How can a government directly and indirectly influence the media? The Hungarian case

Before his first book about Viktor Orbán appeared in 2002 József Debreczeni sent the manuscript to the former prime minister. Although Orbán admitted that the book was thorough and quite objective, he didn’t like it because it showed him to be “a one-dimensional man,” something Orbán doesn’t consider himself to be.

After the elections but before the appearance of the book, Debreczeni had an opportunity to speak with Viktor Orbán. The conversation, the transcript of which was added to the book, centered around the possible causes of the defeat at the polls. When Debreczeni proposed “the overly confrontational style” of the previous four years Orbán disagreed. In his opinion “he wasn’t hard enough,” and if and when he has another opportunity he will be harsher in order to finish the job that would have benefitted Hungarian society.

The other problem, Orbán claimed, was that they didn’t communicate well. They were unable to explain their lofty goals clearly. For example, they didn’t spend enough money, time, and energy on developing a media close to the government. What little they did–launching Heti Válasz, a weekly–was a “puny” effort. Of course, he hastily added that the right-wing media “isn’t supposed to serve the government” but simply give an opportunity for sympathizers among the intellectuals to publish.

Interestingly, eight or nine years later members of the second Orbán government still complain about the inadequacy of their communication. These people, I’m certain, are convinced that all their decisions and actions are the best possible for the country and the people but somehow they are unable to make that clear to the citizens.

On the other hand, during the interval between the first and second Orbán governments Fidesz managed to build a media empire that, contrary to Orbán’s protestations to Debreczeni in 2002, unabashedly serves the government. The public TV and radio stations, supported by taxpayer money, are really part and parcel of the Fidesz media empire. According to a recent survey 80% of MTV’s evening news is devoted to news about Fidesz and the government. But this is the situation in the morning shows as well. An overwhelming majority of the invited guests comes from the government side and rarely from the opposition.

Nobody really knows the exact financial arrangements behind the allegedly commercial undertakings that are in reality mouthpieces of the government. I have no idea myself, and I don’t think that too many people have any inkling how much money was provided by the party to these organs. We do know, though, that now that Fidesz is in power a lot of taxpayer money is going primarily to Magyar Nemzet in the form of advertisements by state enterprises.

Népszava, the social democratic paper, made some estimates of advertising revenues based on the publicly available advertising rates. They looked at the four daily national papers: Népszabadság, Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, and Népszava. It turned out that Magyar Nemzet receives almost five times more advertising revenue than the other three organs combined. And that is only one way of assisting the paper loyal to the government. The other is to instruct government offices and Fidesz-led local governments to subscribe to the paper. Not just one or two copies but hundreds.

Although there is a law that forbids the government’s practice of distributing advertising monies based on political orientation, already during the first Orbán government right-wing dailies and weeklies received almost twice as much in advertising money as the opposition papers. But that pales in comparison to the situation today when Magyar Nemzet receives about 50 million forints from government enterprises while Népszabadság gets only 5.67 million. Magyar Nemzet has a smaller circulation than Népszabadság, which is the largest Hungarian daily.

It seems that the Orbán government is also quite generous to the far-right Magyar Hírlap, which has the least number of readers. Magyar Hírlap gets 2,664 million forints while Népszava with a larger readership gets only 910,000 Ft worth of advertising from government enterprises. Here is a handy graph of the four dailies’ readership.


Surely, spending more than 2.5 million forints on a paper with a readership of about 10,000 is not the best business decision. But of course all this has nothing to do with business.

The government also advertises in public places. This is a much more expensive enterprise than placing ads in newspapers. Renting surfaces where posters can be placed is a huge business amounting to something like 15 billion forints. Most of the companies that own these surfaces are in the hands of businessmen close to Fidesz, and just in the first four months of the year the government spent about 500 million forints on posters advertising itself. One of the busiest advertisers is the Office of the Prime Minister. But there is a lot of money spent on ads by Szerencsejáték Zrt (state lottery), Hungarian Postal Service, Magyar Turizmus Zrt, and Magyar Villamos Művek (Hungarian Electric Works). They are all state-owned companies.

