Mass protests in Hungary are not enough, media shows its crucial role

min read

Thousands protested in Budapest in mid-February following a child abuse scandal that caused the resignation of President Katalin Novák. The story, first published by 444.hu, revealed that she had issued a presidential pardon to a man who helped cover up a sex abuse case in an orphanage. After public pressure, Novák resigned, along with the Fidesz MP Judit Varga, the former minister of justice.

The case has caused an unprecedented political turmoil for Fidesz, which has been in power since 2010. Losing two key politicians has shaken Viktor Orbán’s party and led to smear campaigns in the government-allied media against citizens, activists, and journalists that have demanded accountability. In fact, the child abuse scandal severely undermined Orbán’s image as a defender of “family values”. Over the years, the Hungarian government has campaigned to ‘protect’ children from what Orbán describes as LGBTQ activists roaming Hungarian schools.

Pro-Government Influencers Amid Crisis

In response to the child abuse scandal, Megafon, a collective of pro-government social media influencers, spent 100,000 GBP in a single week on Facebook advertising to promote their posts. 

This concerted effort aimed to shield the government from criticism. Megafon is widely thought to be financed through public funds. Such spending is indicative of the resources the governing party and the state are willing to invest in pro-government propaganda. Between 2015 and 2023, the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister spent around 3 billion GBP on communication contracts for distributing state communications. The sum accounts for roughly half of all communication expenditures in Hungary, illustrating that the state funds 50% of the country's advertising and communication expenses.

In the context of media capture, the child abuse scandal served as a reminder to the government in Hungary that independent news media still can disrupt politics and bring consequences for those in power.

However, losing public and political trust might motivate Orbán’s regime to intensify pressure on journalists, aiming to prevent future scandals from reaching the public eye.

Katalin Novák, former President of Hungary.
Source: Photo by Aron Urb for EU2017EE under Creative Commons Attribution Licence. Source - link this to the word: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/35886559511/

EU Challenges Hungary's Sovereignty Act Over Press Freedom

In January, a list has been released of the Hungarian independent media outlets that have been awarded grants by the U. S. Embassy in Budapest. The list included 15 media outlets that will receive a total of GBP 257,000 in support. The funds are intended to “support national and local independent media in order to protect and strengthen press freedom,” according to the call for applications for the grants. Such support could potentially fall under recently adopted Sovereignty Protection Act. According to the new bill, organisations that receive foreign funding which could affect elections or public opinion could be subject to the provisions of the law.

The Hungarian Sovereignty Protection Act is yet another step of the government to complete media and state capture. In a recent action, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the new law.

In essence, the Sovereignty Protection Act creates a new authority to investigate political parties, civic organisations, and individuals that receive foreign funding.

This authority can recommend further legal actions against them. If they are found to have received foreign funding with which they conducted activities that threaten Hungary’s sovereignty, they can be imprisoned for up to three years.

The European Commission argues that the law violates EU regulations, including those on freedom of expression, association, and privacy. Independent media organisations caution that it may result in investigations and legal action against media outlets receiving foreign funding, which is seen as an infringement on Hungary's sovereignty. Hungary's government now has a two-month window to respond. Past experiences suggest that such procedures have prompted Orban’s government to retract similar laws, potentially reducing the threat to independent media. The EU faces the ongoing challenge of balancing the protection of free speech with addressing democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary, all while confronting foreign influence from Russia and China.

Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister.
Source: Photo by Annika Haas for EU2017EE under Creative Commons Attribution Licence. Source - link this to the word: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/36707749773/

The government asserts that the law aims to safeguard the will of voters from unwarranted foreign influence. However, media freedom and human rights organisations caution that the legislation mirrors Russia's foreign agents law, which Moscow has employed to silence critics backed by external funding.

The Council of Europe has urged the Hungarian government to abandon the Sovereignty Act, expressing concerns that it could be used as a political tool against opposition figures and activists.

In its latest report, Human Rights Watch pointed to the Hungarian government’s efforts to restrict free media as a part of the rule-of-law erosion in the country. 

According to the report, since 2010, the government has exerted direct political control over the public service broadcaster and distorted the media market by financially rewarding pro-government outlets. The situation is linked to the broader assault on rule of law in Hungary, including undermining judicial independence. HRW urges the EU to “tackle declining press freedom and pluralism,” arguing that the Hungarian government’s interference with media freedom obstructs journalists from holding political institutions accountable. 

Response to the European Media Freedom Act

Earlier this year, Hungary opposed The European Media Freedom Act, despite unanimous approval from other EU member states. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had criticised the proposed regulation, writing on social media: "Another anti-freedom proposal from Brussels: establishing total control over the media.”

While the law will not get into force before 2025, it offers potential to counter assaults on independent media in Hungary.

It contains provisions aimed at protecting the diversity and independence of the media, safeguards against surveillance of journalists and political interference in editorial decisions, has requirements to guarantee the impartiality of public service media, and requires transparency of media ownership and the distribution of state advertisements.

The question is if Orban’s regime is more vulnerable following the recent child abuse scandal and could be more pressured by critics and the EU to refrain from further media capture. The rally in Budapest in mid-February was one of the largest demonstrations against Orban’s regime since 2010. The scandal caused public outrage and led to a huge political storm domestically, but it is unlikely to have a long-term political impact that will force the government to loosen the grip on media and rule of law instead of tightening it. The EU must acknowledge the attacks on media freedom as a part of the government's undermining of the rule of law and should take decisive steps to confront the situation.

Asya Metodieva follows political and media developments in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. She is currently involved in a project on digital sovereignty in Europe at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, where she works as a researcher. Additionally, she is a visiting fellow with the Engaging Central Europe program of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Asya earned her PhD from Central European University for her research on the radicalization and mobilization of radical and extremist movements. Her book on foreign Islamist fighters from the Balkans was published by Routledge in 2023. Previously, she was a fellow with Visegrád Insight (2020), Re-Think CEE (2019), and LSE Ideas (2018). She is currently engaged at the Thomson Foundation as a Media Support Coordinator.

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