Our podcast: How press freedom is threatened in Hungary and Poland

In this episode for World Press Freedom Day we look at the pressures on independent journalism in two EU countries
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki meet in Budapest. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

The topic

In this episode of our podcast we talk to two of our Journalist Fellows about the growing pressures facing journalists and independent news media in Poland and Hungary. We look at the threats of authoritarianism, the weaponisation of advertising revenue, and self-censorship. We also look at levels of support for independent media and what can be done within the industry, and on a political level, to defend media freedoms.

The speakers

Jakub Krupa is a Senior Correspondent at the MLex news agency covering data privacy and security, cybersecurity, and telecom regulation as well as Brexit and online harms. He’s been based in the UK since 2012, previously working as the UK Correspondent for the Polish Press Agency.

Peter Erdelyi is the Director of Business Development of the independent Hungarian outlet 444.hu, whose role involves audience growth, diversifying the business model and funding opportunities, and commissioning special content projects.

Our host: Meera Selva is the Deputy Director of the Reuters Institute and the Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme.

The podcast

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The transcript

The erosion of press freedom in Hungary 

Meera: I asked you both on this podcast today to speak about media freedom because Hungary and Poland are two of the most worrying, complex and, in many ways, interesting cases, where freedoms in Europe are being undermined systematically. Peter, can I just start with you? The Hungarian government squeeze on media freedom has become a model in many ways for the countries in the region. Can I ask you what, if you’re concerned at all about developments and what concerns you the most?

Peter: Yes. I think things have gotten quite problematic. Since the government came to power, that was 2010, there was an erosion of press freedom in Hungary which was more or less constant. But by 2019 we seemed to have hit a plateau, like the government took over many outlets but it seemed that their expansion stopped and they were more or less content with the media environment as it was.

The pandemic changed that quite a bit and last year we saw – last year and this year, we saw many new attempts to further increase the government’s influence in the media sphere. Most importantly last year the largest independent news portal, Index was taken over by government aligned actors. They sacked the Editor-in-Chief, most of the staff resigned in protest and now the outlet is very much in government control.

And then most recently Klub Radio, which is a radio station, it’s based in the capital, they had their licence – they didn’t renew their licence, broadcast licence, and so they now were forced to move on the internet. I think that the pandemic gave the government cover to move ahead with the further steps. I think when, you know, when there’s a life and death crisis, press freedom is not in the forefront of peoples’ thinking. The first wave spared Hungary, the first wave of the virus, this gave them political cover and they used the situation to further increase their influence.

Meera: Why do you think the government basically took aim at the media like this?

Peter: I think it’s about controlling the public discourse and making sure that their messages, and only their messages, reach the widest possible audience. I think the government was pretty conscious about the type of people they want to reach. This is where there is a dichotomy in Hungarian media. There are a few independent outlets, mostly based in the capital and mostly online, that are sort of allowed to exist and continue to do their work.

Whereas in the countryside the regional media has been completely taken over, over the past few years, and this is because I think in the government’s eyes, the listeners and the readers of the regional media was an important target group for, you know, electoral purposes. Whereas independent media based in Budapest was reaching an audience that were unlikely to vote for them anyway.

Meera: And so this is also the difference between digital media in the urban centres and then TV and radio stations in the regions, is that right?

Peter: Yes. There is definitely more pressure and more takeover as their TV is obviously very important for the government and so is broadcast radio.

Government influence over Polish media 

Meera: Thank you. Jakub, you’ve been in the UK for several years but you have been watching and involved in the Polish media landscape as well. Tell me what you’re seeing, both from a distance and from your experience working for the Polish News Agency.

Jakub: Yeah, it’s obviously a very challenging environment and I think a lot of what Peter just said sounds definitely familiar to someone who works or worked with the Polish media outlets. There is certainly, and I don’t want to be naive and I don’t want to be kind of, you know, too optimistic about how the media in Poland looked before the latest change of government in 2015.

And many of the problems are kind of broad structural problems that happened pretty much everywhere. We’ve kind of, you know, decline of print, decline of budgets essentially and how it’s difficult for media to operate. But I think there’s a set of unique challenges that we have in Poland, and clearly in Hungary to a similar extent, based on essentially the government’s policy.

