Editorial: Soft control of media poses greater threat

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The following is the editorial column from the May 6 biweekly edition of the Budapest Business Journal.

While the current government’s frequent use of the legal process to control the mass media represents a blatant assault on democratic principles, its subtle efforts at soft control are more insidious, and therefore more disturbing.

As one of its first major acts after taking power in 2010, the Fidesz government rewrote the Media Law, actually amending the Constitution to create provisions that give officials undue control over the press. It was troubling to see Fidesz suddenly treating publicly funded media as its own propaganda machine, and enjoying new legal powers to exert pressure on private media outlets.

But at least these moves were obvious. Efforts at surreptitiously influencing private media may pose a greater threat.

We never would have found out about the indirect influence that officials running the National Bank of Hungary (MNB) have on the news portal vs.hu if it were not for a March 31 court decision forcing the bank to open up its books. The revelations of spending by the Pallas Athéné Foundation (PADA), a body funded with public money but controlled by the MNB in an opaque manner, have embarrassed MNB Governor György Matolcsy and spurred recent calls for his resignation.

Among its activities, PADA contracted news portal vs.hu to provide content for roughly HUF 500 million. It has also been alleged that the company owning vs.hu includes the involvement of Matolcsy’s cousin Tamás Szemerey, a claim that the company denies.

There has been an outcry over PADA’s lavish spending on projects that seem to be beneficial for government officials and their friends. In the case of vs.hu, the problem is bigger than concerns about handouts.

Much of the news coverage provided by vs.hu was critical of the government and the status quo. Since its founding in 2013, the portal, which appeared on the scene without any obvious backers, has done a credible job of setting itself up as an independent voice.

If it was not for the revelations about PADA, readers might never assume that the government could influence vs.hu, and this secret link meant the news portal could have served the ruling party quite effectively. Instead of being openly pro-government, it could simply make the government look better through omission: by not covering the stories that truly hurt the image of officials.

The Fidesz leadership may also have similar soft control over other apparently independent media. For example, we still do not know what agreement was made with RTL’s German ownership last year, when the government did away with a tax that was crippling RTL Klub, Hungary’s largest TV station. And in April we learned that government-controlled Eximbank reportedly gave a second loan to the owner of TV2, Hungary’s second largest television station. TV2 is owned by Andrew Vajna, a former Hollywood producer who is not only the government film commissioner but is also one of the few people in Hungary to be granted a casino license. He claims that he will run his station to be entertaining and profitable, but it is hard to believe that he will not heed the call of his associates in the government when they see the need.

As the early 2018 elections draw closer, we can expect the government to seek to expand and more fully exploit its soft control on the media, leaving us to wonder how often the news we receive is subtly influenced by those in power. 

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