BUDAPEST Feb 19 On June 21, 2011 Hungarian
Prime Minister Viktor Orban made a first appearance in what
would become a regular slot on MR1 radio's news show.
The appearance in itself was nothing extraordinary, but the
manner in which it came about and the way it was conducted point
to a relationship between Hungary's government and its
state-financed media that the European Union has censured as too
close, a charge Hungary denies.
Several employees at MR1 say they were putting together the
next morning's news programme when, to their surprise, they
heard an on-air announcement that Orban would be their guest.
They tore up the schedule and rewrote it to accommodate the
They did not know it at the time, but a new relationship was
unfolding between the government and the media, which under EU
law must be independent of political influence.
According to the accounts of dozens of media
insiders interviewed by Reuters, Orban's Fidesz party has
extended its influence across the state-financed media. Current
and former journalists say Orban's press chief determines what
issues will be raised in interviews with the prime minister.
They say executives have created a culture that discourages
tough questioning and employees who dissent are moved aside.
Hungary's government denies exerting pressure on the media
and says it meets EU standards on media freedom.
In response to questions from Reuters, European Commissioner
Neelie Kroes said she considered it "a shame", however, that
Hungary had not fully implemented EU recommendations to ensure
media independence. Hungary, for instance, rejected an EU
recommendation to change the way it appointed members of a new
media watchdog to ensure the body was free from political
"The respect of media freedom and pluralism as common values
of democratic societies is especially critical before elections
that are to take place soon in Hungary," Kroes said.
Hungary votes in a parliamentary election on April 6.
Opinion polls point to a win for Orban's party.
Reuters has found no evidence that Orban has personally
stifled media scrutiny of his government. Interviews with former
and current state media employees suggest it is those around the
prime minister who have sought to shape how the government is
portrayed, aided by a culture of self-censorship in the media
and a regulatory framework that has eroded media independence.
In his June 21 radio interview, Orban spoke about a cut in
public debt, financed in part by a nationalisation of private
pension fund assets that had alarmed markets and investors. The
interview took an unusual course - at no point did the show's
anchor challenge the prime minister's answers or pose any
questions about the risks arising from the nationalisation,
a transcript posted on Orban's website shows.
At the end of the interview, after Orban had evaluated
Hungary's six-month presidency of the European Union, which was
about to end, the anchor rejoined: "It may then be joyful for
every Hungarian that his country's prestige is growing in the
"We just gave (Orban) air time to speak his mind," the
show's production manager at the time, Fruzsina Molnar, told
Reuters in an interview for this article. Molnar no longer works
at the station.
Requests for an interview with the show's anchor were
referred to a spokeswoman, who did not reply to detailed
questions from Reuters. Top executives at the station also
declined to answer questions.
Soon after the June 21 appearance, Orban's press team
requested that the radio interview become a regular event,
several people familiar with the matter said. Orban now appears
on the show every other Friday.
Orban's appearances have settled into a routine, according
to journalists who have worked on the MR1 news show. All topics
to be covered are agreed in advance, and the prime minister is
never surprised with tough questions, they say.
Press chief Bertalan Havasi usually proposes a list of
subjects in an email on Wednesday, the sources said. In the next
24 hours, he hashes out with the editors what subjects to cover
on Friday and what to skip.
Havasi, in reply to questions from Reuters, said his office
has always acted in accordance with the press freedom clauses in
the constitution. The constitution guarantees media freedom
while the media law, which deals with the practical details,
says authorities must not interfere with the media.
Responding to Reuters questions about the government's
interaction with state-financed radio, government spokesman
Ferenc Kumin said: "Public media is independent of the
"When the Prime Minister gives interviews, to which media
outlets is always a matter of individual consideration. Placing
the interview, setting its subject and its questions are up to
the media organisations conducting the interview," Kumin said.
Reuters also sent questions to senior executives at
the organisation that groups together Hungary's state-financed
media, MTVA. They declined to comment. An MTVA spokeswoman said
there was no link between the government and the editing process
at MTVA media outlets.