And I think particularly looking from afar, when I’m often listening to what my journalistic friends in Poland tell me about what’s going on. Because I’ve also obviously, I still very much follow that and experience that first hand as a correspondent in the UK. There’s certainly a problem with, however you want to frame it, kind of different ways of state or government capturing media outlets, the public media and the decline of public media is something I’m looking at Reuters Institute.

And this is particularly astonishing because again Poland has a long history of public media, big broadcast radio and public news agency being seen as a kind of trophy that is, you know, given to whoever wins the election and they can appoint representatives, they can do whatever they want. And obviously that doesn’t necessarily lead to best outcomes in terms of journalistic, you know, standards.

But this government takes it much further than usual with some of the debate, some of the issues there were extremely biased, everyday news outlets essentially kind of openly supporting the government. To the extent for last year, for example, one of the debates about funding the main TV channels in Poland, was literally an issue in the public, in the electoral campaign with the incumbent President when they kind of talked about, you know, will he or will he not sign a new legal instrument giving the public TV two billion Zloty in terms of public funding.

And that was obviously during the campaign and obviously the moment they struck a deal, the public media became even more supportive of the President than before. So it’s obviously, you get that sort of elements happening across the Board. And I think – but that’s publicly.

But you also get a lot of problems in the private media, be it free government, full government alliance media outlets that gets loads of funding. I’m happy to discuss that further because that’s obviously one of the ways they can exert influence. But there’s so many more and I think anyone watching from afar, and particularly from the UK, which the culture is a bit different, culture running media versus a bit different, I think it is definitely worrying.

Weaponisation of advertising revenue 

Meera: And do please expand on this, this kind of weaponising of advertising revenue.

Jakub: Yes. So obviously that’s a very good example because, you know, the biggest advertisers in Poland or one of the biggest advertisers in Poland are essentially government controlled, public owned companies. And that could be, you know, oil refiner or can be, you know, someone producing electricity. Essentially you know, quite often companies that do not necessarily need to advertise that much because they like, they have very kind of good positions in the market anyway or are, some of them, literally like the leading company in the country.

But with them spending so much money, and I looked it up today to prepare for our chat, and you know, in 2020 they spent over 200 million pounds, so that will be more than one billion Polish Zloty on advertising. And you would be, you know, you would really struggle to find a clear link between, you know, the reach or the sales of the outlets they buy advertisements in and the amount of money they spend in these outlets. It’s very clear that the outlets are either public, publicly owned, under the government’s control like the public media. Or essentially aligned with the government in one way or another, or supportive for the government, they get a lot more money.

So you have situations where like, you know, smaller weeklies selling 30, 40,000 copies get 30% of the annual revenues from adverts from state owned companies, or kind of government controlled companies, and much bigger newspapers and much bigger media outlets, with massively, significantly bigger reach, gets 0%, 1% of the revenue from the government and from the advertising. That’s obviously a very easy way of abusing that position.

And again, you know, someone could say “Well the outlets should be ready for that, they should never rely on the government funding and government’s advertising in the first place”. The reason that they do rely on this is a problem in itself and that will be a criticism against the kind of independent, opposition-leaning media outlets.

But then obviously that’s a very clear way of abusing that position, even now, and when you see, like recently, we had those, there was a big, public campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated. And somehow, you know, public media, which you would expect to be, you know, the key and the kind of the one that they perform public duties by advertising that, they cashed in quite nicely on that campaign and they got significant funding, again from the government essentially doing what they’re created for, while a lot of independent media outlets who have, you know, the highest sales and the highest reach in the country, did not get a penny.

And again that kind of makes you feel like, “Hang on, is that really about advertising and reaching people and encouraging them to do something or is it just essentially a way of supporting them financially because they are aligned with you, because they support you?” And obviously it’s very difficult to reach any other countries and then, yes, that’s exactly what it’s all about.

Meera: And imagine a sort of flip side, which is private companies will be wary of adverts that need government support, either through tax policies or regulations, will be wary of advertising in the independent media outlets in case they’re suddenly seen as positioning themselves as opposition.

