Thursday

27th Feb 2020

Opinion

Orban-style 'media capture' is spreading across Europe

  • The spiritual home of media capture is Hungary. Prime minister Viktor Orban's playbook is simple but effective (Photo: European Parliament)

Imagine a Europe where news media are controlled by cartels of governments and oligarchs. Prime ministers give lucrative advertising contracts to press companies that support them and financially punish those that don't to the point of extinction.

Public broadcasters are gutted of critical journalists and turned into cheerleaders for the ruling party.

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This is not a dystopian fantasy. It is Europe in 2019.

We hear a lot about the threats of social media and misinformation to our democracies. While this is true, neither has yet completely overrun a European country.

What we don't hear about is another anti-democratic disease that has already claimed multiple victims across the continent.

Media capture is when governments and business interests collude to control and manipulate the flow of information.

By silencing dissenting voices, government-business cartels are able to extinguish accountability, ensure their unimpeded access to public resources and prolong their own existence.

A report published by Media Development Investment Fund exposes the extent of a phenomenon that is corroding the hard-won democratic gains of many countries in eastern, central and south-eastern Europe and threatens to spread its tentacles into new territories.

The spiritual home of media capture is Hungary. Prime minister Viktor Orban's playbook is simple but effective.

After winning the 2010 elections, the ruling party Fidesz introduced a restrictive media law and appointed a new Media Council to police it.

The law also merged all arms of public broadcasting and placed them in a single unit under the control of the Media Council, which oversaw a purge of critical journalists.

Vulnerable to takeover

With the public media under control, the government then retargeted state advertising spending away from privately-owned media outlets with large audiences and towards those owned by its allies.

Unsurprisingly, this made media companies vulnerable to takeover.

The ruling party's allies quickly bought one media outlet after another, often using generous loans from state-controlled banks to do so.

As a final step, late last year the oligarchs established Central European Press and Media Foundation, and donated all their media outlets – some 476 – to this single controlling organisation.

Among the donors were people like Lorinc Meszaros, Orban's long-time friend who is now one of the richest men in the country, thanks in part to public contracts.

Where Hungary has led, others have followed. There is now little independent media left in countries like the Czech Republic Turkey and Serbia, where governments and their business allies have adopted similar tactics to stifle dissent. In Poland, the ruling party has openly embraced Orban's model and is steadily following his strategy for capture.

And there is a cross-border element. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that Hungarian businessmen and companies linked to Orban have been purchasing stakes in media companies in the Balkans.

And the Czech billionaire energy and media magnate Daniel Kretinsky recently bought into Le Monde.

The importance of securing a compliant media was illustrated last month by Austria's then vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who was filmed offering government contracts in exchange for Russian oligarch support that included buying a 50 percent stake in Austria's Kronen Zeitung newspaper and switching its editorial position.

It is time to stop the spread of media capture and reverse it before it is too late.

Policy intervention would be the obvious way but the paradox is, of course, that changes would have to be made by governments that are using policy and regulation to capture the media.

This leaves supranational intervention, but that would require a level of confrontation that the EU doesn't currently seem to have the stomach for.

One solution lies in the private sector. Independent media companies in at-risk countries need the financial wherewithal to maintain or regain their independence.

From digital startups to established print and broadcast companies, news businesses need access to loans and equity investment that allows them to resist takeover and, when circumstances allow, to buy back control.

Such capital must be patient, in that it cannot be invested for a quick financial return. We need to build bastions of quality independent journalism across Europe, institutions that support civil society and democratic debate, and that will outlast the authoritarian ambitions of their oppressors.

It will require fresh thinking by European philanthropy, impact investors and others that care about our freedoms.

Our democracies depend on it.

Author bio

Harlan Mandel is the chief executive of the New York-based Media Development Investment Fund.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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