The deference with which state media treat Orban is not
without precedent. Ferenc Gyurcsany, the Socialist prime
minister from 2004 until 2009, also gave regular radio
interviews in which he fielded gentle questions. Gyurcsany told
Reuters it was customary for programme makers to give his aides
advance notice of the topics that would be covered. But
Gyurcsany added: "It would never come to my mind to dictate what
to be asked or to put pressure in any way on public media and on
how they prepare for these interviews."
What makes Orban's government different, say campaigners for
press freedom, is that Orban's Fidesz party has used its
majority in parliament to push through rules that weaken state
financed media as an independent institution in a way that has
not happened before. The campaigners say that Orban's
government has put in place a system that stifles the ability of
journalists to hold his government to account.
Soon after Orban's Fidesz party came to power in 2010, the
Fidesz-dominated parliament adopted new media legislation.
Changes included a requirement that all media register with the
state and that their output should be "balanced", of "relevance
to the citizens of Hungary" and "respect human dignity". It also
weakened protection of journalists' sources. Penalties for
breaking the rules included fines, suspension, or being shut
Enforcing these new rules was a new watchdog, the Media
Council. Its composition is decided by parliament. Because
Orban's Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in parliament,
the council is made up exclusively of Fidesz appointees.
In another change, all state media and news production was
bundled together in one organisation - MTVA - whose leader is
the leader of the Media Council.
According to critics of the legislation, including the
European Parliament and the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the cumulative effect of these
changes was to jeopardise media freedom.
In effect, they said, appointees of the ruling party had
been granted power over the media to enforce a set of rules that
were framed so vaguely that they could be interpreted however
the appointees saw fit.
Hungary's parliament subsequently amended some parts of the
legislation, including on the protection of journalists'
sources, but critics say fundamental problems remain. Chief
among them, they say, is the risk of political bias in the Media
Council because appointments to the council are made by a
parliament that can be dominated by one party.
The OSCE's media freedom representative, Dunja
Mijatovic, told Reuters there was still "cause for great
concern. That's what I still think. If left unchanged (the media
laws package) could seriously restrict media pluralism in the
In July 2013 the European Parliament adopted a resolution
saying it was concerned that Hungary's public service
broadcasting was controlled by a centralised system that took
decisions without public scrutiny. Hungary's government called
the resolution an "unfair political judgement".
As Hungary's media laws changed after Orban became prime
minister in 2010, there was also a clear-out of staff in state
media. Many senior executives and hundreds of staffers were
removed, union representatives said. Several of those who lost
their jobs say they believe they were fired because they had
been critical of Orban's Fidesz party. They said they were told
by station managers that their jobs were being cut as part of a
reorganisation. Contacted by Reuters, MTVA did not comment.
Bela Varadi was an anchor on a state television news show.
He was the first member of Hungary's Roma minority to hold such
a job, which he called a dream come true. He said he quit
because he was appalled at the new regime.
When he anchored the show, he said he would write his own
script and save it on a shared computer system at the station.
He said that on many occasions, when he opened his script again
as the show went on air, he found it had been edited to make it
"Edited and approved versions of the news items were changed
as well," said Varadi, who now lives in Britain. "Sometimes we
only found out when we printed the script and set out to do the
An MTVA spokeswoman did not reply to questions about
Varadi's allegations and about the circumstances of his leaving
Until December 2010, Attila Mong anchored state radio's
morning show, the same programme where Orban is now a regular
guest. When parliament passed the media law, Mong protested with
a one-minute silence on air. He was reprimanded and removed from
duty indefinitely. His contract expired the following year.
"Political pressure was always a fact of life in public
media," said Mong, now an investigative reporter with the
non-profit news site www.atlatszo.hu. "But there were always
pockets of professionalism, islands of freedom. That is what
changed now. There is no island. One party controls the system
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; editing by
Christian Lowe and Janet McBride)