Jakub: Definitely yes. And I would be interested to hear what Peter says about it because when I spoke with my colleagues in Poland, they all said “Well we’ve seen that happen in Hungary and we do hear about that happening in Poland, about you know, companies being quietly told that, you know, if you want to really spend the advertising budget in that newspaper, perhaps you know, you may want to reconsider your involvement in that public procurement project somewhere, when you know, we build an airport or build a road, and maybe we will not want you because you’re spending the money clearly the wrong way or clearly you had too much money if you spent it that way”.

So there is this element of that, which is obviously very informal, kind of, there’s a lot of talk about this happening. But also I think you’re right, because obviously there’s also the element of, you know, what if we support you and then we’re going to be hit by a regulation. And they can be theoretically be completely, you know, independent from each other but what if the government looks at, you know, company A sponsoring or giving a lot of money to one of the outlets that they don’t like. And then thinking “Well clearly they have too much money, we’re going to regulate them a bit more”. So there’s a very clear risk of that and that obviously comes on top of all the other problems with media regulation in Poland which I’m sure we’re going to come back to as well.

Peter: Yeah. What Jakub described is all very familiar although I do think that we are a bit further down this path than Poland is. In Hungary the largest advertiser in the media market is the state through direct sort of government sponsored ads and ads by government owned or partially government owned institutions and companies.

And on top of that you have these massive companies that are private but operate in heavily regulated sectors, like banking or telecoms. And they are super cautious about where they spend their money because they don’t want to, you know, get on the bad side of the government.

So what our sales people are hearing all the time is “Oh we love you, 444 is great, we read it every day but unfortunately you have to understand there’s no way for us to advertise with you because that would, you know, upset the government and we don’t want that”. And yes, if you are a big financial services provider or a telecom company, you do rely on the government, not just for procurement, that too, but also to regulate you in ways and the government I think is clearly ready to lean on this and prevent some of the biggest private advertisers from advertising with independent media.

So that’s a huge problem and I think that’s also the reason why we can’t – like when we talk about the advertising market in the US or the EU context, it’s very different in Hungary and I think in Poland too, because there’s no real market to speak of. There are some companies that are big enough or are some ways out of reach of the Hungarian government and they still advertise with independent outlets, but there are lots that just don’t.

And therefore, you know, with the government, direct government spending on top of this, it’s just government algined entities and media that have so much more resources and basically independent media is starved. And this creates a very difficult situation where I think most can only go for audience revenues because that’s the sort of the thing that is left to sustain and finance your operation and try to grow.

Public trust and audience revenue 

Meera: That brings me to my next question, which is what do you do about financial viability in this climate? And audience revenues, reader revenues are the obvious solution here. But they also rely on trust and a sense of journalism is worth paying for. So I would imagine it’s very hard in this climate to kind of produce the kind of journalism that you then can charge for in different ways. And also I’d be very interested to know whether the various changes in the last few years have undermined the public trust in independent journalism.

Peter: I think for us in Hungary audience revenue has been so far pretty successful and promising. I think you have to understand that in the context of Hungary where private political expression is limited in ways, you can’t, especially if you live in smaller communities, or if you work in some sort of government related or adjacent job, you can’t really express your private, like personal political opinions because there could be repercussions.

And therefore supporting independent media became this act that you can still do. OK, so I work at an advertising agency and I have to deal with clients who are, you know, pro government or you know, financing various sort of government institution. That’s fine or I work somewhere else and expressing personal political opinions are not an option for me but I can still support my preferred independent media outlet. And a lot of people do that and I think that’s a very important thing for us to do.

This is why, on the Hungarian market, paywalls are not a big thing yet. I think they are coming but most of the players that go into audience revenue, most of the outlets offer other services, offer this feeling of you know, something meaningful, the thing that you can do that would influence the situation that we are in more so maybe than even your vote. And I think that’s valuable for people, they are willing to pay for that. And obviously we offer other stuff, newsletters, membership and, you know, close, very close connection, and I think that’s also important.

