Media market reviews tend to focus on analysing the national markets, while they often consider local markets to play a marginal role. The result is that the latter are often glossed over. Recent years have seen new expert discussions in Hungary that focus on a better understanding of the state of local discourse. This increased attention is likely connected to the increasing polarisation in Hungarian society and the geographical pattern of the election results. These discussions revealed that local markets are in a far worse state than the national market – which was a low bar to clear. All the problems that we tend to talk about in the context of media freedom in Hungary are amplified at the local level.
We need to devote far more energy than previously to surveying the situation of local media markets, gauging the scope of political interventions, and the features that shape the supply and the expectations of residents vis-à-vis local media. Mérték Media Monitor will definitely invest work and resources into this area in the coming year, and we have recently completed our first initial survey on the subject.
The Visegrad Fund has supported the research project that looked at the state of local markets in the four Visegrad countries, with a special focus on municipal media. It is hardly surprising that the problems we observed tended to be similar across the board: the financial viability of local media is often in jeopardy, and so-called news deserts – often mentioned these days – appear to be cropping up in a growing number of places. The project also looked at commercial local and regional media, as well as small independent players that are important in local media landscapes. However, these were not focal issues in the underlying report.
A typical feature of the media system in Hungary is that at the local and regional levels, the media selection is politically one-sided and uniform. Municipal media can of course act as vital platforms for debating local issues, but the risk of political influence on the relevant media outlets is especially pronounced in these situations. There are no institutional safeguards for objective coverage. In practice, it is up to the personal preferences of municipal leaders and the professionalism of those appointed to manage the local media whether the municipal newspapers genuinely serve the entire public or instead serve particular political interests.
Our analyses of the contents disseminated by three municipal newspapers have shown that very different practices have taken hold. We have examples of both, newspapers that strive for balanced coverage and newspapers that exhibit massive bias. That is why we have formulated our own policy proposals to govern the operations of municipal media. We are fully aware that at this point the political will to implement these comprehensively or even widely is simply lacking. Nevertheless, it is worth launching expert debates about this issue because we will need them sooner or later.
The English-language report on the four countries surveyed in the study can be accessed here.
The project was supported by the Visegrad Fund.