Perhaps nowhere in Europe has the shrinking of the space for independent news media been as dramatic as in Hungary, with ominous consequences for its democracy. The collapse of two storied national newspapers is a case in point.
Magyar Nemzet was shut down in April, just days after the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won decisively in parliamentary elections. The paper’s owner, a former friend turned bitter foe of Mr. Orban’s, cited financial difficulties, but many observers said the timing also had to do with politics.
“After Orban won the election, I didn’t think it had a chance to survive,” said Gabor Polyak, director of the Budapest-based Mertek Media Monitor, a watchdog group, “but I didn’t think it would be so sudden.”
The demise of the 80-year-old Magyar Nemzet came less than two years after the even more abrupt closure of another venerable Hungarian daily, Nepszabadsag. The paper’s owners also cited financial difficulties, but the timing was widely seen as linked to its exposure of a scandal involving the use of public funds for a private trip.
Both of these newspapers had survived more than three decades of communist rule and were politically engaged publications during the turbulent 1990s, but then the news industry began to crumble in Hungary, as elsewhere.
According to Mertek Media Monitor, circulation for Nepszabadsag, a daily broadsheet with links to the Socialist Party, plummeted from 205,000 copies in 2000 to 47,000 in 2013. In the same period, circulation for the conservative Magyar Nemzet, which until 2015 was a mouthpiece for Mr. Orban’s party, went from 69,000 to 39,000. By early 2017, the paper’s circulation had dropped to just over 15,000.
Meanwhile, friends and allies of Mr. Orban went on a buying spree, presumably more in search of political favor than financial gain. Today they control a broad swath of news outlets, including all national radio stations, all 18 regional newspapers, a major online news website, a free daily, two tabloids and a commercial TV station. This “friendly control” of private publications is amplified by the government-owned outlets, which, according to Mr. Polyak, include six public television stations, five public radio stations and MTI, the country’s news agency.
“Orban has managed to win a dominant position in the Hungarian media by installing press groups or personalities close to Fidesz in television, radio, the regional press and online,” said Pauline Ades-Mevel of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which now ranks Hungary 73rd out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom index, down from 23rd in 2010.
The result of the April elections — which gave Fidesz the two-thirds majority it was seeking — showed that the government’s aggressive media strategy had paid off. The party’s shrill xenophobic message focused on the supposed threats posed by migrants in Europe and the demonized figure of George Soros, a Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist. Never mind that there are few migrants in Hungary, and no evidence that Mr. Soros is seeking to undermine the Hungarian government: The ghastly depictions of migrant invasion and the ubiquitous posters of a grinning Mr. Soros were enough to convince many voters that Mr. Orban was keeping them safe.
“Orban has masterfully brainwashed a large part of the population,” said Charles Gati, a Hungary expert and senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “He caught the mood, and the hidden prejudices of the people. Two-thirds think he can do no wrong.”
As it turns out, the Hungarian government has little need for the full-blown censorship that existed under communism. Islands of independent news gathering still exist, such as the left-leaning newspaper Nepszava, several weeklies and the popular RTL television station, which is German-owned. But in the face of the powerful pro-government machine, neutral or opposition voices are muted and, with the exception of RTL, have a limited range.
The decline of the newspaper market in Hungary began in the 2000s with a strong challenge from digital publications, which perhaps were tapping into the public’s distrust of the bias of newspaper owners. In addition, government-paid advertising is a powerful presence, accounting for a staggering 15 percent of the market, according to Mr. Polyak’s estimates, more than double the average in the European Union.
The government’s advertising portfolio includes public service ads and promotional ads for state-owned companies, but it also spreads political messages that support the ruling party.
Under the Fidesz government, as under previous governments, this largess is doled out and withdrawn with deliberate political purpose, which many say helps to explain the demise of Nepszabadsag and Magyar Nemzet. Government advertising can be crucial for a newspaper’s survival; for instance, the pro-Orban newspaper Magyar Idok receives an astonishing 85 percent of its revenue from such advertising, Mr. Polyak said.
Curiously, Nepszava — the last opposition daily newspaper — also receives state advertising, perhaps in an effort by the government to counter charges of bias. During the election campaign on March 29, the paper’s editors published a message warning readers that the newspaper was not responsible for content paid for by the government.
In an earlier editorial published in January, Nepszava’s editor in chief, Gabor Horvath, defended the paper’s acceptance of state advertising but noted that its main source of revenue was its readers. “There is a responsibility that comes with words,” Mr. Horvath wrote, according to an English translation of the editorial. “The more narrow the space that can be filled with free words, the greater the responsibility.”
As Mr. Orban moves into his next term, the fate of the country’s news media — one of the great promises of the post-communist period — is in doubt.
“There is press freedom in Hungary now,” said Jozsef Martin, a former journalist at Magyar Nemzet and president of the Hungarian Section of the Association of European Journalists, “but the amount of pluralism is decreasing from month to month, from year to year. That is what is worrying us.”
As information increasingly becomes a political commodity subject to overt and covert distortion, the Hungarian situation raises a critical question for democracies: How can they ensure that the news media is strong enough and independent enough to assume its proper role as the fourth estate — to act as the guarantor of free and informed debate, and serve as a watchdog against abuses by public officials?
In Mr. Polyak’s view, the last campaign revealed what happens when one voice, and one set of opinions, dominates the landscape.
“It is not just about propaganda,” he said. “The problem is there was no other opinion, particularly on the migration issue. The propaganda was so loud that there was no discussion of real problems. There was no space for that discussion.”