Yesterday Freedom House published its latest report on the post-communist countries, “Nations in Transit 2014: Eurasia’s Rupture with Democracy.” Freedom House lists the countries by geographic region: the Balkans, members of the European Union, and Eurasia. It measures the performances of these countries by something it calls the “Democracy Score” (DS), which represents the average of a country’s seven democratization indicators: electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. In addition, it calculates an NIT rating for each country on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest.
According to the report, the DS in all three regions has been steadily declining since 2010. As far as the NIT ratings (civil society) are concerned, only the Balkans countries show considerable progress between 2005 and 2014.
Among the new post-communist EU members (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) the country with the lowest DS score is Romania (3.46), followed by Bulgaria (3.25), but right next to it comes Hungary with a score of 2.96. Quoting the Orbán government’s slogan, one of the local newspapers wrote: “Hungary is performing better,” yes, better than Bulgaria!
The report states that the case of Hungary is “the most poignant reminder that democratization in post-communist Europe is neither complete nor irreversible.” By the end of 2013 Hungary’s DS score was one full point worse on the 1-7 scale than it was in 2004 when the country entered the EU. The report warns: “Any further deterioration in governance, electoral process, media freedom, civil society, judicial independence, or corruption under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s recently reelected government will expel Hungary from the category of ‘consolidated democratic regimes’ next year.“
And I’m afraid that given the events that have taken place since the national election in April, the likelihood of such an eventuality is almost guaranteed. The destruction of democratic institutions had been rapid even before the last election, but since then it has only accelerated. Two of the categories considered by Freedom House, civil society and the media, have been especially targeted in the last few weeks.
Earlier I touched on Origo‘s encounter with János Lázár, who apparently pressured the owner of Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, to keep the popular online paper’s journalists in line and refrain from any overt criticism of the government. The firing of the paper’s editor-in-chief caused a greater uproar than the CEO of Origo anticipated. Fairly large demonstrations and mass resignations of editors and journalists followed. But that was not all. Simultaneously with the upheaval that followed the Origo affair, the government decided to levy very heavy taxes on the media based on their advertising revenues. It looks as if the government specifically targeted the German-owned RTL Klub, a subsidiary of the RTL Group, which is Europe’s leading entertainment company. It has interests in 54 television and 29 radio stations in 10 different countries.
It seems, however, that RTL Group is not going to take Viktor Orbán’s attack lying down and that it is ready for an extended war with the Hungarian government. Earlier there had been talks that the Orbán government put pressure on the German firm to sell the station but was rebuffed. Thus Orbán and his minions moved on to the second nationwide commercial television station, TV2. There the pressure worked because the station was actually losing money. In any case, the government’s extra levies on advertising will hit RTL Klub the hardest. More than half of all taxes will come from this one station. It looks as if this tax is a punishment for the RTL Group’s refusal to sell the station.
The CEO of RTL Klub, Dirk Gerkens, a German-Spanish businessman who has been running the Hungarian subsidiary for the last thirteen years, is a combative type who is well prepared for the “war.” As he said not so long ago, “if there is war, there will be war strategy too.” Since “the war” between the government and RTL has apparently been going on since the fall of 2013, the RTL management was well prepared for its latest counterattack.
A few hours after the announcement of the proposed advertisement tax RTL issued a sharply worded statement. Since then RTL reacts every time a government official says anything about the advertisement tax or RTL. The management indicated that if the financial squeeze of the station continues, they might have to take off some of the most popular programs: “Among Friends,” “X-Factor,” and “Budapest Night and Day.”
Lázár called RTL’s reaction “blackmail” and suggested to Gerkens that they should go back to Germany and blackmail the German government. Gergely Gulyás, chairman of the parliamentary committee on legislation, complained about the low quality of the two commercial stations, RTL Klub and TV2. As he put it, one should look upon this new tax on media advertising as a variation on the newly introduced tax on unhealthful foods, the “chips tax,” because these stations have a harmful effect on society. It didn’t take long for RTL to reveal that Gulyás at one point asked for and received a free ticket to the finals of X-Factor. Yesterday RTL Klub aired a fairly long segment on Lőrinc Mészáros’s billions, which was delivered in a decidedly sarcastic manner.
We don’t know what else RTL Klub has in its arsenal, but a journalist of 444.hu gave its management a few ideas. For example, in the very popular show, “Among Friends,” they can put in a few lines about politics. Someone asks “Uncle Vili” what he thinks of the decrease in utility prices and Uncle Vili responds: “They try to fool the plebs.” Other members of the team can be transformed into people who are suddenly very interested in politics and who make snide remarks about the government. In the other hit, “Budapest Night and Day,” the chimney sweeps no longer come to the apartment on Margit kőrút because they went bankrupt. A few characters die of smoke inhalation because Hungarian health care is in ruins. There is no garbage pickup because of utility price decreases, and dysentery spreads among the inhabitants of the apartment house.
But jokes aside, the Orbán government has been very dissatisfied with RTL Klub’s news even though liberal old timers in the media complain bitterly that one of the great sins of the two commercial stations is that their news covers almost no important items, with most of the airtime spent on tabloid and police news. The station naturally disputes this and points to RTL II’s newshour that caused friction between the Orbán government and RTL management in the past. Fidesz leaders complained that RTL II’s news was too critical of the government party, especially during the election campaign.
It will be interesting to watch the developments. It is possible that RTL Klub will be a great deal more forceful and effective than the European Commission has ever been when it comes to media freedom and the destruction of democratic norms.