The news is tightly controlled by Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), the Hungarian news agency. The Media Council is trying to make sure that radio frequencies are given only to government-friendly media outlets. The private companies that would prefer to place ads in Népszabadság or Népszava are frightened that they might not receive government contracts if they openly support opposition papers. In brief, the situation of the opposition media is pretty desperate.

No wonder that liberals and socialists blame the Gyurcsány government for neglecting their newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. Not only are the opposition parties weak, the opposition media is also in deep trouble. And Viktor Orbán will make sure that this situation remains the same if not even more dire. He learned from his first four years in office. We can be sure that he will not make the same mistake twice.


  1. Well, at least the summer’s come back! Warm and sunny today, after two weeks of cloud and rain EVERY day.
    Since OV got elected, we’ve had the worst two summers I’ve experienced in Hungary in 10 years. Could there be a connection?
    God is Jewish, after all.

  2. And the Forint’s went through the 350 CHF barrier again this afternoon – and this time it hasn’t dropped back, in fact it nearly hit 355 just before close.
    That will give OV something to chew on – I suspect the Swiss Franc mortgage borrowers are pretty much the same demographic as the core Fidesz support, so he’ll have to do something. And I don’t think the financial markets are going to like it, whatever he does.
    About time he had some reality to deal with. Let’s see what he’s made of when it comes to making real decisions.

  3. And the final tab on the “social consultation” game of the government is … drums roll … 867 million HUF. 8 million bs questionnaire sent out. 1 million Johnny Boys sent back their “opinion”. Your tax forints in action.

  4. That’s the last time I post at 3 in the morning! My ‘Swiss Franc’ post was complete bollocks.
    Not only did I get the exchange rate round the wrong way (OV would love the Forint to be worth 350 CHF!), but it’s the 250 Ft barrier, not the 350. Things are bad, but not quite that bad – yet.
    Apologies to all for this complete lapse.
    The latest is that the Forint continued to weaken – against the Euro, the Dollar and the Pound, as well as the Swiss Franc. It rallied slightly against the CHF, ending the day fractionally under 250 Ft, but it hit 254 several times during the day.
    Orbán must be hoping this is the beginning of a recovery. But the trend over the last month has been steadily upward, especially since the beginning of August, when it’s risen 20 Ft in just 5 days, so he’d better be touching a lot of wood.

  5. Very interesting article. In principle this could be remedied by setting up private media. If only they were not held in check through the need for “balanced reports”. It reminds me of a passage of Locke that a government may “bid (men) first to be Slaves, and then to take care of their liberty; and when their Chains are on, tell them they may act like Freeman.”

  6. Thanks, Wondercat, for this article – it really looks as bad or even worse than we expected!
    To put Jobbik members in the media and then give them higher positions even …
    That aspect of them losing their redundancy compensation if they talk is typical blackmail!

  7. Kirsten,
    Yes, “in principle this could be remedied by setting up private media” but when the government, through lopsided placement of government advertising in government-true papers and through coercion over private advertisers (with the threat of not giving them government contracts) means that any press which does not tow the line simply cannot do business in Hungary.

  8. There’s nothing wrong with requiring radio and TV stations to apply ‘balance’ to their news reporting. It works well in the UK and the opposite situation in the US is horrendous, with anyone able to push any vile lies they like as factual ‘news’.
    In fact I would like the situation in the UK to be extended to all the media, as the press is overwhelmingly right-wing and stops at nothing to discredit the left. This is so bad at times that it directly affects the functioning of our democracy.
    The problem is not that media outlets are expected to give ‘balanced’ accounts, it’s who is deciding what ‘balance’ means, and the powers they have to impose their will without check or appeal.
    As with so much in the Fidesz world, it’s the critical checks and balances that are missing.

  9. GW, I see that there are these informal ways of pressure. (“Underground media” will be back in fashion.) I am afraid that little can be done about the advertisements but if the media council imposes a penalty, could it not be checked at a European Court for compatibility with free speech?

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