Thursday

13th May 2021

Analysis

Szájer 'sex party' coverage shows Orbán's media control

  • Zoltán Kovács, Hungary's state secretary for public relations (l), PM Viktor Orbán and MEP József Zsájer (r) at a press conference in 2015 at the European Parliament (Photo: European Parliament)

If you followed the news in Hungary this week, you could easily have had a very different version of MEP József Szájer's participation in a gay "sex party" and how it exposed the hypocrisy of the ruling Fidesz party that has campaigned for traditional family values and curbed LGBTI rights.

From the minimalist reporting in pro-government and public media outlets, you would have only learned that Szájer, a key ally of PM Viktor Orbán, had apologised to his family and voters after he broke Covid-19 measures by participating in a house party in Brussels - without getting any context or further details.

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The Szájer affair exposes the extent to which Hungary's government is able to control the political narrative in the country, where independent media have been under attack for a decade.

On Tuesday (1 December), as the Szájer news broke, the website of Hungary's state broadcaster led with news on Orbán's latest approval ratings, with a headline: "Never before have Hungarians been so satisfied with any prime minister".

On Tuesday evening, the public TV broadcaster's news briefly reported on Szájer's statement, highlighting the apology only.

The public news wire, MTI, produced only one brief report - without context - on Szájer's statement, admitting he participated in a house party, while denying he used drugs or that the ecstasy pill found by police in his bag was his.

On Wednesday, journalists from Telex.hu news website - founded a few months ago by dozens of journalists that have quit the largest news portal Index.hu after it came under increasing government control - were stopped when asking questions to ministers arriving to a cabinet meeting on the Szájer affair.

Police also cordoned off the building in Budapest where the meeting took place.

Pro-government news websites reproduced Szájer's statement, again without context, and were quick to spin questions on the timing of the police bust, amid a European rule-of-law debate, to hint that foreign intelligence services tried to frame the Fidesz politician.

Only one pro-government site, Pesti Srácok, warned in an editorial on its front page about how this could spell trouble for the "national side" in the 2022 elections.

Uniquely bad

Gábor Polyák of the Mérték Media Monitor, a media think tank, told EUobserver the pro-government media has treated the issue carefully, putting theories about the involvement of intelligence services at the forefront, and completely omitting that Szájer participated in a gay sex-party.

Fidesz has built a media empire over the last decade, first taking control of public media and turning them into government mouthpieces. Then businessmen allied with the government gradually gained control over private media.

Citing earlier research by the Budapest-based Mérték, Polyák said only one-third of respondents said they consumed all kinds of media, while 80 percent of the remaining two-thirds is dominated by Fidesz-allied outlets.

Meanwhile, most independent media are struggling to be heard in the government echo chambers.

RTL Klub, Hungary's most-watched commercial TV channel, was the only one able to reach Fidesz voters in significant numbers, Polyák added.

Polyák said the Fidesz government achieved its dominant status by spending massive amounts of taxpayers' money on pro-government and state media outlets.

Hungary dropped to 89th place in the annual Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, a French NGO, from 23rd when Orbán came to power in 2010.

Last year, a report by Reporters Without Borders found "a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state".

The European Commission will publish its Democracy Action Plan on Thursday (3 December), partly in an effort to strengthen media freedom and pluralism in Europe.

And Polyák said the only tangible help for Hungary's independent media would be EU funding.

"Hungary is a unique case, nowhere the media is in such a bad shape, not even in other countries with populist tendencies. Money is needed," he said, while adding that he understood the EU's concerns about direct funding in such a divisive political atmosphere.

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