The war is on: The Hungarian government versus the media

During the Antall-Boross administrations after the change of regime (1990-1994), the government launched a full-fledged war against the media. At that time practically all Hungarian journalists were liberal. The right of center, which the government considered itself to be, was not represented in the print media or on television and radio. (At that time there was only one television station, MTV, and one radio station, MR.) The government tried to establish pro-government papers, but they were not financially successful. So, in the early months of 1994 the decision was made to get rid of all those journalists whom the government found objectionable at MTV and MR. Over one hundred journalists were fired just at Magyar Rádió. The government’s triumph was pyrrhic because a few months later MDF lost the election and the fired journalists triumphantly returned on the very day of the socialist victory.

The Orbán government’s “handling” of the media has been both more subtle and much more ruthless. It is true that the public television stations were again cleared of undesirables and by now these organs are no more than propaganda machines of the government, but there is no longer the need to establish pro-government newspapers because Fidesz in the last fifteen years or so managed to acquire a full-fledged media empire. It seems, however, that this is  not enough for Viktor Orbán, who wants to completely eliminate all independent and critical voices. The best way to achieve this is to strangle them financially and, if that is not enough, to intimidate them. And if that doesn’t work, the Hungarian government is ready to put pressure on media outlets via their owners as was the case in the Origo affair.

This latest war on the media has a new element. It looks as if the Orbán government wants to get rid of foreign owners of media outlets. Mysterious Hungarian owners managed to buy TV2, originally owned by the German media giant Prosiebensat1, and it looks as if the decision was made to kill off  the foreign-owned RTL Klub, the most popular commercial television station in Hungary.

I covered the beginnings of the RTL story but, since then, the war between the firm and the Hungarian government has only escalated.  In order to understand what’s going on we must understand that RTL Klub might be the most watched television station, but it is not known for its high quality programs. On the contrary, the level is quite low. People call the station “trashy.” Personally I don’t think that all TV networks should satisfy highbrow audiences and, if the Hungarian public enjoys the RTL Kub’s offerings, who are we to criticize. What, on the other hand, people rightly objected to was RTL Klub’s news programs. Almost as if there had been a tacit understanding between government and management concerning the choice of news items. Stories that cast a bad light on the government or its members were conveniently left out or underemphasized and hidden. In this way, the argument goes, RTL Klub hoped “to buy the goodwill of the government.” But, critics point out, there is no way to appease this government. If Viktor Orbán wants to get rid of you, sooner or later he will succeed. RTL Klub right now is in the way of the government. Why? Perhaps because it is a fierce and successful competitor of TV2 and its new owners, who are apparently close to Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Hence, the advertisement levy seems to be designed to kill off RTL Klub.

So, what was the station’s answer? They decided to bring up all the dirty linen of the government that until now they had studiously ignored. It is funny to hear an old story from years or months back being dredged up suddenly. They also decided to report truthfully on the important stories of the day, including those they would have left out in the past.  RTL Klub is only doing now what any self-respecting television news program should be doing, and they should be ashamed of themselves for not having done the same in the past.

Well, this is not exactly how the Hungarian government sees it. The counterattack began already on June 14 when the prime minister’s office objected on its website that RTL Klub’s news mentioned the fact that Viktor Orbán’s father’s business has flourished despite the bad economic figures of the last few years. It was pointed out by the news editors that the elder Orbán’s business relies exclusively on state orders. This was translated by the prime minister’s office as an act of revenge because they have “to pay taxes in Hungary.” Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, continued the attack on the station. The fact that RTL Klub’s headquarters are in Luxembourg comes in handy for Fidesz politicians because, as we know, there are several politicians from Luxembourg who are not to Viktor Orbán’s liking: Viviane Reding and Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. And now here is this Luxembourgian firm that uses its news “as a political weapon.” Rogán complained that it “intimidates and insults public figures,” even the prime minister’s father. It is sad, he continued, that “these billionaires from Luxembourg think they can do anything.”

rtl klub

This foreign media conglomerate looks upon Hungary as if it was its “colony,” János Lázár charged in Napi Gazdaság, another government mouthpiece recently acquired by Századvég. Moreover, he called RTL Klub a “corrupt firm.” After all, why didn’t it broadcast negative news items about the government and government politicians in the past? “If there is no tax there are no discrediting items; if there is, then come stories about Viktor Orbán’s father, daughter, or friend, Lőrinc Mészáros. This is unimaginable in any other country of the European Union,” he declared. He added that it was a mistake to let foreign companies own television stations in Hungary because  “they don’t possess the national point of view.” They are interested only in profit.

