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Change Only Frightens Voters Conditioned To Fear

Media watchers toil diligently to bring malfeasance to light. Journalism sometimes leads, sometimes follows. Correction often follows that spotlight, where democratic values and the rule of law are respected. Elections are the antidote. Authoritarians have a different prescription.

stay putLocal and international media through the past week gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party assurance of holding control over the Hungarian government in parliamentary elections held this weekend. As voting began (Sunday, April 8) poll watchers noted a record large turnout, which continued through the day. Monday morning Hungarians woke up to the same country; the Fidesz party won the “supermajority” in parliament, a mandate to further discipline critics.

The well-orchestrated Fidesz party campaign, arguably never-ending after a few set-backs in recent years, benefitted from almost total media control and a dispirited, fragmented opposition. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, leader of the populist/nationalist party, will use his fourth term - third consecutively - to anneal his message: be very afraid. Media messaging has been highly coordinated and clearly favors Mr. Orban; immigration is a threat, EU policies are bad, foreigners are dangerous. The campaign began officially on February 18th. Campaign videos have been distributed through the State broadcaster and news agency, various party-friendly private channels and, of course, Facebook.

“If Fidesz gets a two-thirds majority, it will be a massacre for the media,” said critical news portal deputy editor Peter Petö, quoted by Reporters sans Frontieres (April 6), “but if it gets only a relative majority, the media will be able to breathe again. The current propaganda cannot be sustained because everyone, including Fidesz’s members, realize it has its limits. With a bit of luck, Fidesz will have to change its tactics towards the media.”

After the Fidesz party won its landslide victory in 2010, returning Mr. Orban to prime minister, the new parliament took great haste merging separate public broadcasting units and state news agency MTI into a single, government-controlled body, MTVA. Its Public Media Election Office (Közmédia Valasztasi Irodat) was formed to meld political needs with state broadcasting ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. After that victory for the Fidesz party parliament fused state-owned Duna TV into MTVA and renamed it all Duna Media Service. Duna TV began carrying features laden with conspiracy theories from Russian Federation propaganda service RT (Russia Today) in its newscasts.

“State news is unilateral,” wrote Hungarian media watcher Mérték (April 4). “The news in its programs is chosen not on the basis of its value but on the usefulness to government interests. It does not inform viewers about the events of the domestic and international world around them but conveys propaganda of government parties, completely openly in order to promote their successful participation in the elections.”

RTL Hungary commissioned Mérték to compare time allotted to either the government or opposition the evening news programs of RTL Klub, TV2 and Duna TV between February 21st and March 27th, reported (April 4). Unsurprisingly, the RTL Klub news coverage, in terms of time spent between the two camps, was equally divided between government (Fidesz) and the opposition (all the rest). TV2’s Tenyek evening news show and the comparable news slot on state channel Duna TV were disproportionately skewed toward the government positions; 89% and 81%, respectively. TV2 is owned by the colorful pro-government figure Andy Vajna.

Paid political advertising on broadcast media was banned by law in 2012. State TV and radio affords politicians and parties “public service announcements” at no charge. Television channel RTL Klub, owned by RTL Group, said it, too, would air free-of-charge political announcements, on an equal basis. Newspapers and online media can accept paid political ads.

Also exempt from restrictions on political advertising was “advertising in public spaces,” meaning billboards. That was thought to be a tip to then Fidesz supporter and school chum of Mr. Orban Lajos Simicska, owner of a major outdoor advertising company. Mr. Simicska - who owns news channel Hir TV, regional radio network Lanchid Radio, daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet and, acquired more recently, well-regarded news portal - later broke with Mr. Orban and the Fidesz party in 2015 over a confiscatory tax boost on advertising revenues.

“Of course the media, our media, will fight that (advertising tax) and will not give a damn about what Orban says,” said Mr. Simicska, quoted by investigative news portal (February 6, 2015). “I take democracy seriously, and I take the role of media in the world seriously. I’ll insist on this as an owner.” Mr. Simicska, long with a low profile despite significant wealth, publicly switched allegiance to the Jobbik party.

Jobbik rose in 2010 as the far (far) right-wing, anti-semitic, anti-EU foil to the more centrist Fidesz party. Coincident with Mr. Simicska’s attention, arguably, the Jobbik party took a major policy leap away from many of those extremist positions. Jobbik candidates won scattered local elections as an alternative. Last year the Jobbik party used outdoor posters - owned by Mr. Simicska’s company - to raise the corruption issue - “You work, they steal” - and connect it to Mr. Orban and Fidesk. Unsurprisingly, tax authorities levied a huge fine. Jobbik’s leader Gabor Vona resigned after the results were clear. The corruption issue failed to move voters.

Once Hir TV began offering critical news coverage government officials stopped appearing. At a campaign stop for a local Fidesz candidate, Mr. Orban refused to take questions from a Hir TV reporter and called the channel “fake news,” noted well-regarded news portal (March 10). Mr. Orban has also spoken broadly about “retribution… after the election,” directed at all opponents, from NGOs to media outlets. “We saw it as a threat, and so did our owner,” said Hir TV deputy chief executive Peter Tarr, quoted by the Financial Times (April 6).

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