What future for Hungarian media in Slovenia? (Delo)

This article is published in collaboration with Delo as part of a series of content on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

The article can also be read in Slovenian on Delo’s website.

In recent years, when Janez Janša, a good friend of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, was Slovenian Prime Minister, Hungarian owners consolidated their media empire in Slovenia.

Despite extremely favorable reporting for Janša and criticism from his biggest challenger Robert Golob, this failed to achieve the election result the SDS party wanted, and Golob’s party won with record support.

So what does this mean for Hungarian media ownership?

This politico-media project in Slovenia is expensive. But while it is too early to speculate on the ultimate fate of the media empire that advocates far-right politics, the experience of North Macedonia shows that Hungarian investment in foreign media is not a fad. If these outlets decide to stay, one of the possible results is that they lose their edge over time and soften their radical rhetoric.

The role of Hungarian media in Slovenia

Slovenian media funded by Hungarian capital include the government-friendly Nova24TV television and web portal and the weekly Demokracija, as well as a number of news web portals that have consistently shared content from both. They worked to polish the public image of the ruling party until recently, the SDS (Slovenian Democratic Party).

Although strongly supported by these media tentacles, Janša’s party, which until then had been the largest and richest political party in the country, was defeated by the Freedom Movement, formed just months before the elections. Robert Golob’s newly founded party won a record number of seats in parliament, 41 out of a total of 90.

After the electoral failure of the SDS, a logical question arises: how long will Hungarian investors be ready to invest their money in this extremely expensive media apparatus? While Demokracija magazine remains financially self-sufficient, Nova24TV generates relatively high losses which would amount to one million euros per month.

Already, the Hungarian company R-Post-R has sold its majority stake in Demokracija to Nova24TV, 45% of which is still held by three different Hungarian companies. The remaining shares are controlled by the SDS and one of the party’s deputies.

Opponents see this decision as a withdrawal of Hungarian capital from the Slovenian media market and believe that the Hungarian media empire in Slovenia would share the same fate with Slovenski tednik and Ekspres, two free newspapers whose aim was to polish the image of the SDS before the 2008 election. Janša headed the government from 2004 to 2008, but victory went to the centre-left Social Democrats (SD). The free logs mentioned above disappeared after the loss.

On the other hand, the acting director of Nova24TV, Boris Tomašič, claims that the sale of the stake in Demokracija was only a restructuring and not an indication of the withdrawal of Hungarian investors from Slovenia.

Indeed, no one doubts the seriousness and competence of Hungarian investors who are the biggest owners of Janša’s current media network and who are close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. While Janša’s Hungarian allies are prepared to continue funding this complex media project, despite negative prospects for its profitability in the near future, its defeat does not necessarily mean the end of its media.

Among those who helped build and manage the SDS media empire are also Interior Minister Aleš Hojs, former General Secretary of the Government Božo Predalič, SDS MP Dejan Kaloh and their party colleague Boris Tomašič, director of Nova24TV.

The pro-SDS television, website and weekly newspapers are owned by the R-Post-R company, founded by Hungarian tycoon Peter Schatz. Between March 2017 and January 2019, a Slovenian company that manages the SDS media empire received from two Hungarian companies, Belfry and Ripost, nearly eight million euros and allocated the entire sum to SDS-controlled media .

The owner and indirect financier of the SDS media is more or less directly linked to the Hungarian Prime Minister, while the co-owners of the empire also include people suspected of being involved in money laundering and tax evasion.

More costs than revenue

Marko Milosavljević, chair of journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana, says Hungarian-controlled media projects in Slovenia have never been economically successful.

“Three years ago, the Nova24 media house advised shareholders to give up their shares, because they incurred more costs than property income,” says Milosavljević.

From the start, this project did not achieve any commercial, economic or commercial success and even its media reach was disappointing.

Although he has been hailed by influential politicians on the right side of the political spectrum, his ratings have not even been detected by AGB Nielsen who carry out TV audience measurements. That means less than 0.1% of viewers watched Nova24, which is only about 2,000 people, Milosavljević points out.

“This project was not economically feasible and, given what it has become, it is hard to believe that it will ever be. Its political influence is limited to a very small circle of loyal supporters of a single political party. Wise owners – and Hungarian owners are no doubt wise – would seriously reconsider how to exit the project with minimal loss,” Milosavljević said.

The example of North Macedonia

The manipulations with media investments in Slovenia have much in common with the model that the same Hungarian investors used years ago to establish their own media in North Macedonia under the auspices of then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, a political companion of Janez Janša.

After his defeat in the 2016 elections, Gruevski was accused of being involved in corruption and fled to Budapest. Extradition requests from Skopje were refused for five years.

“These media did not have crucial political influence, but were still shameless promoters of government propaganda. They were the loudest and most aggressive. They created a smear campaign against all opponents of the regime to publicly compromise them. This type of propaganda and vocabulary spread through the country’s main media which were also under Gruevski’s control”, is how Naser Selmani, a Macedonian journalist and former president of the Press Association, describes the characteristics of the Hungarian media empire at home. country.

After the fall of Gruevski and his flight to Hungary, the Hungarian media remained in North Macedonia and still operates and supports the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE. However, their rhetoric has softened a lot compared to what we saw in the era led by Gruevski.

The Hungarian media network consists of five to six web portals and the fourth most watched television out of five with a nationwide frequency. He is not too influential, but he persistently defends the views of the party formerly led by Gruevski. These media do not make big profits, but have stable funding. The only exception is Alfa TV, which has had financial problems over the past two years and has been unable to pay salaries, so its employees have gone on strike several times, Selmani says.

What future in Slovenia?

“As far as we know Orbán and his ways, he never gives in and never gives up. He will do everything in his power to protect his fans in Slovenia or elsewhere. I don’t know if that means the Hungarian owners will sell their media investments. This will probably depend on the quality of their relations with the new government”, comments Lászlo Takács, a Hungarian from Lenti, on the possibility of a withdrawal of the Hungarian owners from the Slovenian media.

However, Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, a historian and researcher at the Central European University in Budapest, thinks quite the opposite of Orbán’s loyalty to Janša.

“I expect the new government to switch from a pro-American policy to a pro-German policy. A bloc of countries will rally around Germany and do their best to repair relations with Russia. As Orbán does not like losers and likes to talk to winners, he will quickly find an agreement with the government of Robert Golob. And if he has to sacrifice Janša as a pawn in chess, he will,” comments Gabrijelčič.

He agrees that the Hungarian media have not been commercially successful, but they have surely generated benefits for Hungarian investors and Hungarian politics, to the detriment of the Slovenian public’s right to access independent and impartial media.

Laura T. Thrasher