EU Action Needed to Save Hungary’s Freedom of the Press, HRW Says

Published: 15 February 2024

Viktor Orban FlickrHRW has called on the EU to involve Article 7 against the Orban government, which would suspend its EU member rights until it ceases its attacks on the press. (Photo: European Parliament, Flickr, License)

By Henry Pope

Hungary’s freedom of the press has been under direct fire since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came into power in 2010, from obstructing the press in its pursuit of media pluralism, to hostile surveillance and smear campaigns against journalists, human rights and press freedom advocates said.

Attacks by Orban’s administration against independent media have prevented the public from accessing pertinent information into their government’s activities and forming an informed opinion on who their leaders truly are behind closed doors, according to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

The organization has therefore called on EU lawmakers to take action against the Hungarian government’s efforts to stamp out independent media.

Since coming to power, the Fidesz-KDNP party “has used its power to deliberately dismantle media freedom and pluralism through control over the media regulatory body,” HRW said.

This is reflected by the country’s Media Law, which came into effect on New Year’s Day 2011. In essence, it authorized the formation of a media control body, which granted party loyalists the right to police all forms of print, broadcast, and online media.

“The government fired over 1,600 journalists and media workers at the public service broadcaster (MTVA), replacing them with government talking heads, effectively turning MTVA into a government-controlled broadcaster,” HRW said.

Shortly after the law’s implementation, Népszabadság, at the time the country’s largest newspaper, published the headline: ‘Freedom of the press in Hungary has come to an end’ in all 23 official EU languages.

Népszabadság shut its doors in October 2016 in the wake of losses brought on by the government’s censorship campaign.

Independent journalists in Hungary have also been covertly surveilled by the infamous Pegasus spyware, a malware weapon that its creator, Israel’s NSO Group, only sells to governments.

The European Parliament has labeled Pegasus a threat to fundamental EU rights including the right to privacy and data protection, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.

The hacking of journalists’ phones in Hungary, which resulted in government blackmail efforts and smear campaigns, stemmed from media investigations into high-level corruption and Orban’s increasingly pro-Kremlin agenda.

It grew to the point that members of Orban’s inner circle became paranoid that their countrymen in the press were actually CIA agents.

The weaponization of Hungarian state power to punish independent discourse and reward government mouthpieces has created “a media landscape that does not reflect the outcome of market forces but rather serves to spread government messaging,” the International Press Institute (IPI) reported.

European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, expressed concern in 2020 about Hungary’s attacks on the press, warning that the majority of Hungarians do not have the right to express their free opinion.

Orban demanded her dismissal following her remarks, calling them a “direct political attack” against his administration.

Hungary’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders 2023 World Press Freedom report stands as the second lowest in the EU, ahead of only Greece. The non-profit media freedom advocacy group has since called on the 27 union members to renew sanctions against the Orban government for new laws which could label domestic outlets as “foreign agents” acting against the interests of the Hungarian people.

“The clear objective of hollowing out media freedom is to prevent the public from knowing what the government is doing or holding it to account,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “The European Union needs to recognize the attack on media as part of the Hungarian government’s erosion of the rule of law, and take action to address it, including by moving the Article 7 process forward urgently.”

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union outlines the possible suspension of EU membership rights if a country breaches the principles on which the EU is founded, which include the respect for fundamental rights, freedom, and democracy.

A resolution to impose Article 7 against Hungary was put forth by the European Parliament back in 2018.

Since then, however, the Orban government’s “systematic clampdown on independent media” has intensified, HRW said, with the formation of the the Central European Press And Media Foundation. The foundation, IPI reported, has served to bolster pro-government media publications, exempt them from the same restrictions imposed on outlets critical of the current administration, and even offer them donations directly from the Fidesz party’s purses.

Orban has framed the donations as a matter of “national strategic importance in the public interest.”