November 30, 2017 / By Zoltan Simons, Bloomberg
The U.S. pledged to provide funding to cash-starved media outlets in rural Hungary, where allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban have come to dominate the industry. Locals are also improvising ways to provide news outside of the government’s purview.
The State Department will grant up to $700,000 to boost media pluralism outside the capital, U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Damstra told journalists in Budapest on Thursday. The call for applications to support objective media will close in January and the cash won’t be disbursed before May, after parliamentary elections.
The tightening of media regulation marked one of the earliest and most controversial steps in Orban’s push for an “illiberal state,” before proceeding to dismantle further checks on his power. Hungary this year slipped to 71st place in the ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, from 23rd in 2010, when Orban returned to office, after the prime minister’s allies bought up newspapers, radio and television stations, often with the help of state loans.
The crackdown on independent media has raised tensions with the U.S and the European Union. U.S. diplomats have drawn attention to the precarious position of independent and opposition providers against pro-government outlets supported by lavish state advertising spending. The government rejects this as interference in internal matters and has repeatedly summoned the U.S.’s top envoy to Hungary to protest the criticism from its NATO ally. Orban’s party leads all opinion polls with a wide margin ahead of parliamentary elections that the premier has said will likely take place in April.
While Hungary still has one independent commercial TV channel with national coverage, some newspapers tied to opposition parties and various independent news websites, limited internet usage in smaller towns and hamlets means there’s little media pluralism for many, Agnes Urban, an analyst at Mertek research institute, told reporters. All of Hungary’s four national broadsheets are now linked to political parties, she said.
“Ownership concentration is so strong that in rural areas only government propaganda is available in local and regional media,” Urban said.
The government rejects the allegation that it is suppressing independent voices. “No one is restricting press freedom in Hungary,” Levente Magyar, a state secretary at the Foreign Ministry, said in October after he summoned the U.S. envoy in protest.
Hungary isn’t alone in getting into conflicts over news providers. Poland’s de-facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has accused foreign media owners of interfering in politics and called for domestic entrepreneurs to take majority stakes. In Serbia, more than 150 news outlets blacked out their website or printed their front pages with a black stripe in September to protest government intimidation.
In Hungary, some are turning to innovative ways to counter the government’s sway.
Gyorgy Szarvas, a former journalist, helps lead the “Print it yourself” initiative, compiling a four-page weekly newsletter which is distributed by local partners in the countryside. It’s a new take on a communist-era way, when activists in the underground opposition photocopied Samizdat publications to counter official propaganda. This week’s copy of Szarvas’ publication dealt with issues ranging from underperforming schools to the political manipulation of the immigration debate.
“Under communism, Samizdat covered real, objective stories without censorship,” Szarvas said. “This is 21st-century Samizdat.”
Others are using crowdfunding. Gergely Dudas quit one of the most-read news websites in Hungary, Index.hu, with the aim of setting up a new outlet called Politis.hu after fundraising online. The aim was to free reporters and editors from the influence of both business and political interests and to fill a void in news coverage from the countryside, Dudas said in an email. He’s looking to raise 990,000 euros ($1.2 million) for the project.
Attila Babos has already set up his news website Szabad Pecs, or Free Pecs, in the southern Hungarian city after losing his job at the regional paper last year when Mediaworks, a company owned by Orban-ally Lorinc Meszaros, acquired it along with most other regional newspapers. He said he used crowdfunding for part of the financing.
Babos, who also plans to apply for the U.S. funding, said he also experienced political pressure under other governments in his 12 years at the regional newspaper, though to a lesser extent than under Orban.
“There were still some boundaries that were respected,” Babos said. “This is no longer the case.”