 2004 and the Soma Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2003.
In the interview, you will learn:
- what Orban's videos of himself going to newsagents mean,
- whether he will target independent online media after his re-election,
- how to watch out for his tactics,
- what he thinks about strengthening the right of reply in Slovakia,
- and what the EU should do about it.
How worried are you about the state of media freedom in the EU?
There are several types of threats to media freedom in the EU, depending on where you are. In Eastern countries, such as Hungary and Poland, there are more systemic threats, where the executive power tries to limit media freedom in various ways. And we are seeing similar trends in other countries, even sometimes in Western European countries.
Overall, we are seeing the rise of populist forces in almost every country. They are attacking the credibility of journalists, as well as journalism as a profession. In some countries we are also seeing extremist groups stepping up against journalists, and there are also countries where organised crime is definitely a problem and a threat to journalists.
And how do you think it has evolved over the last few years? Has it deteriorated significantly?
We are seeing a deterioration of media freedom in basically all European countries. This is also reflected in the press freedom indices. We are seeing an increase in attacks on journalists. During the pandemic there were many attacks on journalists who were reporting on the health crisis and providing information on how to protect oneself and how to get vaccinated.
Is it because people don't like hearing bad news and it is most prevalent in times of crisis?
Yes, that's definitely part of it. The public saw journalists as part of the government apparatus because they were trying to disseminate credible public health information.
We have seen and documented this in Italy and Slovenia, for example, where journalists have been attacked simply because they were spreading reliable information.
Will this trend continue in the context of the war in Ukraine?
Yes, we have documented cases in many countries where journalists have been attacked because they were covering the war in Ukraine and were seen by the public as pro-Ukrainian. There have been such attacks in Serbia, for example.
The war situation puts journalist at a higher risk, because the atmosphere is very polarised and the topic they are covering can be more easily misunderstood.
Are you seeing disillusionment among journalists in Europe? Are people going to be less likely to become journalists or quit their jobs?
Yes. This is also definitely a trend, especially when we talk about Eastern Europe and Hungary, for example. A couple of weeks ago we published a report about how Hungarian journalists feel, and one of them explicitly told me that it is very difficult to find young, talented people who want to become journalists. They see that journalists who do their jobs are very often targeted by attacks by extremist groups or even sometimes by government or ruling parties.
So it is not an attractive profession for young people, because they only see problems and challenges and sometimes even personal attacks.
How does the Hungarian media report on the war?
As you know, in Hungary public broadcasting is clearly under the influence of the government. So they very carefully repeat the government line on every issue. This is also the case in terms of the war.
However, it was a challenge for them in the beginning, because the government line was not there in the beginning. Orbán has historically been very pro-Russian, but during the first weeks of the war, the government had to rethink its strategy. And that is why Hungarian public broadcasting's war coverage was sometimes unclear.
There is also quite a wide network of private media in Hungary that is under the influence of the government or the ruling party, because they are owned by people close to Viktor Orbán. And there, too, the news coverage is pro-government. So whatever the government is saying, the coverage follows that.
What does that look like in practice?
It's not only about Russia, but also about a very clear interest in Hungary’s energy supply. Hungary is very dependent on Russia for that. So a lot is being written about Hungary's economic interests, trying to mitigate the effects of the war on Hungary.
Orbán's counter argument is that one can still go to a newsagent and buy a newspaper with a headline critical of him.
Here I would compare the Hungarian situation to Russia. Of course, there are many differences, and Russia has changed dramatically since the outbreak of the war, but they had this in common before that.
Even in Russia, you had a network of independent online media outlets which could cover any issue however they wanted. But the problem is that their reach is limited by the Hungarian media market. Their coverage is not reaching a larger audience, especially an audience that could be considered loyal to Orbán. Orbán’s base is the older generation living in the countryside, in smaller towns, who don't actively look for information on the internet. They don't actively look for independent sources of information. They just consume, in terms of news and information, whatever is easily accessible to them.
And especially in the countryside, the regional newspapers are all owned by oligarchs close to Orbán.
What do these media write about the European Union? For example, about the fact that Hungary may get its EU money cut because of corruption?
They write that Hungary is fighting against the influence of Brussels, against the influence of international globalised interests.
Of course, there is a very strong contradiction here, because Hungary is a large beneficiary of EU funds, on which the development of infrastructure depends. So, on the one hand, the people are in favour of the EU, but at the same time, Orbán is succeeding in his role as a defender against Brussels, especially in this war situation. Orbán won a large majority in the last election with this strategy.
After his re-election, will he also go after the remaining internet media?
I don't think it is in his interest. That was a strategy at the beginning of his career, to try to squeeze out international investors and making sure that independent outlets would be taken over by private actors close to the government. Now there are only a few independent media left, and Orbán can use them as proof of media pluralism.
Now he is doing it differently, trying to make it difficult for them. For example, the government is transforming a tax regime that was favourable for freelancers. This will make it even more difficult for the independent media to continue functioning in the way that they have. But I don't think they will try to suppress them more directly. This media environment suits them; they have managed to win the last two elections in it.
You said that other countries are also following the example of Hungary. How does one recognise this when it’s happening?
The main distinction is when you see a government whose mission is not to create an enabling environment for independent journalists, but to do the exact opposite of that. For example, by allocating state advertising to loyal media outlets. Private advertisers may also become reluctant to advertise in independent media because they will fear a clash with the government.
It is also a problem if the courts do not follow what journalists are covering. So even if a case is uncovered, there are no consequences for the perpetrators.
In Slovakia, the media laws have recently been changed. What do you think about strengthening the right of reply?
In Slovakia, if someone has a problem with what a journalist has written, they can use very strong civil and privacy laws. There was no need for new legislation. A legally binding right of reply forces publications to become mouthpieces for politicians.
Recently, the Rule of Law Report 2022 was published, and for the first time it included recommendations for member states. Both Slovakia and Hungary were advised to strengthen the independence of public service media and the protection of journalists. Will this help?
I think this report is very useful because it gives a good overview. It is able to show which problems exist in several countries at the same time. It is worse at tracking developments over time; it does not tell us whether the problems are more serious now than they were a year ago.
These are important recommendations, but the basic contradiction in the EU is that the media and their regulation are still the responsibility of the member states. So it is very difficult to enforce them.
The European Commission is planning to present the European Media Freedom Act on press freedom this year. What should it contain?
The EU should look at how the media market is regulated and at the ownership structure. This directly affects competition, where the Union has competence. It can also set rules for state advertising.
Do you think it has the power to change the situation in Hungary?
Well, it will be more than what we have now. It would certainly help the EU, because today it has very few tools for intervening in Hungary. I do not think it will be a silver bullet, because media regulation will still remain very much in the hands of the member states. But I think that the more such instruments there are, the more room will open up for the Hungarian media to survive and to gain a bigger market share.
The interview was originally published on euractiv.sk.