So I think when building trust, the most important thing from my perspective is good content. We try to deliver on that, I guess every outlet is. I think it’s important to note that in Hungary there are different levels of independence. So you can be critical of the government but not completely independent. For example, there are taboo topics for certain media outlets like the family of the Prime Minister and their wealth.

So an outlet can be critical and cover public life in a critical way, in a journalistic way, but then when it comes to the wealth of the Prime Minister’s family, they would, you know, not cover that because that’s just a taboo issue. And we do that, there are no taboos for us at 444, I think the audience appreciates that.

Also there’s no sort of artificial balancing act. In the past ten years political life and public life moved to the right very radically, sort of viewpoints and opinions that would have been unacceptable ten years ago are now mainstream. And I think some media outlets responded, you know, moving with the mainstream, and maybe that’s the right thing to do but in some cases I know that we don’t do that and I think some of our audience appreciates that we stand up for the, you know, the same ideas and values that we stood up for in 2013 when we started.

And we also offer them a sense of community and connection and I think that’s also important for trust. We organise AMAs, events, we let the audience talk to our reporters and editors and I think that’s also meaningful and it shows who we are. I think it’s very important for media outlets, not just in central and Eastern Europe but elsewhere too, to be engaged with the audience and not take things that we take for granted. We know how a newspaper works, like you know, independent sources, verification means fact checking and that sort of stuff. People don’t know that and I think it’s important to talk about these things because it will yield trust.

Meera: That’s also I’d imagine incredibly important for the morale amongst journalists to have a sense of what they’re doing still matters and is still having an impact on the communities. And Jakub, is this something you recognise in Poland as well?

Jakub: Yes. But I didn’t expect to be in a position to say that, but I have to say that the Polish situation is not that bad and so I think there’s this feeling that, you know, if we stay on the same track, as we are now, we may very well end up being in the same situation as Hungary in a few years' time. But obviously Poland still has independent owners, you know, foreign companies owning media outlets. In fact that’s one of the main points of criticism from the government that so many of the media outlets in Poland are not owned by Poles or Polish companies and has a whole agenda of [re-Polanisation] that they pursue in essentially a kind of attempt to buy out stuff from foreign owners and kind of, you know, return this to Polish ownership.

And we see examples of that and again, you know, I don’t, I really don’t like people using, you know, far fetched comparisons to Russia and stuff. But there’s a recent transaction where Polska Press, one of the publishing houses in Poland, was bought by Orlen, which is an oil refiner essentially and they, you know, they bought 20 regional dailies, hundreds of local weeklies, several magazines, several online work sites. A massive, massive transaction.

And the official claim is, you know, “We do it to boost our retail sales”. It’s like “Hang on a second, I mean you literally have like petrol stations, what do you need like hundreds of local weeklies for that?” You know, people are going to buy petrol anyway, right. So clearly, and obviously Orlen is a state owned company and the leader of the ruling party comes out and says, “You know, the CEO of the company is brilliant, he’s finally doing what we always wanted to do but we didn’t have the money. He’s now doing it for us”.

That clearly obviously poses massive questions about the state, you know, the level of state interference obviously immediately after the transaction. We’ve had loads of resignations, lots of people leaving the company and essentially saying we’re not going to work with them because that’s not journalism anymore. So there are certainly elements of what Peter was talking about.

But on the other hand, you know, there are still outlets that are doing extremely well and, you know, things like Gazeta Wyborcza which is one of the leading dailies. They have 260,000 digital subscribers regularly paying for content, which is again – and I think that's a fairly, Meera will know that better than I do, but I think it’s a fairly small club of outlets that can, you know, boast with that kind of level of numbers.

And then you have independent projects literally starting now. And again that element of people supporting them with kind of crowdfunding essentially is massive. There’s a famous independent left wing media outlet, OKO.press which gets a lot of – centre left probably, which gets a lot of finance from the independent backers, from essentially the public.

Or you have Radio 357, again something that I’ll be looking as well into. Former, essentially journalists working for, previously for government, own government-controlled Polish radio station free which is always going to be independent, intellectual radio. The left can start a new business. And through crowd funding they are now getting essentially, you know, £120,000 pounds or 640,000 Polish Zloty a month from people essentially, you know, giving money and paying them to the bank accounts to support another independent venture.

