A study by Hungarian media expert Agnes Urban, commissioned by Sven Giegold, calculates the media concentration in Hungary for the first time: “Altogether 77,8% of the political/public affairs market is financed by sources decided by the ruling party.” In the 1990s and 2000s, media in Hungary were not free of political influence, but were subject to free competition. A 1996 law prohibited excessive concentration of ownership of various media. Viktor Orban has been Prime Minister of Hungary continuously since 2010 (he was also Prime Minister in 1998-2002). Since 2010, the rules against concentration of media ownership have been abolished, and the Media Council is now occupied exclusively by persons proposed by the governing party Fidesz. Foreign investors, who previously contributed to the diversity of media ownership and thus to opinions, left the Hungarian market under increasing pressure, including numerous German companies. The Funke Group and an Axel Springer company with Ringier sold their shares. Pro Sieben Sat1 sold the second-largest Hungarian television station TV2. Deutsche Telekom sold the market leader in the online sector, Origo. The buyers were mostly political actors or investors with close ties to the governing party Fidesz. Following Viktor Orban’s fatal dispute with his long-time ally Lajos Simicka, who had previously controlled many media in the government’s interests, media concentration was further institutionalized. In November 2019, government-related media entrepreneurs “donated” numerous media to a new foundation, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), headed by current and former members of the ruling Fidesz.
For the overall analysis, private media and publicly financed media are combined (based on 2017 revenue data of 246.5 billion Hungarian forint, HUF for short, 1 euro is about 320 HUF). KESMA has 24.0% of this (HUF 59.2 billion), KESMA and other government-related private media 39.7% (HUF 97.9 bn) and finally these two together with the publicly financed media 77.8% (191.8 bn HUF). For private media alone, government-related media account for 64.1% of revenues in 2017. The total of 152.7 HUF of the private sector market can be broken down by different types of media:
- Print media (HUF 60 bn): 78.0% KESMA, 80.2% with other government-related media
- Radio (3.6 bn HUF): 8.0% KESMA, 86.8% with other government-related media
- Television (77.7 bn HUF): 8.4% KESMA and 52.8% with other government-related media
- Online (11.5 bn HUF): 49.2% KESMA
Two and a half years ago, Green Hungarian MEP Benedek Javor lodged a complaint with the EU Commission against the concentration of Hungarian media ownership and against state aid to the MTVA broadcasting company, which exists alongside the public Duna Media Corporation. Despite almost exclusive financing by the state, MTVA, in contrast to Duna Media, escapes all rules of non-partisan control for public media. Last Friday, Competition Commissioner Vestager announced that she would investigate the complaint.
The spokesman for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen in the European Parliament, Sven Giegold, said:
“In Hungary, the Fourth Estate is on the leash of Viktor Orban. Hungary’s media answer to Orban instead of controlling him. Since a while Hungarian media can hardly be called independent anymore. Independent media are the backbone of democracy, Orban has broken it. For far too long, Competition Commissioner Vestager has ignored the Green complaints about the dramatic concentration of media in government hands. EU Commissioner Vestager must immediately investigate the media concentration thoroughly and use all legal possibilities against it. We demand that the freedom, independence and diversity of the press must be a priority of the next European Parliament and EU Commission. The EU Commission must use competition law to prevent and to break excessive concentration of media ownership. The Commission must use the EU directive on audiovisual media services to establish binding transparency on media ownership. European rules must exclude conflicts of interest of media owners, especially political influence. Overall, the EU institutions must do much more to counter the negative trend in press freedom in Europe.
Manfred Weber must not wonder when asked why he did not make media freedom in Hungary a condition for Viktor Orban’s remaining in the European People’s Party. Weber’s conditions referred only to the anti-Juncker campaign and the Central European University in Budapest. An effective instrument for the protection of European values and fundamental rights in the Member States, as Weber promises, must equally protect freedom of the press. Restricting freedom of the media and civil society in Hungary is a threat to democracy. The half-baked suspension of Fidesz showed that Weber is above all concerned about the cohesion of his party family, not about European values. Basic values must take precedence over party loyalty.
The freedom of the press under social democrat rule in Romania and under the Czech Prime Minister of the Liberals is also unacceptably threatened. It is damaging to democracy how the Romanian television stations Romania TV and Antena 3 throw their slander against the judiciary, the anti-corruption agency and demonstrators critical of the government in disregard of all journalistic standards. Both belong to wealthy friends of the Social Democratic government. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, part of the European liberals, has a conflict of interest as the owner of two daily newspapers in which journalists complain about editorial interference by the prime minister.