RTL’s management was not intimidated and rejected all accusations, while reiterating their belief in democracy and freedom of the press. They also stressed “the patriotism of  their employees.” RTL’s answer pointed out that freedom of the press is “a national treasure whose defense is the duty of all of us.” And the accusation that RTL Klub doesn’t pay taxes is a lie: just last year they paid 8.9 billion forints in taxes and other dues to the central budget.

Meanwhile the less than pleasant but true news items continue to be aired. found at  least ten items in today’s news that reflect badly on the government, starting with the very questionable allocation of gambling concessions and ending with the U.S. statement on intimidation of civil society and media in Hungary, published also on Hungarian Spectrum. 

I have no idea who will win this fight. Most people think that it will not be the RTL Klub. But then all three television stations that can be watched nationwide without a cable subscription will be in Fidesz hands in one way or the other. That will mean that the government will control practically 90% of all the electronic media. Back to the good old days of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes.


  1. Ah well, it will be fun while it lasts. Anti-Fidesz news on Hungary’s most popular TV station? Not something any of us could have imagined happening. Perhaps it will even start to get people doubting the Fidesz propaganda.

    Orbán may win this, but it’s been a major cock-up allowing it to develop like this.

  2. RTL Klub can claim the fame of Radio Free Europe without their conservative slant.

    The US Anchor, Liz Wahl should be available for the truthful reporting on Hungary, and Turkmenistan. Iran and Russia can be also added to complete the comedy.

  3. It seems that Hungary can be the colony of everything. I hope that next time I read that McDonalds is considering Hungary a colony or the tourists arriving (why not advertising with: “If you come to Hungary, do not think we are your colony!”).

    “This is unimaginable in any other country of the European Union”
    I thought this is the ultimate compliment. Why now compare “Hungarian” (national, traditional,…) standards unfavourably with those in other EU countries? And how come it is “unimaginable” in the corrupt and intruding other EU countries? Are they perhaps not so corrupt after all…?

    What is the most unfortunate that there appears to be no means for the broad public to just reject this self-serving nonsense. Why should RTL Klub not be kicked out and the same or similar programmes (without politics, but with the “corruption” of not showing critical news about OV) provided by someone close to Fidesz? That appears to be the most likely solution for me. The most important thing is that people learn that this government does not only not serve any “national purposes” but only their own interests, but also that their more or less imaginative twisting of arguments is not a sign of superior intelligence or cleverness.

  4. OT but it might interest you. As I was looking around in Statcounter, an add-on to WordPress that keeps tab on traffic on Hungarian Spectrum, I saw that someone visited us specifically looking for a 2009 article on Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Dream Team. To tell you the truth, I have completely forgotten that I ever wrote anything about Grosics. So, I decided to take a look. Of course, as soon as I started reading it everything came back. Grosics was a volunteer in a Hungarian SS unit whose members are considered to be war criminals.

    Here it is:

  5. What is happening throughout the more advanced nations of the earth is that big media is being destroyed by little media via the internet. We see this most prominently with newspapers, here in Chicago both major newspapers are on the edge of bankruptcy and both have tried to create alternative outlets for bloggers that report local news including video. At my home the TV is also an access point to the internet and The major corporate stations are just one choice among hundreds.

    So Orban being an intelligent man must know an strategy of trying to control the flow of news will ultimately fail, unless Hungary completely stifles more universal wireless access which is clearly the wave of the future and will be required for economic development.

