Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has signed a decree exempting the recently formed pro-government media conglomerate from scrutiny by media or competition authorities. The decree attempts to justify the controversial merger of over 450 pro-government media outlets under a giant umbrella organization as a move of “strategic importance at a national level.”
Last week, a vast array of media interests were unexpectedly donated to Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány (Central European Press and Media Foundation), a centralized pro-government media holding, by owners close to the government, including billionaire investor and close Orbán ally Lőrinc Mészáros.
The foundationʼs assets will include cable news channels, internet news portals, tabloid and sports newspapers, and all of Hungaryʼs county newspapers, several radio stations and numerous magazines, among others. Among key brands to fall under its control are Hír TV, Echo TV, Origo.hu, Nemzeti Sport, Bors, Magyar Idők and Figyelő.
Most of the publications donated to the foundation were acquired or founded by allies of Orbán in the past few years, international news wire AP noted last week, observing that some have turned from relatively independent outlets into “unabashed supporters of the government, with copious state and government advertising.”
The half-page decree, published in the official gazette Magyar Közlöny, comes six days after the first appeal was lodged with the Hungarian Competition Authority (GVH) to investigate the formation of the conglomerate, Hungarian news portal index.hu reports today. The authority would have had eight days to decide whether to start an inquiry to see if the merger is against competition regulations, but due to a law passed by the first Fidesz supermajority in 2013, the issuing of todayʼs government decree two days before that deadline makes any such examination legally impossible, index.hu adds.
The decree simply lists the companies involved in the merger and qualifies the unprecedented acquisition as a “merger of strategic importance at a national level,” citing “public interest” as the reason for this qualification, without further explanation.
In a statement sent to state news agency MTI late Wednesday, the Government Information Center said that “saving print media culture in Hungary is in the public interest [...] especially ensuring the continued existence of public forums at the county level in the long term,” noting that the Central European Press and Media Foundation had established this goal in its charter.
“Especially worthy of support is [the Foundationʼs] wish to achieve this goal not with the aim of gaining profit, but in the form of a non-profit foundation,” the Government Information Center added.
The Central European Press and Media Foundation said a week earlier that it had been approached by a number of parties who said they wished to join the foundation in its efforts to “help maintain Hungaryʼs culture of print journalism,” and had signed agreements with ten media companies to acquire majority stakes in their businesses. These include the operators of radio broadcasters PartFM, Gong FM and Retro Rádió; film and TV production company Hung-Ister; news broadcaster Hír TV; the publisher of weekly Figyelő; the publisher of free national daily Lokál and news portal 888.hu; the publisher of weekly Déli Szó and internet portal szegedma.hu; the publisher of daily Ripost, Hello! magazine and the internet portals ripost.hu and faktor.hu; and the publisher of news portal mandiner.hu.
Index.hu noted earlier that such a huge set of acquisitions was likely to raise issues of competition law, noting that the GVH could, if it considered it necessary, ask for a preliminary ruling of Hungaryʼs Media Council. It noted, however, that all four members of the Media Council were nominated by the governing Fidesz.
An analyst cited in a report today by AP said the merger of the media companies into the foundation and its exemption from competition rules reflect a “new phase” in Orban’s concentration of power.
“With this decision, what is effectively the government media empire has been elevated above the markets,” said Péter Krausz, a specialist in media politics at the Policy Agenda think tank. “The lopsided [media] playing field was created long ago. This is merely the last drop in the bucket, the ratification of the centralization of everything in this right-wing media empire. With this foundation, they have created an incredibly huge advertising and readership hub which until now market rules did not allow to be formed.”
Krausz noted that in some earlier cases Hungarian authorities had blocked much more narrow media mergers from taking place because of competition concerns.
Last week, AP cited Ágnes Urbán, a media analyst at Budapestʼs Mérték Média Monitor, as saying that after the “unprecedented” move to create the giant media holding, “it makes little sense to speak about freedom of the press in Hungary” because of the power the conglomerate will have.
“These companies were competing with each other for state advertising, but now the system will be much more centralized and it will be much cheaper to operate,” she observed. “The few remaining independent media companies will also find it much, much harder to operate, since they will be up against a single, huge competitor.”
With no oversight of the acquisitions by the competition authorities, the way now appears clear for this situation to come about, with potentially dire consequences for press freedom in Hungary.