Viktor Orban and his friends in Germany are threatening to return Europe to dangerous nationalism. On the other hand, we want to renew Europe’s promises of the rule of law and democracy. The European Union is already funding investigative journalism with tens of thousands of euros on a Green initiative. We want to permanently guarantee European financial support for investigative journalism in the next EU budgets and in the next multiannual financial framework”.
The Hungarian Green MEP Benedek Javor adds:
„The misuse of EU Funds helped to build up the KESMA Foundation in Hungary. The Commission should use its existing competences particularly on competition policy to step up against unlawful state aid and media concentration. Without media plurality there is no real chance to beat Fidesz on any elections.“
BACKGROUND: EU funding for investigative journalism on Green initiatives
The https://www.investigativejournalismforeu.net/ project as proposed by Greens (MEP Benedek Javor) as a pilot project. This means half a million euros for cross-border investigative journalism projects. Reports financed by this money can be found on the project page, including e.g. one on questionable funding of soccer clubs for Hungarian minorities in Hungary neighbouring countries often benefitting a close friend of Viktor Orban, one of the richest of all Hungary: https://www.investigativejournalismforeu.net/projects/investigating-hungarian-public-money-in-the-football-clubs-of-neighboring-countries/
The “Preparatory action — Cross-border investigative journalism fund” for the 2019 budget is another successful Green proposal. According to the EU Commission’s interim report, it will now be merged with two other projects. The common call for proposals will be launched in the 2nd quarter of 2019.
To prolong this preparatory action to 2020, Greens (MEP Helga Trüpel) tabled an amendment to the 2020 budget to ensure the continuity of the preparatory action listed above. In sum, Greens already secured in successful pilots hundreds of thousands of euros for investigative journalism.
Finally, Greens work on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the EU’s 7 year financial plan, to insert a permanent funding line for investigative journalists. Yet, decision-making on the MFF is ongoing. Final decision are made only after European elections.
BACKGROUND: 9 GREENS/EFA PROPOSALS ON MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE EU
Media freedom, pluralism and independence across Europe are being undermined in many ways. The most extreme examples on EU soil were the shocking and brutal murders of investigative journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia in the space of just a few months.
Physical threats and violence against journalists have been on the rise in the EU Member States, and concerns have been raised about the adequacy of police protection for reporters or the thoroughness of police investigations into attacks against journalists, including the murder of Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria. In some cases, police have even raided news outlets or the homes of journalists.
There are serious concerns when it comes to the independence of the media. Romania and Latvia are just two examples where political pressure on the media is strong. Croatia faces political interference in the work of public broadcasters and in Greece, or Spain, the same is true for media regulators. In Hungary, the State exerts pressure on the media through advertising and via state-owned media outlets, which are also expanding into Croatia and Slovenia.
Political attacks on the media are becoming increasingly commonplace in Romania or Italy, oligarchs are dominating the media in Hungary or the Czech Republic and even politically controlled news agencies such as V4NA are being established to ensure government-sanctioned news coverage.
However, journalists also face many other obstacles to their work. Turning to regulatory frameworks, the protection of journalistic sources is hampered by overly broad anti-terrorism laws, far-reaching mass surveillance laws or defamation suits by politicians against journalists for example in Malta or Slovakia. Abusive judicial proceedings are a key tool for gagging investigative journalists, for example in France, Poland or Bulgaria – where two journalists were arrested following their investigations into the abuse of EU funds.
There is also a worrying increase in the concentration of media ownership all across the continent. Journalists can face intense commercial pressures, for example in Finland or the UK, obliging them to churn out several articles a day, or forcing journalists into precarious working conditions.
All of these factors contribute to the degrading of the journalistic profession, and it seems to be getting increasingly difficult for the media to hold power to account and for journalists to properly perform their functions as public interest “watchdogs”. This poses a serious risk for democracy.
Although the European Union institutions may claim to have limited competence to defend media freedom and pluralism across the region, the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament is convinced that more can, and should be done. We call for media freedom, independence and pluralism to be made a clear priority in the next EU legislative term, which is why we are presenting a series of concrete steps that should be taken to guarantee press freedom in Europe, focussing on those that clearly fall within the competences of the European Union.
