Hungarian media is too politicized, says András Dési of Reporters Without Frontiers

April 12, 2017

“I regret that a significant part of state-owned media has sunk to the level where it basically fulfills the role of a microphone stand.  It makes a mockery of public service not to raise questions but to parrot what governing politicians say.”

“Our fellow countrymen are satisfied with simple messages and do not ask questions.”

– András Dési, Hungarian correspondent for Reporters Without Frontiers

Translation of interview with Hungarian journalist András Dési appearing in leftwing online daily nepszava.hu on April 10th, 2017 under the title “András Dési: it will be difficult to return from the downward slope.”

Hungary’s media situation is even alarming to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which is why the oranization asked András Dési to be their country correspondent in Hungary.  The journalist thinks the closure of Népszabadság sounded the death knell at RSF, and its directors are planning a trip to Budapest in the near future.  Dési believes it is worrying that political circles are obtaining greater and greater influence in the media.

You became a country correspondent.  Had there been one in Hungary before this?

No, there wasn’t.  The story began with the liquidation of Népszabadság.  So far Reporters Without Borders has not dealt much with Hungary.  The execution of Népszabadság was the thing that served as a kind of wake-up call.  I came into contact with them last November when we prepared a joint attachment to the Parisian Libération.  Following that they asked me to be their correspondent in Hungary, which is actually social work.  My task is to report if something happens in Hungarian media.  Of course, the organization keeps track of the international media, but they are also interested in the tendencies people see here.

So far the situation has not been too rosy.

No, it hasn’t.  The closure of Népszabadság resulted in a qualitative change in how they deal with the region.  So far they mostly paid attention to the Balkans, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro.  Since last autumn this region has come into focus, and they have been following events in Poland since the victory of the Law and Justice party (in the last Polish general election-tran.).  Poland is more conspicuous because if its size and gravity.  The organization went to Warsaw to evaluate the situation:  they met with journalists, lawyers, and people familiar with the media.

Is the next stop Budapest?

I would really like for them to come to Hungary and for them to agree with people who know the Hungarian media situation.

Is cooperation with the government out of the question?

The organization is open in all directions.  What can be discussed with the Hungarian government is a different question altogether.  We would probably speak at cross-purposes.  But if there was willingness to receive us, then the RSF would speak to senior members of the government.

Even before the closure of Népszabadság, there were worrying things in Hungarian media.  Did they escape the attention of the RSF?

The organization’s main goal is protecting journalists from physical and legal violence.  They stand up for those journalists who were killed performing their jobs, and support their dependents. In addition, they lobby for media freedom.  One needs to acknowledge that, despite all of the problems in Hungary, the situation is not as serious as in, say, Turkey or Russia, where they make physical threats and assault reporters.  For RSF it is primarily changes in media ownership and transparency that is interesting, and how media ownership is concentrated in certain circles.

According to their latest report, oligarchs buying media is a global trend.

Yes, this is the case around the world.  After 1945 it was really expert investors who bought media.  I am in the habit of citing the example of the former West Germans where the occupying British authorities distributed licenses to those in whom they trusted, had no Nazi past, and believed more or less that an independent press is a part of democracy.  One can say many things about (publishing company) Springer, including that this is how it started, just like the other German newspapers.  They were in the hands of expert owners who felt the responsibility.  Obviously they also cut deals with themselves, but in recent times venture capitalists have showed up in media and the border between business and politics is slowly being blurred.  Earlier, if there were deals and if there were overlapping interests, it was possible to distinguish much more clearly between the two groups.  Today these tendencies take place in a manner that is much darker and opaque.

In addition to commercial media there also needs to be public media, for which the BBC is world-famous.

Hungarian public media cannot be compared to that of the West.  I regret that a significant part of state-owned media has sunk to the level where it basically fulfills the role of a microphone stand.  It makes a mockery of public service not to raise questions but to parrot what governing politicians say. This is also true if they ask the opposition, as MTVA (Hungary’s state media holding company-tran.) does not try to present some kind of synthesis.  They don’t look deeply into things, or try to uncover anything.  60-70 percent is simply relaying government statements, the rest is opposition reaction.  This is not public service.

Is RSF also examining how great the state influence is on editorial staffs?

They issue a report each year about media freedom.  They examine 180 countries.  Based on the results for 2015-16, Hungary is in 67th place, having fallen two steps since the previous examination.  There are more serious cases, but we cannot be proud of finishing in the middle. For example, Slovakia performed better.

Perhaps the Orbán government’s methods of influence are greater.  At home, for example, they secretly urge with state advertisements.

The biggest problem with Hungarian print media is that the commercial advertising which once maintained it has practically ended.  This can mainly be felt in political news.  Commercial actors keep their distance from it, not wanting to step on any mines or to pull the finger of the government.  Although this is a global phenomenon, it is far more pronounced in Hungary.   In this way, only one financier has remained on the market: the Hungarian state and the government.  From this point things stand on a steep downward slope from which it is difficult to return.

In this way the governing party enjoys a media advantage.

The media is too politicized.  The parties influence their orientation far more than in other countries.  However, this is not new.  If we look back at the period since the system change, the first media war broke out during the Antal government in connection with media oversight.  There was also the privatization of the Magyar Nemzet, the Magyar Hírlap and Népszabadság.   At that time there was less variety of media, there was no internet, and public service media had far greater influence.  This was not begun by Fidesz, they just do in a more sophisticated manner what their predecessors could only achieve with more primitive means.

This is also harmful to readers who are not getting what they expect for their money.  The readers’ mood also decreases, and they go over to the internet.  For this reason print media is in serious crisis in Hungary.  We should not ignore this fact. This fundamental change played a role in the fate of Népszabadság.

It appears readers are least interested in government media.

The important thing is that they obtain for themselves the largest exposure possible.  They believe that the more they repeat their messages, that sooner or later they will stick.  The method even works; we’ve seen many examples in the world.  Unfortunately, the state of public life in Hungary today is that our fellow countrymen are satisfied with simple messages and do not ask questions.