So there is a lot of movement so I think and I’m sure that, you know, supporters of the current government will be first to point out that, you know, I shouldn’t be too negative about it. It’s not all that bad. I think there are certainly big, big, big warning signs. So particularly when you talked about how journalists feel and how they react to things. I think there is a lot of that.

There’s a lot of problems with things like – and there’s always been problems with like proper training for proper recruitment. Obviously cuts, outsourcing, they’re essentially, you know, [unclear] turning into kind of copy farms where you churn, you know, ten stories a day just because you have to because there’s no one else to do it.

Other than that, you have additional problems with that and I think that’s, you know, lawsuits against the newspapers. And just a few days ago we had a massive lawsuit against – from one of the PR agencies but run by people closely aligned, including a former MP of the government, who essentially, you know, sued I think four or five journalists from different outlets for one million Zloty which is about £300,000 from their private money. So they didn’t sue the media publication, they sued them personally for that.

There’s a number of other kind of controversial legal measures in Poland, the infamous article 212 which is essentially penal codes where you can sue someone for defamation in mass media and so it’s not a civil case, it’s much more serious than that. So there are lots of instruments that have been historically abused but they are now abused even more and obviously have a chilling effect and have a negative effect in how media outlets are run.

So I think there is definitely a lot of things to look out for. And one of the things that I’m concerned most is that some journalists essentially give up and some journalists either leave the profession or go to PR, or go to something else where they can use the communication skills they have. Or there’s this kind of, what I often like to call, anticipatory obedience.

So people essentially either self-censoring themselves or, if not, then kind of carefully choosing what they report on, particularly if they work for public media because they just don’t want to end up on the wrong side. They don’t want to annoy someone. And I think, you know, the moment when you start having these conversations about “Should I cover this because someone is going to get annoyed at me?” I think that’s when you really have, you know, all the lights on your dashboard are flashing red.

Meera: Absolutely. And the self-censorship issue is incredibly important and one that’s very hard to actually get journalists to draw out, partly because people aren’t even aware that’s precisely what they’re doing.

Jakub: Or they’re embarrassed by it.

Supporting independent journalism 

Meera: And they’re embarrassed by it. What can be done, these are both countries in the European Union, they’re still, you know, relatively prosperous. The media organisations, while under financial pressure, there are still, you know, some resources there, what can be done both domestically and by the international community to bolster journalists really who are, as you said, being targeted on very individual levels as well as kind of organisational levels.

Jakub: So I think there are a few points. I mean obviously I think even things like doing this podcast helps because obviously it raises awareness, people know what’s going on. And I think that’s one of the big issues obviously, you know, we like to think that in 2021 we cover everything. But if you want to know in and outs of the media market situation in Poland it’s not that easy to stay up-to-date with everything. And I think it’s important to stay up-to-date.

And I would very much like to see, you know, anyone interested in that follow that very closely. I know that’s a lot of frustration, for example, the European Union which they keep saying, Věra Jourová other senior EU politicians, they keep saying essentially, you know, “We are watching this, we are concerned”, but then what follows? And that’s certainly one of the easiest ones.

Earlier this year Polish media outlets had a massive protest against a government proposal to have a new advertising revenue tax which was kind of sold to the public as a kind of COVID related measure with some of the money going to the healthcare system, some of the money going to culture funds, essentially 43 outlets turned off for 24 hours. So if you turned on your TV you would see nothing apart from public owned, public and government controlled media.

And then again, you know, imagine that, I mean in a country of 36 or 38 million, you turn on TV and there’s nothing you can watch and literally the screen says, you know, “This was supposed to be your favourite programme but it’s not there because if the government follows through on this threat, we are done. We have no way to survive or to operate”. And the EU comes out and says “Yeah, we’ve seen the black screens but we can, you know, what we can do about this”. So I think there’s a lot of that and I think there will be a lot of big cases coming up as well where people will be watching what’s going on.

