The arrest of over forty journalists in Turkey in the wake of the failed coup against the Erdoğan government in July 2016 – like the mysterious deaths of more than a score of journalists in Russia since October 1999 – serve as chilling reminders of the determination of authoritarian governments to silence oppositional voices in the print and electronic media. If journalists are unwilling or unable to expose illegal or unethical behaviour by senior politicians or their associates then ruling elites in the countries concerned are virtually free to commit the most egregious acts without fear of scrutiny or censure. As regimes in Ankara, Moscow, Peking and Tehran are well aware, the absence of a vigorous, independent press and electronic media is a virtual prerequisite of authoritarian or dictatorial government.
Within the European Union, with its avowed commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, even the most recalcitrant and backsliding governments tend to handle such matters more circumspectly. As far as I’m aware, no critic of the regime headed by Viktor Orbán in Hungary or of the government formed in Poland by Jarosław Kaczyński’s Truth and Justice Party has been arrested and thrown into jail because of their publicly stated views. No journalist, blogger or opposition figure has faced an assassin’s bullet. There have been no Anna Politkovskayas in Budapest, Bratislava or Warsaw.
However, the abrupt closure of the liberal, left-of-centre Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság in October 2016 – together with the sudden disappearance of the paper’s entire archive from the internet – suggest that, even within the constraints imposed by membership of the EU, a determined administration, or its allies in the business sector, can use the tools of the ‘free market’ to achieve strikingly authoritarian and undemocratic ends. In a market or semi-market economy, newspapers – as well as privately owned television and radio companies – may be just as vulnerable to economic manipulation as to cruder coercive measures of the kind favoured by Erdoğan, Putin and autocrats from Belarus to Kazakhstan.
Predictably, the Hungarian government has dismissed allegations that it was responsible for the closure of Népszabadság. The decision to suspend publication of the paper was taken for purely economic reasons by its owners, so it’s claimed. Despite the fact that Népszabadság was by far the most widely read national daily newspaper in Hungary it was losing money, like virtually every national daily newspaper in Hungary and an increasing number elsewhere. Newspapers across several continents are facing an unprecedented crisis, with plummeting sales and the haemorrhage of advertising revenue as advertisers explore other means of reaching potential customers.
However, the Hungarian government’s assurances that it had nothing to do with the demise of Népszabadság have struck many well-informed commentators as derisory. Like other media outlets deemed insufficiently supportive of the government and its policies, Népszabadság received virtually no advertising revenue from state sources. By contrast, Magyar Idők, a turgid, pro-government newspaper that has a deservedly limited circulation, benefits from generous advertising by public agencies and companies eager to secure contracts from the state. Behind a facade of democratic pluralism and respect for human rights, the Orbán government and its associates have been able to achieve far-reaching control over Hungary’s print and electronic media, in part by ’starving’ independent-minded organs of advertising revenue. As the US-based historian, Eva Balogh, noted last September with regard to the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, which is owned by Lajos Simicska, a former close ally turned bitter adversary of Prime Minister Orbán:
Since the blow-up [between Simicska and Orbán] no government advertising money has come Magyar Nemzet’s way. Moreover, the paper isn’t getting much in the way of ads from the private sector either since rich businessmen who are heavily dependent on government orders are afraid to advertise in opposition papers. This is the way the government ensures that papers they consider to be disloyal will starve to death.
At the same time, public broadcasting in Hungary has degenerated to the point where it has been justly described as a ‘totally servile government propaganda machine’.
Many media insiders and political commentators believe that the decision to suspend publication of Népszabadság could not have been taken without the approval of high-ranking political figures. Journalists have drawn attention, in particular, to extensive and shadowy connections between an Austrian businessman, Heinrich Pecina, the founder of Vienna Capital Partners (VCP), and senior elements within Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party. In 2015, a subsidiary of VCP, Mediaworks Hungary Zrt., acquired a controlling interest in Népszabadság, only to suspend publication last year, ostensibly for commercial reasons. Mediaworks has since been sold to Opimus Press Zrt., a company which has been linked to Lőrincz Mészáros, a close friend and confidant of Orbán.
The erosion of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary – which has occurred against a backdrop of rampant and escalating corruption – might have been much harder to achieve if the print and electronic media had enjoyed the independence that newspapers, radio and television networks possess in many western liberal democracies.
Presumably, government ministers in Hungary and their associates share this conviction or they would not have devoted so much time and energy to stifling independent voices within the media since Fidesz returned to power in 2010.
The subordination of public broadcasting to the political interests of the government and ruling Party – combined with economic measures that have weakened or silenced independent media organs – have dramatically shrunk the space for informed public debate in Hungary and for citizens’ access to objective information. As the Washington Post noted in an editorial in October last year, following suspension of the publication of Népszabadság:
A country that belongs to two of the world’s most exclusive democratic clubs — the E.U. and NATO — now has only one major newspaper, one radio station, one television network and a handful of websites that offer critical coverage of the government. Mr. Orban is close to establishing his regime as an autocratic political alternative inside the West.
In Hungary – as in Russia, Turkey and many other authoritarian countries that Orbán professes to admire – the erosion of liberal democracy and of constitutionalism has been facilitated by measures directed at curbing the independence and tenacity of newspapers and the electronic media. Much the same process now seems to be underway in Kaczyński’s Poland. However, as I will argue in a separate article, the United Kingdom offers a strikingly different – but equally unedifying – example of a society in which liberal democracy and the rule of law are under increasing threat from elements within the independent media, including some of the country’s most popular national newspapers.
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