Will the coronavirus crisis spell the end for the few remaining independent media outlets in Hungary? Ágnes Urbán explains how the governing party’s proposed amendment to the Criminal Code appears designed to crush freedom of expression in the country once and for all.
The coronavirus is shaping up to deliver a devastating blow to the viability of independent media in Hungary. Business models that were tenuous at best already prior to the current crisis are near certain to fail soon, and their collapse will bury the media outlets whose long-term viability they had been meant to ensure under their ruins. Ad campaigns will come to a halt and the crisis is going to leave many households in a position of major financial distress and uncertainty, thereby reducing their budgets for media consumption. This could jeopardize the operations of the few remaining independent newsrooms rather quickly. They may be hit by the full brunt of the crisis as early as 2-3 months from now, especially since most of them are not backed by a well-capitalised owner.
Yet the prospect of imminent financial collapse is not the only existential threat they face; it is conceivable that even before they succumb to the seemingly unavoidable economic tsunami coming their way, independent Hungarian media outlets could cease to exist. The events of the past days have foreshadowed the distinct possibility that the governing Fidesz party might use the current situation to make a major move against independent media in Hungary.
Pro-government media slow to grasp seriousness of situation
In the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, news about the pandemic primarily filtered in through reports on the international situation. Just as in other countries of Europe, reports about the coronavirus became increasingly prominent in the Hungarian news coverage in connection with the escalation of the crisis in northern Italy. Hungary was different from other European countries, however, in that this escalation was mostly covered only by independent media, while the massive pro-government media empire that controls large segments of the market sought to downplay the issue. One very instructive example is an op-ed by András Bencsik, the influential editor-in-chief of Demokrata, a leading right-wing weekly which Viktor Orbán had endorsed to his followers as one of the newspapers they ought to subscribe to:
“A massive pandemic indeed. At least as it is presented in the media. As if they were conducting a worldwide experiment to find out whether through force of sheer propaganda people could be made to believe in the threat of some horrible pandemic, even though there is no epidemic at all, not even the faintest sign of it. And the answer to the underlying question is ‘yes,’ they do come to believe it.” (6 March 2020)
After a while even the Hungarian government began to grasp the severity of the situation, however, and proclaimed a state of emergency on 11 March. From that point on, pro-government media also began to take the situation more seriously. Nevertheless, the Hungarian media remained and in fact became increasingly divided in its coverage of the crisis. The government and pro-government media focused almost exclusively on a few Iranian students and sought to frame the entire coronavirus epidemic as a problem stemming from migration.
Independent media, by contrast, pointed to systemic problems in the Hungarian government’s handling of the epidemic, such as the low number of tests and the shortage of protective clothing and masks. It was only thanks to independent media that the public was informed that even while the governmental communication relentlessly and exclusively focused on a few Iranian students when discussing the corona epidemic in Hungary, days before the Iranian students had been quarantined a young Hungarian had asked to be tested. The hospital to which he presented himself refused to test him, and soon after this the young man’s father became the first official corona patient of Hungarian nationality. Subsequently, independent media outlets uncovered many other cases that highlighted problems with the testing protocol and the lack of protective accessories available to healthcare workers.
Many citizens only became more cautious in managing their personal exposure to the virus after reading news reported by independent media. As a result of these reports, many media consumers opted to voluntarily follow social distancing protocols, while a growing number of private companies steered employees towards working from home. None of the coverage of mainstream independent media outlets has so far been proved to contain any form of misinformation, while their articles and reports on the issue have alerted the public to the severity of the situation we are facing.
Government spokesman attacks independent media
In the context of the coronavirus crisis, the government’s most spectacular attack so far against the independent media occurred on 15 March, at a press conference by the government spokesman Zoltán Kovács. In response to a question by a journalist of the online newspaper 444.hu, Kovács aggressively lectured the reporter that 444.hu and other independent media, telling them not to try to be more clever than the epidemiology experts. Incidentally, the reporter’s question had referred to the corona testing of the minister of the interior, Sándor Pinter. The journalist inquired about the protocol on the basis of which the minister had been tested, and he also wanted to know why healthcare staff who had treated corona-infected patients were not being tested. The government spokesman failed to provide a substantial answer to the question. (The absurdity of the situation was further amplified by the fact that 15 March is a national holiday in Hungary, and specifically the day on which the free press is celebrated – which made the spokesman’s skirmish with the free press especially poignant).
Another remarkable incident took place on 18 March, when pro-government media reported in detail that two prominent independent online newspapers, index.hu and 444.hu, had launched fundraising campaigns to help them weather the financial impact of the crisis. The vulnerable financial situation of these two media outlets is already well-known and their efforts to raise funds in this situation are easily understandable. Nevertheless, the online newspaper origo.hu, whose ad spaces are filled to the brim with government-sponsored advertising, commented as follows:
“And Index wants to take money out of people’s pockets in such a delicate situation so that they can continue to spread fake news about their two favourite issues, education and healthcare.”
