Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán has signed an order approving a giant media merger which could affect Hungarian press freedom, calling it of “national strategic importance in the public interest”.
The merger, which will affect hundreds of print, online and broadcast outlets, brings nearly 480 publications under the umbrella of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, a media conglomerate run by Orbán’s close ally Gabor Liszkay. The foundation was donated an array of media outlets by 10 companies last week, resulting in calls for Orbán to step in to avoid creating a monopoly on the media and the resultant potential blow to Hungarian press freedom.
The majority of the donated publications had been founded or were currently owned by allies of Orbán before being given to the foundation. Several which had previously been largely independent in their reporting had taken on an increasingly pro-Orbán approach in the last few years, a tonal shift partially exacerbated by the fact that most newspaper advertising in Hungary is commissioned either from state bodies or directly from the government, which is one of the country’s largest advertisers – a relationship which can have a substantial effect on Hungarian press freedom.
Peter Krausz, a specialist in media politics at the Policy Agenda think tank, stated the merger would affect Hungarian press freedom, saying: “With this decision, what is effectively the government media empire has been elevated above the markets. The lopsided [media] playing field was created long ago. This is merely the last drop in the bucket, the ratification of the centralization of everything in this right-wing media empire – with this foundation, they have created an incredibly huge advertising and readership hub which until now market rules did not allow to be formed.”
Previous proposed media mergers with a much narrower scope have been blocked by Hungarian authorities for unfairly stifling competition, leading to criticism that Orbán’s favouring of Liszkay’s foundation is a step towards a government-dominated Hungarian media. Hungarian press freedom and overall media plurality have been steadily declining in the country since Orbán first came to power in 2010.