Censorship without censors: captives of the public media

The domestic public media may be the most fitting terrain for demonstrating that no official censorship rules or censors reviewing each line intended for publication must be in place for censorship and general restrictions on the way the press operates. Thus when in the framework of an international research project Mertek was called upon to show what so-called soft censorship implies in the daily life of the press, then the most readily intelligible and most easily presentable examples came from the operations of public television, public radio and the national news agency. (The research project examined how the mechanisms of soft censorship work in various countries of the world, and especially what impact state advertisements have on the production of quality media content. In our blog series we have thus far discussed the precise meaning of the term, how a mix of political and economic interests informs the distribution of state advertising, and how all these combine to degrade the quality of information provided by the media.)

The public media in Hungary has never been an epitome of quality, independent and non-partisan journalism. It undoubtedly did have better periods, and occasionally some editorial offices produced outstanding work, just as individual editors and journalists did. Yet the latter instances came into being despite the prevailing systems rather than as results thereof. And in fact it was often the example of the personal fate of those who produced such outstanding work, their potential marginalisation or even firing, which proved that politics was incapable of (or maybe never even intended to) provide a regulatory, financial and cultural environment wherein the public service media could have been capable of systematically and steadily discharging its responsibilities.

The situation was not especially rosy before 2010. And it has become a lot worse since.

The regulatory framework introduced by the 2010 media laws has sanctified and codified the prevailing unfortunate circumstances. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the notion that public service media is meant to serve the powers that be is now a legally enshrined principle. The subsequent transformation of the system of media funding and the rules on the appointment of managers of public media all serve this principle; but so does the establishment of the MTVA (Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelő Alap; Media Support and Asset Management Fund) as a centralised news producer, as well as the fact that the lawmakers have failed to clarify – or even intentionally rendered vague – the division of responsibilities between the public media institutions – which have been left bereft of their production capabilities and have thus theoretically become the clients of the MTVA – and the MTVA. Moreover, the latter – and with it all public service content production – was exempted from practically any and all forms of societal oversight. Since 2010, those in power have kept the public media under their organised control through the open application of regulatory, statutory and official instruments. Just in case somebody failed to get the point, media managers were placed in key positions who had long ago internalised the principle that as journalists their function was to serve politics. What’s more, they also said so quite openly. The most eloquent expression of this ethos came from the then director of the national news agency MTI, who argued that the public media must be “loyal to the government and fair to the opposition.”

The managers who currently control the public media are without exception persons whose entire understanding of loyalty is informed by the political matrix of government/opposition. The notion that their loyalty should be directed at the audience and taxpayers does not even occur to them. Those are irrelevant, and in fact they are not even entitled to information (cf. the lawsuit between István Böröcz and Átlátszó) on how the several hundred billion forints that they contribute to fund the public media are being spent. (Our calculations suggest that the amount of MTVA’s annual funding corresponds to 22.5% of the total advertising market.)

Yet from general directors and editors-in-chief all the way down to your ordinary reporters – everyone needs to work for their pay. We tip our hat to those who have striven to remain decent professionals even under the prevailing circumstances, who dare to raise the issues of lacking professionalism or ethical blunders in internal discussions, or who leave the public media while voicing public criticisms of these conditions; but the majority nevertheless quietly does what it has been bid to do. They produce content that those in power expect from them, and reduce the public media to a mere propaganda tool, accepting open political influence or even pre-empting its exercise by engaging in self-censorship.

Ever new cases of media manipulation and self-censorship have become the subject of great public attention (self-censorship in an interview with the director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért, TASZ), the Cohn-Bendit scandal, the Lomnici case, the report on the opposition demonstration that pretended there were no demonstrators, the stunningly obsequious interview with former president Pál Schmitt, and the Ángyán and Esterházy cases), but other minor cases of distortions and news manipulations are much more frequent than these would in themselves suggest, as are reports produced pursuant to a political request or which serve as propaganda. What they have in common is that none has triggered a systemic response, there isn’t the slightest bit of contemplation within the organisation as to how we got this far and what would need to be done to change things.

But of course it is far from clear whether change is desired at all.