“Have them arrested”
Criticism of these two independent media outlets’ fundraising efforts was echoed by Hungarian state media in Hungary, which added another independent news site, 24.hu, to the list of targets, claiming that it too disseminates fake news. The attack on the independent media reached its first peak on 20 March, when the pro-government news channel HírTV (part of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, the organisation that comprises most of the privately-owned pro-Fidesz media outlets) invited two pro-government opinion leaders – Márton Békés, editor-in-chief of the Kommentar journal, and Gábor Megadja, senior researcher at the pro-government Századvég institute – to appear on one of its talk shows. Their conversation was almost entirely focused on inciting viewers against independent media, with comments such as these:
“We need to make up our minds about who we are actually rooting for. My sense is that certain pro-opposition channels are not rooting for the Hungarian nation; nor for Europe overall or even the Hungarian economy. They are openly rooting for the virus instead. And if that is the case, they are clearly coronavirus collaborators. What are we going to do about this, how will we deal with this situation later – well, let me stop here and not continue this line of thought.” [Starting at 4:37 in the video posted on Hír TV’s YouTube channel]
“I would suggest to have them arrested in this crisis situation.” [Starting at 9:27 in the video]
Thus, the past days have featured striking instances of incitement against independent media. These have sunk to levels that are even more extreme than the “normal” propaganda put out by the government in its public communications and by its allied media outlets. The pandemic has raised the stakes, which are now far higher than usual. At the same time, the threats of legal action that now accompany these instances of verbal intimidation, and in particular the threat of arrest, give these ominous comments an entirely different feel: they make the threats more concrete and palpable. In an article headlined With knowledge of our responsibility, Péter Magyari, a journalist with the online newspaper 444.hu, rejected the accusation that he and his newspaper were proffering propaganda and said that they fully comply with professional standards in the performance of their journalistic duties.
Threat of criminal sanctions
However, the real threat is not the increasingly acerbic nature of the criticism directed against independent journalists by pro-government propagandists. Far more serious is a proposed amendment to the Criminal Code. This represents a basic obstacle that the government plans to put in the way of the practice of journalism; in fact, it would place strict limits on human communication in general:
“Whoever presents a false claim of fact or an actual fact in a distorted manner, or spreads such claims at the time when the emergency legal order is in effect, and does so in public, with the result that the underlying claims impede the effectiveness of the protection efforts, or cause the outright failure of the latter, is liable of a criminal offence that is punishable for a term of imprisonment between one and five years.”
The proposed amendment would effectively confine everything that may be written or broadcast by media within the straitjacket of the government’s communications strategy, which would determine what may be freely written and what merits a prison sentence. This would be problematic in and of itself, but the problem would at least be somewhat mitigated if state communications were transparent and disseminated reliable information. In the Hungarian reality, however, when the government’s communications strategy is to continuously conceal the actual scope of the epidemic in Hungary, because that appears to pay off politically, journalists will not be at liberty to report the real situation even if the facts are confirmed by several independent sources and the information can be reliably verified. Any independent report could be accused of presenting the figures out of context and distorting the facts. And even if the courts eventually acquit journalists accused of doing this – probably after months or years of legal wrangling – this regulation will nevertheless be very effective in curbing journalists’ and media owners’ willingness to go out on a limb in researching or publishing stories. In a nutshell: if journalists write the truth, if they take their obligation to inform the public seriously, they may face up to five years in prison.
End of parliamentary democracy?
There is a real danger that the new regulation will not be used to sanction those actually responsible for producing or disseminating disinformation, but to make independent journalism impossible, as the government considers all news produced by independent media to be “fake news”. Looking at official communications in recent days, all we see are statements proclaiming the success of the government’s efforts to combat the virus. Yet this overall picture of comprehensive success is belied by articles and reports that identify systemic problems in the defensive mechanisms deployed to safeguard Hungary from the epidemic. Clearly, media reports highlighting the shortcomings of the government’s policies against the coronavirus represent a political risk for the governing party. Moreover, it is not even necessary for the government to classify a news items as fake news, as in an emergency “the operations of business organisations may be subject to the control of the Hungarian state by force of decree” (Act CXXVIII of 2011 on Disaster Relief and on the amendment of individual laws relating thereto, Article 48 (1)). What this means is that once the new emergency legal order enters into effect, the state theoretically has the right to take control of any newsroom. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the necessity and the proportionality of such decisions – which are the criteria laid out in law – are practically impossible to define.
On 20 March, a proposal was published on the parliament’s website that would effectively grant the Hungarian government unlimited powers and would suspend the Hungarian parliament until the end of 2020. Furthermore, the period in question could be extended even further if the government so decides, which could easily leave us in a situation similar to the one created as a result of the government’s proclamation of a state of crisis in response to mass migration (the migration emergency), which was first declared in 2016. Although the conditions that qualify for a migration crisis have long since ceased to apply in Hungary, the government has been automatically extending the relevant state of emergency every six months.
The emergency legal order proposed by the government could serve to irreversibly entrench the government in its current position while its most important regulatory body, the Hungarian National Assembly, is removed from the equation and the legislature’s functions are assumed by the executive, which would rule by decree. This could go on for as long as the government wishes, since during this prolonged state of emergency elections cannot be held either. Such a decision would spell the end of parliamentary democracy in Hungary. It would hardly be a surprise if independent media were among the first casualties of this new legal order. At the same time, the experience of the past ten years shows that sooner or later, every rule-of-law institution in Hungary will be affected by these changes.
This is a slightly edited version of an article first published by Mérték Media Monitor on 24 March under the headline “The end of days for independent media in Hungary?” Republished with permission.