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Pro-govʼt conglomerate harms media plurality, says report

The Central European Press and Media Foundation (Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány - KESMA), the centralized pro-government media conglomerate established by the governing Fidesz party in November 2018, endangers press freedom and plurality in Hungary, says a report prepared for the European Commission.

The report, prepared by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), a Florence-based institute co-financed by the European Union, finds that every factor influencing the independence and operation of the Hungarian media has deteriorated since KESMA was created.

The owners of a vast majority of Hungaryʼs pro-government media outlets donated their companies to the foundation last November, creating a huge right-wing media conglomerate, with assets including cable news channels, internet news portals, tabloid and sports newspapers, and all of Hungaryʼs county newspapers, several radio stations and numerous magazines, among others.

At the request of the European Commission, the CMPF carried out a risk assessment based on the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), described as a research tool designed to identify potential risks to media pluralism in the European Union’s Member States. The report was drawn up by way of an update to an earlier report on risks to media pluralism in Hungary, published within the framework of the second EU-wide implementation of the MPM.

In particular, according to the centerʼs website, the CMPF was asked to assess whether the establishment of KESMA amounts to an element of additional risk for media pluralism in the country, and whether this additional risk is quantifiable. The new assessment was limited to analysis of the establishment of KESMA, and did not take into account other developments in the Hungarian media landscape which occurred in 2018.

The assessment was based on verified information published by national and international media and by NGOs, as well as on interviews with experts in the field conducted by the CMPF team, the centerʼs website adds.

Poor working conditions

The CMPF document characterizes KESMA President Gábor Liszkay as a close political ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, according to a summary by current affairs website hvg.hu. It adds that former and current Fidesz MPs sit on its board of trustees.

The CMPF found in its earlier report in 2017 that Hungarian journalists work under extremely poor conditions, and that it has become commonplace for reporters to lose their jobs following changes of ownership that lack transparency or are politically motivated, hvg.hu recalls. This process has only intensified since KESMA was set up, the new report finds, pointing to the wave of firings that followed the merger of Hír TV and Echo TV.

The CMPF report notes that earlier probes demonstrated the extraordinary degree of concentration of the Hungarian media market, despite the 2010 Media Law supposedly having been designed to prevent this.

The document also cites the International Press Institute, the global organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of press freedom, as finding that KESMA has become market leader in Hungary in both printed and online media, as well as radio. For the time being, it adds, the conglomerate holds second place on the television market, although it notes that if commercial station TV2 is taken into account - which, despite not belonging to KESMA, still has a clear pro-government bias - then here, too, it is market leader.

The CMPF report also stresses that the public service media - though by their nature not part of KESMA - are generally favorable towards the government. At the same time, it also draws attention to the problem of uneven distribution of state advertising spending, with pro-government media enjoying the lionʼs share of such revenues. It also points to the greater time and space provided to government politicians over those from the opposition.

With regard to the means of establishment of KESMA, the CMPF notes that the media conglomerate gained control of some 500 media assets of a combined value of some HUF 30 billion that were voluntarily given up by their owners without compensation. In addition, it notes, the government declared the creation of the conglomerate as of “strategic importance at a national level,” exempting it from scrutiny by media or competition authorities.

The full CMPF report can be accessed here.