Zsuzsanna Szabo traces the murky relationship between Hungary’s political and media establishments
Hungary is in the very heart of Europe but it is not an easy destination for refugees and undocumented immigrants since a 175 km-long fence along the Serbian border was completed in September 2015. Despite these defences though, almost 76 percent of the Hungarians say fear refugees.
Since the refugee influx of 2015 reached Hungary’s border, the government in the Eastern European nation has been one of the European Union’s migrant policy’s greatest opponents.
President Viktor Orbán’s administration spent an estimated €10m on posters last year to urge Hungarians to vote against the EU’s refugee redistribution quota. The billboard campaign was just the tip of the iceberg. Orbán’s anti-migrant campaign has been backed by a government-friendly media empire that has emerged through acquisitions and has ironically been propped up by construction businesses servicing EU-funded government contracts.
Government construction contracts make for a tame media
When Orbán came to power, the second time, in 2010, the country’s conservative party was determined not to underestimate the power of the media as it had in an earlier failed administration.
By the time the outgoing Hungarian socialist government had been replaced with Fidesz, a remarkable right-wing media portfolio had emerged almost from scratch, spanning print, radio, advertising and broadcast (1).
One of the most influential players of the right-wing media business circle was Lajos Simicska, not incidentally, an old college friend of the prime minister. In the second Orbán administration, the businessman owned a daily newspaper with a somewhat large circulation, a national TV-channel and two radio stations. At the time, he basically dominated the Hungarian outdoor advertising market too. Simicska soon started to win big public advertising contracts. For example, his media companies altogether won state advertising contracts in the value of 20.5 million Pounds (7.5 billion Forints) in 2014. But it seems this revenue generated from advertisements is the icing on the cake. Simicska’s construction company Közgép won £356m worth of government contracts in 2013 alone. These large-scale infrastructure development projects, like road, motorway construction works and renewal of railway tracks, were mainly funded by the EU.
What to do when your mouthpiece breaks: build a new one
In 2015 Simicska fell out with his old friend Orbán, and the ruling Fidesz party lost the majority of its media platforms almost overnight. The dispute was so severe that the Orbán administration needed a replacement for Simicska. The media mogul not only owned the most valuable right-wing media assets in the market but he also financed the whole system.
The Hungarian media market is small. Rebuilding a right-wing, but more importantly a government loyalist, media empire was only possible at the expense of the left-wing and the market-oriented independent media. The greatest media structural change began since the fall of communism in the country.
The easiest target was the Hungarian PSB, which heavily relied on taxpayer’s money. The first step was to change the profile of the public media (MTVA) into state media, which granted government control over all of its TV channels and radio stations. The launch of the revamped state channels took place in March 2015. One of them, m1, formerly aimed to broadcast news from all around the world, however, the flagship TV channel has gradually become the government’s mouthpiece.
At the time, the Government’s support as at rock bottom. In the summer of 2015, only 25 percent of voters favoured the ruling party. Besides, the refugee crisis was looming over the horizon. Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers risked their lives by crossing the Aegean Sea to reach the border of the EU at the shores of Greece. Most of them were heading towards Western European countries through the so-called Balkan route. Hungary is located exactly at the crossroads of Western Europe and the Balkan route.
So the Fidesz party faced three challenges at once: low levels of voter support, the refugee crisis and a wrecked right-wing media.
Fear of migrants, the political panacea
The solution was to build on the fear of migration with impassioned anti-immigration rhetoric in the new right-wing media and then build voter support by seeming to provide the answer to the problem you have just stoked up.
A significant proportion of the then PSB TV channel’s broadcast programming has since been a description of the ‘threat to society’ posed by refugees. For example, at the end of August 2015 Hungarian authorities stopped refugees boarding trains to Germany unless they had valid Schengen documents. The trapped crowd started protesting peacefully, but the coverage by the public media depicted angry looking men attacking police.
PSB still had relatively low audience figures though so the Government signalled its intention to expand its influence over the private media firms as well. Pro-government businesses started buying media companies at a rapid rate.
To purchase media companies, you need a considerable amount of money. The Orbán Government simply repeated the method that had worked before. The financial model is still based on awarding public advertising contracts to pro-government media companies and concentrating media ownership in the hands of a few but loyal moguls. All that changed was names of the moguls. Lajos Simicska saw his orders dry up companies run by newcomer Lőrinc Mészáros mopped up massive public contracts instead.
The end of opposition
There was still reasonable opposition in Hungary with the left-wing publications offering an anti-government pro-migrant message. But in October 2016, the main opposition paper Népszabadság suddenly closed. The paper’s publishing company Mediaworks had been brought by a fairly unknown company called Opimus in the same month. All the archived articles of Népszabadság were deleted for good. Opimus is ultimately owned by Lőrinc Mészáros.
Other companies that Opimus mopped up include outdoor advertising companies and it’s these same companies that won £169,000 of contracts in July 2016 to run anti-immigrant campaigns used in the run-up to the referendum on the EU’s migrant relocation plan. One of the scaremongering messages was, “Did you know: Since the start of the immigration crisis, sexual harassment of women has increased in Europe?” The second biggest commercial TV channel TV2 went the same way with András György Vajna becoming the new government-friendly head at the start of 2016.
The pattern of government-backed businesses taking over media companies and then running government friendly content and winning public contracts has not only rapidly rebuilt a right-wing media 2.0, it’s done it at the expense of the remaining pillars of the free press in Hungary. Without media opposition, the anti-immigration rhetoric will go unchallenged and Hungary will continue to be a breeding ground for right-wing extremism in Europe.
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Zsuzsanna Szabo is studying the rise of populism in Hungarian politics at the University of Westminster. She previously covered German and Austrian political news and the refugee crisis for Origo.hu, Hungary’s leading news portal. She speaks four languages and writes on international affairs and the media market for titles including the Budapest Business Journal and MediaInfo. She tweets as @ZsuzsannaSzaboo
(1) The portfolio comprised two daily newspapers (Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap), two weeklies (Heti Válasz, Demokrata) two TV-channels (Hír TV and Echo TV), five advertising companies (Mahir Cityposter, Euro Publicity, Publimont, EuroAWK, A Plakát) and four radio stations (Class FM, Neo FM and Lánchíd Rádió, InfoRádió). Due to the purchase of Metropol from its Swedish publishing company (Modern Times Group), another free daily came under right-wing media ownership in 2011.