Monday

18th Jan 2021

Opinion

Hungary - how the government crippled the media

  • Governments start by attacking the press verbally, questioning their credibility and refusing to talk to certain journalists or outlets (Photo: Helena Malikova)

Last year, as I was laying the groundwork for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's return to Hungary after a 27-year hiatus from Hungarian language programming, a Hungarian-based expert I was talking to make a startling comment.

"If you are a teenager living in Hungary today, you likely have never seen your political leaders questioned on camera by truly independent journalists."

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As president of a news organisation operating across Eurasia, I witnessed this reality firsthand in central Asia or in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Yet this comment drove home that this trend was now becoming more commonplace in parts of the European Union.

During my time at RFE/RL, I learned that the pattern was familiar.

Governments start by attacking the press verbally, questioning their credibility and refusing to talk to certain journalists or outlets.

If they have enough support in parliament, they try to change the laws or regulations governing the public broadcaster, putting political allies in key positions, undermining its independence.

Private media are often the next target. Political allies purchase key media properties and influence the editorial line or take them out of the news business entirely.

Sometimes, market forces threatening traditional media outlets across the Western world take their own toll.

It is at this point that the Hungarian commentator's sad statement becomes true. There may be media outlets that remain that are not state-run, but there is little debate or the sort of aggressive investigative journalism that democracies need to hold politicians accountable.

The remaining brave independent journalists face not just insults, but sometimes physical attacks.

During a visit to Bulgaria last year (now number 111th in the world in press freedom, according to Reporters without Borders) journalists were still discussing the 2018 murder of Viktoria Marinova, host of an anti-corruption TV show, under mysterious circumstances.

I sadly became used to hearing similar stories in places such as Kazakhstan or Ukraine, but was shocked to find them in a supposedly functioning democracy in good standing with Nato and the EU.

Brussels' response to these challenges has been to hector member states, often privately, sometimes publicly, most recently through the commission's first rule of law report released last week. Yet because of the politics of EU coalition-building in Brussels, these admonishments are usually relegated to EU officials and most national leaders balk at public criticism.

What should Brussels do?

First, policymakers need to understand the centrality of independent media to functioning democracies.

Healthy democracies need media free of commercial or political bias to hold politicians accountable and to ask tough questions, no matter how unpleasant that process may be.

Democracies with a closing media space don't just put their politics at risk and expose their citizens to manipulation by corrupt domestic actors, they become more vulnerable to authoritarian foreign influence.

In Hungary, Russia and China have benefited from the Orban government's attacks on the press, in Bulgaria, Russian disinformation has flourished.

Second, the EU should work more closely with the US to bolster independent media.

Washington has also struggled to find an appropriate response to backsliding amongst European allies. US policy has fluctuated from public confrontation during the Barack Obama years, to a reset with Hungary during the Donald Trump administration and neither has produced the desired results.

Despite president Trump's public attacks on the media in the US, Washington has significant capabilities through its democracy assistance programs and support for independent media, including congressionally-funded broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

As a start, why not explore partnerships in central European states between European public broadcasters and their American counterparts?

Finally, governments cannot bear this burden alone - major independent media in the US and Europe should help their brethren in central Europe.

The Czech outlet Economia recently pledged €200,000 to the new independent Hungarian website Telex.hu. Cross-border partnerships can help diversify the media landscape.

US-based social media companies should also expand their engagement with local media across European democracies, where social media manipulation is a significant problem and also an impediment to the business models of some remaining independent media outlets.

If transatlantic leaders continue to just assess the situation and make noises of concern, the drift will continue.

There will be more outlets like Index.hu in Hungary that get co-opted. More brave journalists will have to fear for their lives just for doing their jobs. Ultimately, it will lead to deeper political instability, as we've seen from months of protests in Bulgaria, where citizens fed up with government malfeasance take measures into their own hands.

Such a path will make it more difficult for our citizens to prosper and only take us further away from the democratic ideals that bind us together as Americans and Europeans and differentiate us from the authoritarians looming on the horizon.

Author bio

Jamie Fly is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and previously served as president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Disclaimer

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

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