The coronavirus gives rise to a healthcare and economic crisis, while in Hungary the very survival of the independent media is in serious danger. The media freedom community is urging governments not to use the emergency to undermine democratic rights.
By Ágnes Urbán
The coronavirus is shaping up to deliver a devastating blow to the viability of independent media in Hungary. Business models that were tenuous at best already prior to the current crisis are near certain to fail soon, and their collapse will bury the media outlets whose long-term viability they had been meant to ensure under their ruins. Ad campaigns will come to a halt and the crisis is going to leave many households in a position of major financial distress and uncertainty, thereby reducing their budgets for media consumption. This could jeopardise the operations of the few remaining independent newsrooms rather quickly. They may be hit by the full brunt of the crisis as early as two or three months from now, especially since most of them are not backed by a well-capitalised owner.
Yet, imminent financial collapse is not the entire range of existential threats they are facing; it is conceivable that even before they succumb to the seemingly unavoidable economic tsunami coming their way, independent Hungarian media outlets could cease to exist. The events of the past days have foreshadowed the distinct possibility that the governing party might use the current situation to make a major move against independent media in Hungary.
In the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, news about the pandemic primarily filtered in through reports about the international situation. Just as in other countries of Europe, reports about the coronavirus became increasingly prominent in the Hungarian news coverage in connection with the escalation of the crisis in northern Italy. Hungary was different from other European countries, however, in that this escalation was mostly covered by independent media only, while the massive pro-government media empire that controls large segments of the market sought to downplay the issue.
One very instructive example is an op-ed by András Bencsik, the influential editor-in-chief of Demokrata, a leading right-wing weekly which Viktor Orbán had endorsed to his followers as one of the newspapers they ought to subscribe to:
“A massive pandemic indeed. At least as it is presented in the media. As if they were conducting a worldwide experiment to find out whether through force of sheer propaganda people could be made to believe in the threat of some horrible pandemic, even though there is no epidemic at all, not even the faintest sign of it. And the answer to the underlying question is ‘yes,’ they do come to believe it.”(March 6, 2020)
After a while even the Hungarian government began to grasp the severity of the situation, however, and proclaimed a state of emergency on March 11; from that point on, pro-government media also began to take the situation more seriously. Nevertheless, the Hungarian media remained and in fact became increasingly divided in its coverage of the crisis. The government and pro-government media focused near exclusively on a few Iranian students and sought to frame the entire coronavirus epidemic as a problem stemming from migration.
Independent media, by contrast, pointed to systemic problems in the Hungarian government’s handling of the epidemic, such as the low number of tests and the shortage of protective clothing and masks. It was only thanks to independent media that the public was informed that even while the governmental communication relentlessly and exclusively focused on a few Iranian students when discussing the corona epidemic in Hungary, days before the Iranian students had been quarantined a young Hungarian had asked to be tested. And even though the hospital where he reported refused to test him, his father soon became the first official corona patient of Hungarian nationality. Subsequently, independent media outlets uncovered many other cases that highlighted problems with the testing protocol and the lack of protective equipment available to healthcare workers.
Many citizens only became more cautious in managing their personal exposure after reading news reported by independent media. As a result of these reports, many media consumers opted to voluntarily follow social distancing protocols, while a growing number of private companies steered employees towards working from home. None of the articles reported by mainstream independent media outlets have thus far been refuted as fake news, and so their articles and reports on the issue have helped the public realise the severity of the situation we are facing.
In the context of the coronavirus crisis, the government’s most spectacular attack thus far against the independent media occurred on March 15th, at a press conference by the government spokesman Zoltán Kovács. In response to a question by a journalist of the online newspaper 444.hu, Kovács aggressively lectured the reporter that 444.hu and other independent media should not try to act smarter than the epidemiology experts.
Incidentally, the reporter’s question had referred to the corona testing of the minister of the interior, Sándor Pinter. The journalist inquired about the protocol used as the basis for testing the minister, and he also wanted to know why the healthcare staff who had treated corona-infected patients were not being tested. The government spokesperson failed to provide a substantial answer to the question. (The absurdity of the situation was further amplified by the fact that March 15 is a national holiday in Hungary, the Day of the Free Press, which made the spokesman’s skirmish with the free press especially poignant).
Another remarkable event took place on March 18th, when the pro-government media reported in detail that two prominent independent online newspapers, index.hu and 444.hu, had launched fundraising campaigns to help weather the financial impact of the crisis. The vulnerable financial situation of these two media outlets is already well-known and their efforts to raise funds in this situation are readily understandable. Nevertheless, the online newspaper origo.hu, whose ad spaces are filled to the brim with government-sponsored advertising, commented as follows:
“And Index wants to take money out of people’s pockets in such a delicate situation so that they can continue to spread fake news about their two favourite issues, education and healthcare.”
