Countries such as Poland or Hungary frequently face criticism for a lack of media freedom. Their governments dispute that they oppose critical media. Yet, restrictions on media freedom come in many shapes and sizes. One exceptionally effective instrument for controlling the media is a phenomenon known as media capture. This refers to control over editorial boards through acquisition by investors with close political ties to the government.
“Press freedom must be in a pitiful state if only ‘so few’ places are vilifying me,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán ironically remarked in one of his social media videos in the summer of 2021. The clip in question shows him in Hungary’s capital walking up to a news stand, greeting the vendor, and then, at times addressing the man, and at times the audience, explaining what he plans to do: “I thought I would find a typical news stand and see what anti-government or government-defaming newspapers can be bought there.” Together, he and the vendor go through the array of papers and pick out one daily newspaper and four weekly newspapers, along with a biweekly satirical magazine. For the critics, but also for the people who elected the prime minister, this is supposed to prove that press freedom remains intact in Hungary. As the clip goes on, the claim is made that people can say and write whatever they want. The video commentary also reminds people that, aside from print media, the country has two television stations, a radio station, and dozens of online media where supposed government corruption or Orbán’s collaboration with dictators and warmongers can be discussed.
On first impression, this cynical PR stunt actually sounds convincing. Through this framing, Orbán seeks to divert attention away from the root causes and true essence of the issue. Because, while antidemocratic governments had, in the past, frequently reverted to open censorship, physical threats, and even imprisonment as a means of silencing independent media, a shift in strategy has been observed in the first two decades of the 21st century towards less primitive and less overt methods.
Today, the preferred approach is to capture or even conquer the media, hence the term media capture: A model within which critical media exist, but at the same time, the government is able to act unscrupulously. Even in Russia, critical voices such as Nowaja Gaseta or Echo Moskwy – to name the most renowned – existed until the beginning of this year.
The Media Pluralism Monitor by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom shows that Central European EU member states are also affected by media capture. It reveals, for example, that in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, the independent nature of public service media control and funding is under great risk, with private media also frequently falling under the control of lobby groups with close ties to the government.
Methods of control
The problems facing Eastern Europe (and the EU) are not unique. Today, the worldwide undermining of media markets as a result of new technologies, the dominance of online platforms, and the downfall of old news business models enables governments to undertake a number of covert activities aimed at establishing dependencies and thus preventing the media from fulfilling its role as a monitoring body. In countries such as Poland and Hungary, advertising is often used by the government, municipalities, or state-owned enterprises as concealed state aid. The underlying assumption is that, in return for advertising revenue, newspapers will turn a blind eye from time to time and thus desist from (adequately) performing their role as the fourth estate.
A further method of media capture involves changes of ownership. In Central Europe’s media landscapes, Western European investors were the dominant actors for a long time. In many places, however, diminishing returns have led to them selling their shares – frequently to local oligarchs with political ties, interests, or even personal power ambitions. One such individual is Andrej Babiš, an entrepreneur who served as prime minister of the Czech Republic from 2017 to 2021. His company purchased the MAFRA media organization from the Rheinische Post newspaper, thus making his corporation the proud owner of the daily newspapers Mladá fronta Dnes, Lidové noviny, and the free commuter newspaper Metro. In turn, several journalists in Slovakia resigned from their posts at the country’s leading newspaper SME once it was announced that the newspaper had been acquired by the Penta company, whose cases of corruption they had personally investigated on multiple occasions. Oligarchs are often prepared to plough large amounts of money into media portfolios if in return, they receive suitable compensation elsewhere – through public procurement contracts or politics, for example.
As a consequence, restricting media freedom can be designated a “purely economic measure”. When, for example, Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, closed down, or the chief editors of the leading online media, Origo.hu and Index.hu, were dismissed, the Hungarian government’s mouthpiece noted that the market could be merciless at times, but that the government had no hand in any of it. Even though investigative journalists were able to trace in detail the role played by the ruling party in every instance, the government’s narrative still did not lose its credibility among many citizens.
Market manipulations are repeatedly used to intimidate the media or to force changes of ownership. In Hungary, for example, the government had planned to introduce a discriminatory advertising tax: Under the plan, RTL, a private broadcaster, would have been the only media corporation required to pay the maximum tax rate of 50 percent on its advertising revenue. After a complaint was lodged with the European Commission, the government dropped its plan to bring the Orbán-critical broadcaster to its knees through tax legislation. In Poland, plans are currently underway to require foreign media organizations to sell their shares in broadcasting companies and publishing houses. There is talk of a “re-Polonization” of the media.