    Even China has not been able to contain usage of the internet by controlling ISPs due the widespread use of proxies. Clearly because Hungary’s wireless industry continues to grow any hope fro walling off the nation seems impossible. Is Orban’s presumption that the mass of Hungarians are so intellectually lazy that they will not eventually seek out alternative media? Eva’s blog is but one of thousands of such examples, more are coming everyday.

  6. “Is Orban’s presumption that the mass of Hungarians are so intellectually lazy that they will not eventually seek out alternative media?”

    “Intellectually lazy” or perhaps “apathetic to the point of idiocy” is closer to the truth. And he is right. If people had wanted the truth about the regime it has been out there online but the vast majority couldn’t care less about what is happening to “their” democratic rights.

    RTL news is highly entertaining at the moment (imagine Orban literally foaming at the mouth as the picture of Papa Orban or Princess Rahel appears on RTL) but in terms of turning the sheep against his regime? Not a chance. If you are watching RTL, it is most definitely not for the news.

  7. D 7 a lot of Hungarians do not have access to internet and a lot of them are apathetic and believe that things can’t be changed.
    It would be interesting to know how many Hungarians watch RTL news.
    One thing is now clear. Those who believe that a gentlemen’s agreement with Orbán and his ilk is possible find out that no such agreement will be respected by the head of the family.

  8. RTL Klub wouldn’t feel so bold, I think, if it didn’t have the backing of major advertisers such as multinational packaged goods companies, telecoms operators and banks. Orbán might start harrumphing about vested capitalist interests conspiring against him but I wouldn’t put good odds on him winning this propaganda war.

  9. This stage of the grand Fidesz media plan is really very simple:

    Huge ad tax on all large media + Funnelling of huge state advertising budget to Fidesz-friendly media = Fidesz financial control over all large media.

    This is *not* just about attacking RTL Klub or other foreign owned outlets. It’s a plan for long-term exertion of state financial control over all significant media. Very clever how Fidesz have designed this wealth redistribution program to control the media without having to actually tell anyone what and what not to broadcast. Clever too, how they leave small and less influential media such as left wing papers relatively untouched, so there will always be a “fig leaf” of left wing media.

    State advertising should be directed to outlets according to market share, not political preferences. Anything else is corruption. But Fidesz massively skews state advertising toward Fidesz-friendly and Fidesz-associated outlets.

    Fidesz screwed up their messaging in a big way by provoking the Origo editor’s dismissal and the public fight with the Norwegians at the same time as the ad tax. As a result, I don’t expect the EU will put up with this. I hope the EU will, however, call out the ruse and not allow Fidesz off the hook just by fiddling with the rate bands on the ad tax bit.

    But why aren’t the opposition in Hungary plastering this simple equation everywhere they still have access, including out on the streets? Where the hell are the organized opposition?

  10. The self-styled *smart lawyers* of the regime have messed it up big time with the Norwegians who now are basically content to sit back and wait for Fidesz to blink. The business wing of the Mafia (and not just the NGOs) are panicking, not directly about the Norwegian money but about the wider EU funding implications. But Lazar and, by logical extension, his boss have been made to look like idiots so due to their over-arching inferiority complex, the stand-off will continue.

    So… as a result we have had one of the government’s brainless thugs today (late Friday afternoon, typical tactjc of authoritarian regimes, ie “have a think about this over the weekend”) threatening to drag officials of non-government sponsored NGOs and charities off to jail due to some non-specified *criminal* offences. The NGOs in question have faced increasing intimidation from the regime in the last 4 years so this really will have no effect.

    It is a sign of the regime’s weakness because they know and the NGOs know that the implication of throwing the head of, for example, Hungarian Transparency International in the clink.

    Taking on the biggest media company when it still has the means to broadcast all the dirt about your regime on the evening news is stupid.
    Trying to close down the NGO sector that the average Joe in the street pays no attention to is stupid.
    Removing online journalists that no one pays any attention to? Stupid, stupid, stupid.

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