The ‘Putinisation’ of Hungary’s Media System

This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Ring Lecture Series: Crises, Democracy and the Media in Europe and the ‘Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series’ headed by Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance & Integration Prof. Katharine Sarikakis, and curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli und Markos Mpadanes.

The current series of blog posts is titled: Do we need Europe?

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By Peter Bajomi-Lazar

Media scholars have long argued that many of the former communist countries have in recent decades gone through a process of Italianization (Splichal 1994) or Berlusconisation (Wyka 2007). As Karol Jakubowicz (2008: 118) observed, “contrary to what an encyclopedia may tell you, post-communist countries appear to be located—figuratively at least—around the Mediterranean,” as both regions evinced underdeveloped press markets, high levels of political parallelism, low levels of journalistic professionalisation, and high levels of state intervention (cf. Hallin & Mancini 2004).

But this no longer seems to be the case. High levels of political parallelism imply pluralism in both the media and the party system. Yet pluralism has largely diminished in at least two of the Central and Eastern European countries. In the 2010s, one political force—the Fidesz–Christian Democrats party alliance in Hungary, and the Law and Justice party in Poland—has assumed office, consolidated its rule, and took control of most media outlets, marginalizing critical voices.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This note takes a look at these developments, based on the case of Hungary.

Four periods of media and politics

Hungary’s recent media history evinces at least four subsequent, and partly overlapping, periods.

First, until the late 1980s, Hungarian media outlets underwent a process of Sovietisation: the party-state obtained and maintained tight control over what may be described as a one-party press.

Second, when democratization began in the late 1980s, many in the journalism community argued for the Anglicization or Americanization of the media. Under the impact of global satellite channels such as the BBC World and CNN International, Hungarian ethical codes and journalism schools promoted neutrally objective journalism, and put forward the ideal of a non-partisan press.

Third, despite the efforts above, a process of Italianization or Berlusconization began in the early 1990s, leading to the rise of a multi-party press (Lázár 1992), just as in the Southern European countries. Similarities between the media landscapes of the two regions are likely explained by similarities in their political landscapes such as late democratization, weak middle classes, clientelism, and the party colonization of the state and the media. In fact, both regions have been described as part of the “third wave” of democracies (cf. Huntington 1991).

Fourth, with the 2010 electoral victory of the Fidesz–Christian Democrats party alliance, a gradual process of Russification or Putinisation began, as the Washington Post observed. The new parliamentary majority passed a new constitution and election law, creating an “uneven playing field” where one political force dominates, while the opposition parties have little chance of defeating the incumbents (Bozóki & Hegedűs 2017: 15). The latest Nations in Transit report on Hungary observed “authoritarian practices” and “the erosion of democratic institutions” in the political sphere. Developments in the political landscape were instantly reflected in the media landscape, where a dominantly one-party press emerged. According to Mérték Media Monitor,the incumbents currently control 78 per cent of all news media outlets. Freedom House now lists Hungary among the “partly free press” countries.

 The redistribution of media resources

The current media system was built in at the least four overlapping steps.

First, by passing new media regulation and establishing new supervisory institutions, the ruling party alliance delegated new members into the key decision-making positions of media authorities. As these institutions have the power to appoint senior editors, public service institutions were swiftly transformed into organs of pro-government propaganda.

Second, via the favoritist allocation of broadcasting frequencies, the media authority transformed the radio market, privileging the stations owned by the Christian Churches and media oligarchs informally allied with the incumbent parties.

Third, the state—captured by the ruling party alliance—offered funding via state-owned banks and advertising to government cronies, including the late government commissioner of the film industry Andrew G. Vajna (TV2 and Radio 1), Orbán’s childhood friend Lőrinc Mészáros (regional dailies), and the non-official communication advisor of the prime minister Árpád Habony (online news sites).

Fourth, the rise of media oligarchs was followed by the unification of nearly all privately owned pro-government media in a new, centralized, umbrella organization that co-ordinates the news services of no fewer than 476 outlets.

Some lessons learnt

What are the similarities and the differences between the Hungarian and the Russian media systems?

According to Natalia Roudakova (2008: 50), the Russian media system evinces a high level of media–political clientelism, as “in many cases politicians, owners and sponsors have simply considered journalists their servants, forcing their political perspective—dictated by their financial interests—down journalists’ throats.” Freedom House describes Russia as a country where “the government sets editorial policy at state-owned television stations [and] the country’s more than 400 daily newspapers offer content on a wide range of topics but rarely challenge the official line on important issues.”

In a similar vein, Hungary’s media system evinces high levels of clientelism and the resulting instrumentalization of the media. Public service broadcasters work under tight government control, and few private outlets dare to criticize the incumbents.

Importantly, however, the status of press freedom is still better in Hungary than it is in Russia: according to Freedom House, Hungary earned 44 points, whereas Russia was granted 83 points in 2017 on a 100-point-scale where a higher score means a lower level of press freedom.

The Hungarian government maintains that the press is free and that the most important media outlets take a critical stance against it. In fact, the media system in Hungary is formally in line with democratic norms on the free press. The media seem plural—but this is fake pluralism with most organs being echo chambers of the government. The media seem to be regulated by the law—but behind the law, there is a clientelistic network of decision-makers. The media seem to provide equal access for all—but some voices get privileged access over other ones.

Thirty years after the democratic changes of 1989–1990, Hungary’s media landscape evinces, once again, a number of similarities with that of autocratic Russia.

Bibliography

Bozóki, András & Dániel Hegedűs (2017): A kivűlről korlátozott hibrid rendszer. Az Orbán-rezsim a rendszertipológia tükrében [An externally restrained hybrid system. The Orbán Regime in the mirror of systems typology]. Politikatudományi Szemle, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 7–32.

Hallin, Daniel C. & Paolo Mancini (2004): Comparing Media Systems. Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge University Press.

Huntington, Samual P. (1991): The Third Wave: Democratizatioon int he Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Jakubowicz, Karol (2008): “Finding the Right Place on the Map: Prospects for Public Service Broadcasting in Post-Communist Countries,” in: Karol Jakubowicz & Miklós Sükösd (eds.): Finding the Right Place on the Map. Central and Eastern European Media Change in a Global Perspective, pp. 101–124. Bristol–Chicago, Intellect Books.

Lázár, Guy (1992): “Sajtó és hatalom” [Press and power], Népszabadság, 28 May.

Roudakova, Natalia (2008): “Media–political clientelism: Lessons from anthropology,” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 41–59.

Splichal, Slavko (1994): Media beyond Socialism: Theory and Practice in East-Central Europe. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.

Wyka, Angelika W. (2007): Berlusconization of the Mass Media in East Central Europe. The New danger of Italianization?, Kakanien Revisited, no. 1, pp. 1–5, http://www.kakanien-revisited.at/beitr/emerg/AWyka1.pdf (letöltés: 2016. III. 9.).

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