Hungarian media freedom is alive and well

On Sunday, Hungarian voters handed the ruling right-wing Fidesz-KDNP alliance a landslide victory and Prime Minister Viktor Orban his fourth consecutive term.

Some Western commentators suggest that the competition was not really free. They blame the Conservative government’s alleged control of the media. But far from being controlled by the government, the media market has grown and diversified since Orban came to power. Progressives and liberals are free to express their opinions but without a complete Soviet-style monopoly of ideas; social traditionalists, Christian Democrats and champions of national sovereignty also have a voice, even if they often do not enjoy a dominant position.

Conservative views are simply free to compete with liberal narratives, which can sound like “government control of the media” to Western commentators accustomed to silencing dissenting voices from the right. “Free media” probably means exclusively liberal media to them.

Not in Hungary.

Yet the international establishment never tires of warning that the Hungarian media are under attack. To make it official, Freedom House downgraded Hungary to “partially free”, although recently leaked documents show former Soros Foundation director Andrej Nosko admitting the ranking is part of a coordinated campaign against Hungary and “Illiberal” Poland. So what is the media market in Hungary, a country of 10 million people?

According to media research, 6.8 million Hungarians turn to conservative media for information, 6.7 million to liberal sources, and 6 million read both. Most major media companies of all political persuasions are profitable. It has not always been so. When Orban and his conservative government came to power in 2010, there were 33 left-liberal media outlets, mostly foreign-owned. Now there are 43, most of them Hungarian-owned. There are also five new right-wing anti-Orban outlets. Together, they represent 45% growth in anti-government and politically relevant media under Orban’s watch.

Is this what a government takeover of the media looks like?

All major media are liberal. Of 29 left-wing and 11 conservative online news portals, three liberal outlets – 24.hu, Telex, 444 – consistently rank first in readership. There are three conservative and two liberal television channels. As elsewhere in Europe, there is a major state-owned Hungarian television network, the MTVA (“Royal TV”), run by government appointees. RTL Klub TV, left, attracts the most viewers. In the radio news, five stations are rather conservative, four are liberal and one centrist. In print, five conservative and three liberal dailies are offered – left-wing Blikk and Nepszava have the highest readership. Among weeklies, out of four conservative titles and six liberal titles, anti-government LVH and Magyar Narançs benefit from the general public.

Despite the dynamic growth of the Hungarian media market over the past 12 years, there have also been losers. Prior to 2010, ownership was predominantly foreign, primarily German. Following a wave of domestic acquisitions, media companies are now 95% Hungarian-owned, although the remaining 5% in foreign hands accounts for a third of the market in terms of revenue and profit.

Ironically, the narrative of the government’s takeover of the media does not come from oppressed Hungarians, but from foreign media whose control over the Hungarian media market was successfully challenged by local actors after the government came to power. Fidesz d’Orban.

The result? In Hungary, you can criticize migration, Islam or the LGBT movement; you can question liberal pieties. And/or you can openly and loudly oppose the Conservative government.

Far from taking over the media, the Conservative government liberalized media laws and helped create a more diverse news market. There are more choices. When Hungarians vote, their media landscape reflects the diversity of opinion the West had when it was still a beacon of freedom, before political correctness and cancel culture destroyed the marketplace of ideas. After 44 years of communism, this is not the path we Hungarians want to follow.

Gergely Szilvay is a Hungarian Mandiner journalist based in Budapest.

Laura T. Thrasher