Regulation of market concentration
The European Commission has strong powers to regulate the internal market. The Commission should investigate if government funding to certain media outlets constitutes a distortion of the media market in a way that disproportionately benefits some media outlets (namely pro-government ones) over others; or in a way that prevents the emergence of new, smaller, independent media outlets, thus undermining fair competition.
The Commission should also look into market concentration in the media sector and use its market powers to ensure that any monopolies or oligopolies are broken up in order to promote pluralism, including of course when it comes to online platforms.
Media ownership: transparency and eradication of conflicts of interest
The European Commission should assess the transparency of the media ownership structures in Europe and ensure that any regulation of media, for example via the audio-visual media services directive, includes binding obligations on the media to proactively publish information about their ownership structures, including their beneficial owners. Clear rules must be put in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest arising in media ownership structures, with a special emphasis on avoiding political interference.
EU protections for freedom of expression and information
The application of EU legislation on the national level should be closely monitored, and any indication that EU laws such as copyright, trade secrets, the data protection regulation or the Audio-visual Media Services Directive are being (ab)used to undermine freedom of expression should trigger a swift and strong reaction from the EU institutions including the European Court of Justice and a review of said legislation where necessary. Future EU legislation should never include wording that has the potential to undermine freedom of expression, and any future EU mechanism on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights must enshrine media freedom as an essential pillar of a democratic system.
Following the successful adoption of the whistleblower directive, the European Commission should assess the possibility for EU legislation to prevent strategic litigation (aka SLAPP suits) that seek to undermine the role of the press or to limit freedom of expression.
Adopt a coherent media freedom, independence and pluralism strategy for the next term
Currently the European Commission’s work on press freedom is split across many different areas, which means that important issues are inevitably falling through the cracks. Press Freedom should be a priority for the next European Commission, with a coherent Media Freedom and Independence Strategy for 2019-2024. The European Parliament should likewise ensure that it has a coherent strategy, led by one Parliament committee to reduce fragmentation.
Building on the Media Pluralism Monitor, there should be annual monitoring of the state of press freedom in each EU Member State which includes concrete country by country recommendations to lower risks to media freedom, plus a specific analysis of areas in which the EU could act, for example by proposing legislation.
Funding of independent and investigative journalism
EU funded projects such as the Investigative Journalism for the EU fund (or IJ4EU) should be transformed into permanent budget lines and financial support for investigative journalism should become a priority for the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework. EU funds for journalistic endeavours should always be disbursed by an independent body or organisation.
The EU Commission should review its criteria for allocating European taxpayers’ money to media outlets, for example via the Creative Europe Media Programme, to ensure that financial support is not provided to media outlets that fail to guarantee editorial independence, fair working conditions for journalists or which have an overly dominant position in the media market.
Ensure swift and effective follow up of investigations related to EU funds or other Union competences
Journalists risk their lives and personal integrity, especially when investigating fraud, corruption or organised crime. Any failure to follow up on allegations revealed by journalists sends a damaging signal and undermines the impact and meaningfulness of journalism as a profession. The EU institutions, including OLAF and the EPPO, must always respond both swiftly and robustly to allegations of fraud involving EU funds.
Given that journalists reporting on corruption are exposed to greater risks, the European Commission should contribute to the safety of journalists by taking the fight against corruption seriously, starting by relaunching the annual anti-corruption monitoring report.
EU protection for journalists
Impunity for crimes against journalists must be swiftly and energetically tackled, including by strengthening the ability of Europol to support national investigations into serious attacks against journalists. Journalists requesting protection should also have a contact point in the EU institutions who can follow their cases and ensure adequate attention is paid to their situation.
Ensuring a healthy advertising market that respects media freedom and protects personal privacy
Advertising is a key source of revenue for many media outlets and the move to online advertising on social media platforms has fundamentally transformed the market. The EU data protection regulation should be applied in a way that prohibits micro-targeting based on personal profiles and that ensures that both the platforms and the third parties advertising on them are held liable for breaches of data protection rights. The European Commission should assess the possibility of EU legislation to further regulate the advertising sector in order to improve the rights of consumers of information.
Promoting an inclusive media sphere
The European institutions should take active steps to promote gender equality in the media sector, so that more women are in creative or decision-making positions and so the media contributes to the reduction of gender stereotypes. Language diversity should also be encouraged and measures to combat stereotypical portrayals of minorities should be promoted. EU funding for media literacy programmes should also be increased.