So, as I mentioned earlier, the takeover by the oil refiner Orlen of Polska Press, the weeklies and the regional dailies I talked about. There’s a second case, which is an attempt to take over Eurozet by Agora, which is the owner of of Gazeta Wyborcza. Which again, you know, just like clearly the anti-trust regulator in Poland did not have any problems approving the big takeover by government owned company. Here they first delayed it then they blocked a transaction which would lead to consolidation of the kind of independent media market. I know that this will be again complained to the European Union. It will be looked at by the European Union as something to look at.

But those are things like what Peter talked about earlier about Klub Radio. I mean the biggest, largest Polish news channel, TVN24, their licence is up for renewal later this year. It’s been massively delayed already and the channel has been complaining about it. And there will be other people watching what’s going on. And even though it’s US owned by Discovery and obviously it’s got financial backing, just like many other independent media outlets. And I can’t stress it enough, there’s a big difference between Hungary and Poland I think.

There will be, you know, clashes like that when you have the regulatory uncertainty and people will be thinking, you know, what do we need to do to essentially get that licence and how do we go about it? So I think raising awareness, looking at these things and tracking all of that, and yeah, and just I think talking about it. But also obviously for all kind of, I know that some embassies, particularly the US Embassy, the Canadian Embassy and the UK Embassy are involved in discussions about it in Poland and kind of raise awareness. I think there’s space for that as well.

Meera: Absolutely. Peter, I mean Hungary is one of the major recipients of EU structural funds and, you know, there is a kind of dichotomy between receiving that, that money and then, in many ways, undermining some of the core values promoted by the European Union. Is there anything that can be done here that will be useful for journalists?

Peter: I can think of two things. So there are a number of proceedings in front of the EU that are related to illegal state subsidies and competition rules. So in Hungary in 2018 after, whatever, a complicated past, the government consolidated its media empire into what’s known as KESMA, the central European Media and Publishing Foundation. They now control over 450 outlets, that’s one Foundation.

This merger was made exempt from regulatory oversight in Hungary by the decree, by the Prime Minister. I would very much be interested in what the competition authorities in Brussels think about this merger. Again, because the Hungarian authorities didn’t even look at it because of the decree.

Also the way that state advertising is distributed and it’s very, very one sided. I think it would be very interesting to see whether this is in line with EU rules about state subsidies and such. I think some of these cases are already in front of various commissioners but they don’t seem to be too keen on moving forward with them.

So I think in Hungary this, because the government has this very sort of legalistic approach of changing law and manufacturing situations through legal means. And that’s why I think some of the responses, some of the meaningful responses, to that can come from the EU through again legal means and to see if the measures are in line with EU regulations.

The other thing is, and I know this is not going to be very original, but it’s money. I think there was a while after Hungary joined the EU that almost everyone thought, you know, Hungary is here with us, and therefore grants and funders turned to other regions and there were little grant money to be found for Hungarian projects. I think this is changing because again over the past few years it became increasingly visible that there are still some problems or there are even new problems that we didn’t have before.

But I think it’s important for donor organisations when they look at where they want to spend their money, to further the cause of free media, that Hungary and Hungarian outlets need resources. And I perfectly understand that there are other regions in the world which, you know, are even more problematic or dangerous and warrant, you know, their attention too but yeah, Hungary does it as well.

Meera: But in Hungary in particular, how would donors and any potential grant organisations overcome this narrative of "this is foreign influence, this is unpatriotic money coming in" and, you know, this is what’s been happening with George Soros.

Peter: To be perfectly honest that narrative is really there regardless whether you take money from foreign donors or not. You are going to be called a foreign agent, a mole, a CIA, whatever, regardless whether you take any money really from anyone. That’s just a brand, that’s just a thing to say about we don’t agree with you therefore you are, you know, unpatriotic, therefore you are an agent or foreign influence.

I think there’s more money from the EU now. There were a number of grants around investigative journalism, cross border projects, EU funding, some fact checking, around some things around fact checking which is also meaningful. The more the merrier. Obviously EU money is preferable to other types of funding but I think most independent outlets would be very willing to go for any type of grants. Because again they will be called foreign agents whether, you know, damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Meera: They might as well have the money. Thank you so much Jakub and Peter for joining us today.