The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hungary and Serbia have found new ways to smother the media

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to the media in Budapest on May 26. (Szilard Koszticsak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Zselyke Csaky is the research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House.

In April 2018, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party won their third parliamentary supermajority, securing 49 percent of the vote and trouncing the fragmented opposition. A year earlier, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won an outright victory in his bid for the presidency, taking 55 percent of the vote and preempting the need for a presidential runoff for the first time in Serbia’s history.

Orban and Vucic have both moved to dismantle institutional checks and balances and centralize power in their own hands; they have also benefited from European Union support and ineffectual domestic opposition. But it is their domination of the media that has underwritten their success.

Over the past few years, illiberal leaders have developed new techniques for controlling and co-opting the media to maintain their hold on power. They no longer resort to tactics such as censorship, force or outright intimidation of journalists. Instead, they harness institutional weaknesses and market conditions to limit the reach of independent media and amplify voices that support the government. Once successful co-optation has taken place, media are incorporated into the system as building blocks that prop up those in power.

Hungary offers the best example of how this works. And though Vucic and his allies have yet to consolidate control over Serbia’s media, they are following in Orban’s footsteps. The techniques used by both countries to control the media are detailed in Freedom House’s latest “Freedom and the Media” report, which analyzes global trends and was released Wednesday.

Financial and economic pressures are central to the new approach. Hungary’s Fidesz has perfected the use and abuse of market forces to take over media and extend its political power. At the end of 2018, government-friendly business executives offered their holdings, for free, to a pro-government media conglomerate uniting more than 400 media products. The degree of ownership consolidation seen in Hungary has yet to take hold in Serbia. A recent privatization drive, however, handed several outlets to owners friendly with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

Illiberal leaders can also manipulate media law to get their way. Hungary’s media authority, stacked with Fidesz loyalists, has used its powers to selectively refuse licenses to independent or opposition-leaning outlets. Since 2018, only government-affiliated radio stations have been operating on the country’s national radio market, in no small part because of this practice. Serbia has also undermined press freedom through politicized manipulation of the law. Though Serbian media regulators do not display overt hostility, they lack the capacity and, arguably, the political will to properly implement the country’s laws.

Threats are becoming the new normal for many journalists. Yet neither Hungary under Orban nor Serbia under Vucic has witnessed the use of state force against journalists. Instead, political leaders signal that hostility toward journalists is permissible, contributing to an atmosphere of fear and impunity. In this respect, Serbia’s media environment is much tougher on journalists than Hungary’s. Smears and verbal harassment, as well as harsh attacks by government-friendly tabloids, are a regular occurrence.

In addition to political and economic pressures, both Orban and Vucic have also made skillful use of friendly media. Hungary’s pro-government media have benefited from lucrative advertising deals. In 2018, state ad spending was five times higher than about a decade earlier, with a whopping 85 percent of contracts awarded to government-friendly companies. The weekly Figyelo, which published in 2018 a list of government critics that it dismissed as “mercenaries” of the Hungarian American billionaire George Soros, has increased its income from state advertising tenfold since its takeover in 2016.

Finally, creating a loyal media empire is not enough; the outlets have to be put to use in a strategic way. The leaders of Hungary and Serbia are masters of constructing a new, grand narrative. Ahead of the 2018 local elections in Serbia, Vucic, the SNS and the government received four times more airtime than did the remaining 23 electoral lists combined. In Hungary, the government and pro-government media have turned into a major source of parallel reality. Employees of the public broadcaster receive instructions directly from the prime minister’s offices and instruct pro-government experts on what to say.

But it is not just Hungary and Serbia where media co-optation by crafty political actors can threaten democracy. Globally, the media is suffering from a crisis of trust and a crisis of the old business model. These illiberal tactics work because they slowly discourage independent reporting, funnel limitless resources into a loyal media juggernaut and make sure journalists know their place in the new system. This makes the media in many countries vulnerable — and, by extension, threatens the very basis of democracy.

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