It probably comes as no surprise that, in countries where governments permit media to be captured or where they personally orchestrate such activities, the public service media cannot fulfill their original mission. In Slovakia, the director-general of the public service media is elected by the Slovakian parliament. This individual is therefore wholly dependent on the country’s politicians. The situation in Hungary is worse than anywhere else, however: Here, MTVA, a company which, aside from running state television and radio, also runs the press agency, receives 300 million euros in state funding per year. It is known for its racist and anti-European propaganda. Most recently, several investigations conducted by independent media have revealed that state television and press agency employees are instructed by their superiors and/or even directly by politicians on how to report on Hungary’s opposition, the EU, or refugees.
Naturally, the question arises as to why the general public even has a (big) problem with some (or the majority) of the media suffering from the influence of politicians or other lobby groups, so long as dozens of free media continue to exist and are allowed to write on all manner of potential topics. One could argue that the “consumers” would seek out the best and most reliable media just as they do with their favorite drink or favorite kind of chocolate – especially if many of the reliable news sources can be found online and free of charge.
There are, of course, numerous citizens who very consciously consume news. The Digital News Report published by the Oxford Reuters Institute reveals that quality media, such as aktuality.sk (where the Slovak investigative reporter, Ján Kuciak, worked before he was murdered in 2018), the Czech website Seznam Zpravy, or Onet in Poland, are far more popular than their competitors. Only Hungary has seen the government capture a website (Index.hu) that was the leading online news medium – though, here, too, the independent website 24.hu ranked a close second. Still, the existence of these readily accessible sources of information does not guarantee that the majority of citizens receive the information that they need in order to make informed decisions about their political future.
The reason behind this is best illustrated using the example of Hungary. Here, virtually all local media are under government control – ever since their former foreign owners opted to sell their portfolios. Virtually every TV broadcaster is government-friendly; music radio stations that are obliged to broadcast news simply use the news packages curated by the state-affiliated press agency. The citizens who do not make a conscious effort to seek out critical news segments often solely consume the government’s, at times, propagandist narratives.
Many citizens find it hard to conceive that media, which, until a few years ago, were considered reliable sources, have become mouthpieces of the government simply by virtue of a change in ownership. Readers primarily visiting the websites Index.hu or Origo.hu to read about sports, cars, films, or other ostensibly less political topics may very well not even be aware that they have also been exposed to manipulative and misleading propaganda stories for a number of years.
Geography also plays an important role: 80% of Hungary’s population live outside the capital. If they want to access news on local affairs, virtually the only source of information is the propaganda disseminated by locally controlled media. Similar trends can also be observed in Poland where Polska Press, which publishes multiple regional newspapers, was purchased by a state-owned company.
This case is an example of how the idea propounded by the US economists, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, can work in reverse. In their book titled Nudge, they argue that, by planting ideas and thoughts, it is possible to lead consumers, frequently unbeknownst to them, to choose the ideal option for themselves and others. As examples, they cite canteens, where fruit is placed within easy reach but chocolate is laid out further away, or private pension plans, where payments into the scheme occur automatically unless the customer makes a conscious decision to opt out. This benevolent paternalism can, however, also lead to the masses being subjected to a certain form of control if the general public is dominated by propagandist defaults – because access to critical media requires paying for a subscription, or needs to be consciously sought out.
What can we do to counter this?
This article has primarily dealt with Hungary as this is the country where, given the government’s two-thirds majority, the most extensive dismantling of media freedom can be observed anywhere in the EU. However, the risks of media capture are tangible throughout the region. Even long-standing democracies are not immune from them. If power-hungry politicians notice that a sliver of autocracy can go unpenalized in the EU, they will experiment with this, regardless of whether they are located in Warsaw, Berlin, or Rome. Initiatives such as the European Media Freedom Act, or the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament on protecting journalists from unfounded or abusive court proceedings (so-called SLAPPs) are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to strengthen the critical public – following the destructive market and policy trends of the past two decades.
Fortunately, the issue of media capture is garnering more and more attention. Democracies are also seeing increased discussion on what can be done in order to safeguard and protect the media from being captured. Cross-border government aid and philanthropic funding can play a key role here – we need much more of this. Plus, for that matter, rules that ensure transparency and fairness when it comes to such subsidies. It is equally important to be open-minded about discussions concerning new formats, new forms of journalism, and innovative business models – because the media also need to change. The journalism community has been coming up with very good ideas for some time now – we need to listen more attentively, however, and support them in their ventures and undertakings.