In April 2022, prime minister Viktor Orbán led his ruling party to a fourth election success in a row, with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Many see his tight grip on the media as a key factor in his victory, where public service media are tightly controlled and many other major outlets are under either direct or indirect government influence. But some independent media remain, particularly online.
Over the last decade, Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party have ‘unceasingly attacked media pluralism and independence’, according to the World Press Freedom Index report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF).1 Public broadcasting in particular has been turned into a government ‘propaganda organ’, with very limited time given to opposition parties, and according to leaked emails, the Hungarian National News Agency (MTI) receives instructions from the head of the Prime Minister’s Press Office on what to cover and what not to cover, including precise terms, headlines, and leads to be used.2
Most commercial media are also controlled by pro-government actors, whether through ownership, state advertising, or other forms of public funding. Some foreign-owned outlets such as the German-owned commercial TV station RTL Klub, have more freedom, but most foreign media owners have left Hungary.
The result is that politicians and officials rarely face critical questioning and don’t respond to journalists’ queries. Journalists’ access to information is limited and critical journalists are subject to smear campaigns and harassment online. In 2021, it emerged that the Ministry of Justice had approved the use of the Pegasus cybersecurity spyware against investigative journalists and some media owners. In that year there was also a new law with implications for press freedom that bans any content portraying or ‘promoting’ homosexuality to anyone under 18 and that links homosexuality with paedophilia.3 In February, Klubrádió, the last remaining critical radio station on air, was forced to cease broadcasting and move online-only as the Media Council, controlled by the ruling parties, refused to renew its licence. It is unsurprising that only 15% of our survey respondents think media are independent from undue political or government influence.
The online space is freer than traditional media, but the enormous imbalance in resources is reflected in the dominance of posts from the ruling parties; Facebook, used by around six in ten (60%) for news, was flooded with pro-government messages prior to the elections. Pro-government media outlets are instrumentalised to promote messages on social media supporting the ruling Fidesz party.
Pro-government and independent outlets share the lead among online brands with index.hu and Origo in the top four, both former pioneers of independent online journalism now turned pro-government. Two independent outlets with over 20% reach are 444.hu and Telex. Both were started by former index journalists, in 2013 and 2020 respectively, in response to increased government influence on index. The owner of the most widely used independent outlet 24.hu, Zoltan Varga (Central Group), was targeted by Pegasus surveillance, an illustration of the severe pressures on independent journalism. A new development is that the commercial national television channel RTL Klub launched a news portal (rtlklub.hu) which already has 25% reach. As far as offline news sources go, RTL Klub is the most used by far with 48% of respondents turning to the station for news, with ATV and pro-government TV2 far behind at 25% and 29% respectively. The two national public service television channels on the list (Duna TV and MTV) are the least used television channels.
Some start-ups are trying to fill the need for public service journalism. One success story is Partizán, an online TV channel created by Márton Gulyás, with a background in activism and theatre rather than journalism.4 Partizán provides in-depth, trustworthy reporting on issues ignored by most other outlets, using innovative formats (including long-form in-depth interviews occasionally lasting over four hours), along with discussion of important social and political issues by ordinary citizens, and organising public debates during the election campaign. Partizán reached 8% of our respondents in the week of our survey, an enormous achievement for a new, online-only channel funded solely by individual donations from supporters along with some grants. Another encouraging development is the establishment of Lakmusz, the first fact-checking organisation in Hungary created by 444.hu’s publisher, Magyar Jeti. The election campaign and the Ukraine war provided a plethora of stories to check.
While pro-government media benefit financially from government links, independent media are in fierce competition for audience and advertising. Many outlets are experimenting with donation and membership models, and a few started implementing freemium strategies with some of their content restricted to paying subscribers (hvg, mfor, 444.hu).
Central European University
TV as a news source dropped by eight percentage points and was overtaken by social media, with online the top news source. Print remains at last year’s very low level. Smartphones are now the unchallenged device for news as computers decline.
Pay for online news
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Overall trust in news is extremely low at 27%. The two independent outlets, HVG and RTL Klub, are again the most trusted brands, with the independent online brands Telex and 24.hu slightly ahead of the more widely used index. State-funded broadcaster MTV is one of the least trusted brands, with less than a third of respondents trusting their news.