By András Dési

The Hungarian parliament recently adopted a new law forcing NGOs to register as ‘‘foreign-supported organization” if they receive more than 24,000 Euros from foreign donors per year. With this legislation the Hungarian government and the ruling right-wing party, Fidesz, are following the path set by President Putin in Russia and President Erdogan in Turkey. The branding of NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ and “potential dangers to the country”, and the sustained attacks on them by the pro-government media, can be considered as a new milestone on the road to the “illiberal democracy” that was declared by Prime Minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán in 2014.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall Hungary was a front-runner among the former Central European Soviet-bloc countries, transforming themselves into liberal democracies based on the rule of law and civil liberties, including freedom of the press and the free market economy. Almost 30 years later Hungary has attained a completely different kind of front-runner position. Under Orbán’s rule the country has became a laboratory for a dangerous experiment: one in which the methods and extent of so-called illiberal democracies can be developed and put into practice in a European Union and NATO member state.

One of the departments of this Hungarian ‘laboratory’ is responsible for devising methods of dealing with the media. While in Turkey or in Russia government-critical journalists are beaten up, jailed and prosecuted as criminals, or simply killed. The ruling Hungarian party applies less physical methods, using legal and financial instruments to tame the ‘non-friendly’ media. Since its two-third majority victory in parliamentary elections in 2010, Fidesz systematically established its own vast media imperium, including total control over public broadcasting and the national news agency, which are now concentrated in one holding.

Meanwhile, businessmen with close ties to Fidesz have acquired the majority of regional daily newspapers, commercial TV and radio channels, and they have also launched new tabloids and infotainment websites. All these media outlets have a common mission: to convey the government’s propaganda messages based on a relentless fight against so-called “enemies” of Hungary: they include the NGOs, migrants, Brussels, and George Soros, the Hungarian-born American financier and philantropist. Mr Soros is the founder of the Central European University, the latest high-profile target of the government, which is now treated like an extended arm of foreign secret services.

Since the political upheavals of 1989-1990 a permanent media war has been raging in Hungary. Political parties sought to control, dictate, pressurise or bribe media outlets to make them compliant. Sometimes journalists tried to find safe harbours with rival political forces but no party went so far as Fidesz did. No other party established such a commanding media portfolio; and none succeeded in conditioning the media as Orbán & Co have done. Friends of Fidesz, loyal businessmen, are continuing to buy up media outlets – commercial TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines, and websites. Professional investors have got the message and now leave the media sector well alone.

By 2017 it was clear that there is only one viable business model on the Hungarian media market: be friendly with the government, don’t dig too deeply into issues of corruption involving top Fidesz politicians, and you’ll prosper by receiving a large chunk of state and/or government advertising.

The Hungarian government and state-owned companies are by far the biggest sources of advertising. By spending tax-payers money in this way the government successfully places its propaganda everywhere, and so can effectively control the media landscape. In another tricky move the government decided to provide free access for all to the news service of MTI, the national news agency. As a result, the majority of commercial radio stations broadcast the news programmes produced by MTI, which consist largely of positive news about the activities of the Hungarian government.

In these circumstances it is no surprise Hungary’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based NGO Reporters Sans frontières (RSF) has dropped by more than 25 points since 2010. It is estimated that more than 80 % of Hungarian media-outlets are now controlled by Fidesz and its surrogates. The largest anti-Orbán media company is financed by a former close ally of the Prime Minister and financier of Fidesz, who publicly broke with Orbán after the Hungarian government started its Russia-friendly drive.

However, there are still some genuinely independent media outlets — small islands — which form a sort of “Micronesia of the Free Press”. With limited financial sources this Micronesia is struggling to survive and members of this community remember well how the leading left-liberal daily newspaper NÉPSZABADSÁG was silenced by stealth in October 2016. Without prior consultation or warning, in a move of military precision, the owner of the newspaper “suspended” the print and online edition of NÉPSZABADSÁG. A couple of weeks later the whole publishing company, including NÉPSZABADSÁG– which had been considered by some as the nation’s leading serious newspaper — was sold to a company with close ties to Fidesz. The new owner quickly ‘buried the newspaper, claiming that its re-launch would not be profitable.

The message wrapped into the assassination of NÉPSZABADSÁG is clear: watch out, don’t mess around with the ‘people in charge’, or you could be the next victim of  “suspension”. A free and critical press is essential for all nations living in democracies. The mission of that free and critical media’s mission is not only to hold the ‘people in charge’ to account, but to serve as a mirror to the whole society. That non-distorting, honest mirror never deceives. It’s up to my fellow Hungarians not to close their eyes. I only hope that finally they will dare to look into that mirror.

András Dési is a freelance journalist and political analyst, and former Senior Editor & Reporter with NÉPSZABADSÁG