Press Freedom: Not a matter of legal interpretation

Published in Hungarian on 14th May 2015
By: Gábor Polyák

According to Freedom House, the state of press freedom in Hungary has deteriorated further in 2014. We agree. By Gábor Polyák

András Koltay, a member of the Media Council and spiritual father of the controversial Hungarian media laws, went on the MTVA-financed blog Médiahorizont to complain that Freedom House doesn’t understand why it constitutes a violation of the law to refer to Jobbik as far-right in a news show. You know what, András? You’re right! They really made a mistake there. In fact, there were numerous mistakes in the foreign critiques of the media laws. If we take a closer look, the current analysis also errs in your favour: As far as Freedom House is aware, both print and online media have been removed from the Media Council’s scope of jurisdiction. We can even agree that Freedom House is not without flaws in terms of its methodology. But does that change anything?

Freedom House’s mistake in Hungary is not one of misinterpreting the laws. That is not why we went from a free country in Freedom House’s classification system to one that is only semi-free; that is not why we are on par with countries such as Mongolia and Mali in terms of our free press ranking; and that is not why we have fallen behind the other Visegrád countries. True enough, the trends are deteriorating in the other Visegrád countries as well, they are all struggling with their own oligarchs. And we are still not last in the EU; Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Greece are behind us in terms of their press freedom ranking.


But if we look at the Hungarian situation, then 2014 was a strong year. The editor-in-chief of, Gergő Sáling, was forced out for fostering too intense investigative reporting in his newsroom, while the owner of’s owner, Deutsche Telekom, did not even take notice. The advertising tax was adopted, RTL Klub became angry unfortunately only after the election campaign. Protests against the internet tax idea brought masses into the streets. We had the opportunity to test campaign regulations in a live setting, and they lived up to their promise, vastly tilting the playing field towards the governing parties. TV2 was looking for its place between Simicska and Vajna. Then Simicska left, too, or maybe it would be better to say he was sent off, while Habony recognised his inner media mogul. The National Communication Office was established so that it could proceed to redistribute state advertising spending. The amendment of the state media regulations was adopted, paving the way for the happiest March 15th celebrations thus far. Klubradio lost its last rural frequency. The Funke Gruppe and Sanoma abandoned their last stakes in the Hungarian media, slightly behind Chellomedia and slightly ahead of the Modern Times Group. Journalists say the political and economic pressure they face has increased further, and every fifth journalist admits to engaging in self-censorship. Moreover, Freedom House interpreted the past year as part of the process that began in 2010, and this context renders the picture all the more sad. 

Unfortunately, since 2010 the prevailing level of press freedom has not depended on whether vague provisions of the law are correctly interpreted or not. I am anything but pleased about this situation; I am a lawyer after all, and up until 2010 interpreting vague provisions was exactly what I did.  Yet for the illiberal state the law is at best an instrument for the momentary enforcement of a particular political will. And this will be the role assigned to anyone who accepts any decision-making position in the implementation of these pseudo-laws. 

The media market and the public sphere are both victims of a political vision that eschews debate and favours pronouncements and self-presentation instead. 2014 was another turning point. The decision to set the Simicska empire aside and the building of a new media empire whatever its ultimate outcome rendered it obvious to everyone that today the media market is in such a fragile state that it can be completely restructured within the span of a week if a corresponding political order is issued. Sustainable business models cannot be based exclusively on political friendships or on revenue derived from the state. 

But there was also another interesting lesson of 2014. RTL Klub’s own particular battle for the channel’s freedom and the demonstrations against the internet tax ended up showing that the public does have some power, and the governing parties, which are accustomed to the instant submission of their subjects, were caught off guard. This episode revealed that they can be forced to retreat when they run into genuine opposition. From this angle, Freedom House’s evaluation also allows for a positive interpretation: half of Hungarian media are free.