The American Interest: Social media myopia

May 2018

After nearly 80 years, Magyar Nemzet, Hungary’s last independent national daily, closed April 11. “It was so abrupt,” says Szabolcs Toth, a former deputy editor-in-chief and columnist. “I only learned about it from the website.”

Sudden as it was, the timing—just three days after Viktor Orban’s re-election with a constitutional supermajority—was less of a surprise.

Shuttering this moderately conservative paper was but the latest step in Orban’s slow march to consolidate control of Hungarian mass media. In 2016, allies of Orban’s Fidesz party bought and then promptly shut down Magyar Nemzet’sleft-leaning rival Népszabadság. Scores of outlets have declared bankruptcy in recent years, andothers were brought to heel by owners who opted for the path of least resistance—collaboration with Fidesz. 

Still, Magyar Nemzet’s case was unique. Owned by mogul Lajos Simicska, Orban’s childhood friend-turned-critic, the newspaper had earned special treatment. The government had exerted pressured for at least two years by indirectly subsidizing competitors with state advertising while hindering Magyar Nemzet’s political coverage—by denying its reporters access to government officialsToth watched as pro-government publishers, and their healthier finances, lured away career journalists.

“[Fidesz] regarded us as traitors, which was more dangerous than an opponent,” he says. “They tried to ruin us. Sometimes I ask myself if it was right to ask people to stay.”

Before all this, upon taking office in 2010, Orban purged state television and radio of independent thinkers and restocked the ranks with lackeys. “The public broadcasters are now similar to how they were in the 1960s, so primitive and such low quality, opposition parties have zero chance to present their views,” Toth says. Except for a handful of websites and the magazine HVG, nearly all Hungary’s big news media are now either owned by Fidesz loyalists or state-run. This was a major factor in the OSCE’s assessment that the April elections took place in an atmosphere of rampant “media bias,” in which Fidesz campaign tactics “limited space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice.” 

The Orban playbook has worked well enough that, after its 2015 election victory, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) charted what party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called a “Budapest in Warsaw” approach to governing. In the media realm, this meant converting public television and radio into propaganda mills, restricting reporter accreditations to parliament and (again) funneling state advertising largesse toward friendly outlets. Thus far, Polish private media, aided by a market that is four times larger than Hungary’s, is still robust, but it’s not for lack of trying by the government. Former Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has accused the press of colluding with the rival center-right Civic Platform party on a “leftist program” to create a country “of cyclists and vegetarians,” and…