The criticisms concerning the fundraising by the above-mentioned independent media outlets were also echoed by the state media in Hungary; the state media added another independent news site, 24.hu, to the institutions being attacked in this way, claiming that it, too, disseminates fake news. The attack on the independent media reached its first peak on March 20th, when the pro-government news channel HírTV (which is part of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, the organisation that comprises most of the privately-owned pro-Fidesz media outlets) invited two pro-government opinion leaders, Márton Békés editor-in-chief of Kommentar journal and Gábor Megadja, the senior researcher at the pro-government Századvég institute, as guests on one of its talk shows. Almost their entire conversation centred on inciting the viewers against independent media, including such comments:
“We need to make up our minds about who we are actually rooting for. My sense is that certain pro-opposition channels are not rooting for the Hungarian nation; nor for Europe overall or even the Hungarian economy. They are openly rooting for the virus instead. And if that is the case, they are clearly coronavirus collaborators. What are we going to do about this, how will we deal with this situation later – well, let me stop here and not continue this line of thought.” (Starting at 4:37 in the video – Hungarian)
“I would suggest to have them arrested in this crisis situation.” (Starting at 9:27 in the video – Hungarian)
These are striking instances of incitement against independent media. They have sunk to levels that are far worse propaganda than what was “customary” in the public communications of the government and its allied media outlets. For a start, the pandemic has raised the stakes, which are now far higher than normal. At the same time, the criminal law repercussions that now accompany these verbal intimidations, specifically the risk of arrest, give these ominous comments an entirely different feel. They make the threats more concrete and palpable. In an article entitled With knowledge of our responsibility, Péter Magyari, a journalist at the online newspaper 444.hu, rejected the accusation that he and his newspaper were proffering propaganda and said that they fully comply with professional standards in the performance of their journalistic duties.
The real threat is not the ostensible and growing acerbity of the communication between independent journalists and the pro-government propagandists. The planned amendment of the Criminal Code is a fundamental stumbling block that government plans to put in the way of journalism. In fact it is an impediment to human communication in general:
“Whoever presents a false claim of fact or an actual fact in a distorted manner, or spreads such claims at the time when the emergency legal order is in effect, and does so in public, with the result that the underlying claims impede the effectiveness of the protection efforts, or cause the outright failure of the latter, is liable of a criminal offence that is punishable for a term of imprisonment between one and five years.”
Five years in prison for reporting the facts
Effectively, the planned amendment would submit everything that may be written or broadcast by media to the straitjacket of the government’s communications strategy, which would serve as the guideline to determine what may be freely written and what merits a prison sentence. This would be problematic in and of itself, but the problem is at least somewhat mitigated when the state’s communication is transparent and disseminates real data. In the Hungarian reality, however, when the government’s communications strategy is to continuously conceal the actual scope of the epidemic in Hungary because that appears to pay off politically, journalists will not be at liberty to report the real situation even if several independent sources unanimously confirm it, when they have reliably verified the information they wish to disseminate. Any publication of information could be accused of portraying the underlying figures out of context, of distorting the facts. And even if the courts eventually acquit the journalists after months or years of protracted legal wrangling, this regulation will nevertheless be very effective in curbing journalists’ and media owners’ willingness to go out on a limb in researching or publishing stories. To put it succinctly, if journalists write the truth, if they take their obligation to inform the public seriously, they may face up to five years in prison.
In light of the fact that the government side considers all actual news uncovered by independent media as fake news, there is a real danger here that the new regulation will not be used to sanction those who actually produce or disseminate fake news, but to effectively make independent journalism impossible. Looking at the government’s communication in recent days, all we see are proclamations that tout the presumably successful and effective governmental efforts, the effective action taken against the epidemic.
Yet this overall picture of comprehensive success is marred by articles and reports which identify systemic-level problems in the defensive mechanisms deployed to safeguard Hungary from the epidemic. Clearly, the public dissemination of media reports highlighting the shortcomings of the government’s policies against the coronavirus constitute a political risk for the governing party. Moreover, it is unnecessary for the government to classify any news items as fake news, since in an emergency “the operations of business organisations may be subject to the control of the Hungarian state by force of decree” (Act CXXVIII of 2011 on Disaster Relief and on the amendment of individual laws relating thereto, Article 48 (1)). What this means is that once the new emergency legal order enters into effect, the state theoretically has the right to take control of any newsroom whatsoever. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the necessity and the proportionality of such decisions – which are the criteria laid out in law – are practically impossible to define.
Parliament to be suspended
On March 23rd, a proposal was published on the parliament’s website that would effectively grant the Hungarian government unlimited powers and would suspend the Hungarian parliament until the end of 2020. Furthermore, the period in question could be extended even further if the government so decides, which could easily leave us in a situation akin to the one we have been witnessing in the context of the government’s proclamation of a state of crisis stemming from mass migration (the migration emergency), which was first declared in 2016. Although the conditions that qualify for a migration crisis have long since ceased to apply in Hungary, the government has been extending the relevant state of emergency as a reflex action every six months.
The emergency legal order proposed by the government could serve to irremovably entrench the government in its position while its most important controlling body, the Hungarian National Assembly, is removed from the equation, and the legislature’s functions are assumed by the executive, which rules by decrees. This could go on for as long as the government wishes, since during this prolonged state of emergency elections cannot be held either. Such a decision would spell the end of parliamentary democracy in Hungary. It would hardly be a surprise if independent media were among the first victims of this new legal order. At the same time, the experience of the past ten years has shown that sooner or later every rule-of-law institution in Hungary would be affected by these changes.
This article was first published in Mérték Médiaelemző Műhely2020. March 24. It is reproduced with kind permission of the author Agnes Urban and of Mertek.