By Ioannis Koutroudis & Gerzson Kovács
The media play a critical role in consolidating democracy in Europe. However, in recent years, Greece and Hungary are seeing tremendous changes in their media landscapes. Right – wing media and conservative narratives are gaining momentum over liberal media values and freedom of speech. The purpose of this joint article is to present the current media situation both in Greece and Hungary and to address liberal
possibilities with regards to safeguarding democracy and freedom of speech.
Ever since the economic crisis in Greece, media has been under public scrutiny for disseminating xenophobic, racist, and non-liberal views. More than a decade of austerity measures has led to the rise of conservatism. According to a report published by BBC in 2019, Greece’s young voters are turning conservative with the promise for a better and more stable future.
Greece’s mainstream media has played a crucial role in the country’s conservative turn. One big problem with Greek media is the ownership status. Nearly all TV channels, except for the country’s public broadcaster, are owned by businessmen close to the New Democracy government. The same status applies to newspapers, and gradually Internet sites.
Press freedom has suffered substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. In the spring of 2020, the ND government made a highly controversial move, when it decided to sponsor Greece’s private media sector with a 20 million euro grant to promote the “Stay Home” campaign. The campaign was seen as a malign effort to influence private media and align them with the governmental line. This highly ambivalent move is known today as “Petsa’s list”, after the name of Greece’s former governmental spokesman. Investigative media and media critical of the government were either omitted or were given a disproportionately small share of the above- mentioned grant.
Besides the above, in April 2021, an investigative journalist was shot outside his Athens home in broad daylight minutes after his daily news show. This brutal murder shocked the Greek public opinion and was seen as concrete proof of the country’s exacerbating media freedom landscape. Up until today, the police have yet to identify the killers. Moreover, Greek conservative media has been accused of disseminating fake news and disinformation. The situation is particularly intense on the Internet, where right- wing sites are regularly “flooding” social media with misleading or fake articles targeting minorities, foreign nations, and MPs. In 2019, Adonis Georgiadis, now Greece’s Minister of Economy and Industry, told publicly the story of an alleged trip of Greece’s former Prime Minister, Tsipras, to Dubai. The story was circulating the Internet and was widely perceived as another right-wing troll. Investigation into this claim showed that the alleged story was coming from a Twitter-bot account. Later, Georgiadis said that he did not know if the story was true or not. This incident underlines the threat posed by right-wing trolls on the Greek Internet. Similar incidents have been reported in other print and digital media as well.
In the year 2010 when Viktor Orban and Fidesz came into power, we knew that the whole country is going to change. After being in opposition for 8 years, Fidesz was determined to change everything. It is of course understandable that after the 2009 economic crisis, the newly elected government wanted to reverse its predecessor’s restrictionary policies. Little did we know back then that this desperation to abolish the past was going to refer to the situation of the media too. In this short joint essay, I would like to outline how Orban and his oligarchs managed to take over huge media portfolios, how the huge media empire was built. I will of course cover the present media situation in Hungary, and what we, liberals can do to tackle it, but first let’s ive into the hows.
Orban’s big work under construction
Prior to the 2010 general elections it was widely believed among the Hungarian right- leaning thinkers and writers that the media situation is imbalanced. According to articles written by those who backed Fidesz in 2010, the proportion of right-leaning publishers and news outlets was around 30%. Many of them called for a rate similar to the support of Fidesz (which turned out to be over 60% in 2010). It was obvious that Orban was put under huge pressure to somehow change media situation, and after
ascending to prime minister in 2010, he got to work. Fidesz started by the easiest and most obvious take which was the Hungarian public service media products. In Hungary there are many of these: The official, national news agency (MTI), the eight TV-channels (One of them being the most viewed channel in the country) and five radio stations. These are together called „public media”.
After 2010 the key figures were swiftly sent away from these media outlets and new executives were appointed to the leading positions of these channels, some of them having very close ties to Orban or Fidesz. Dániel Papp-a former journalist-has been convicted for spreading fake news, but this of course did not stop Orban from nominating him to the CEO of the flagship of the public media channels, M1. As the key figures changed, the programmes did too. I believe that a recent event in M1’s news on the 8th April, 2021 shows exactly the niveau of the public media. In the coverage of a press conference
the following headline appeared: „The journalist provocated with questions”. After 2010 many new right-leaning publishers appeared and started gaining surprising ammounts of money from governmental funding. Independent outlets were denied governmental advertisements (once a huge source of income for these outlets), many of them had to shut down. Those that were able to operate were approached by oligarchs, and after some „persuading” many owners sold their media products to them, only to get shut down months later. Independent radio stations were denied frequency access by the National Media Agency. In most cases, the NMA cited violations, for example in the recent case of KlubRadio a small fine received years ago was the reason to shut down the station. To „balancet he media situations” Orban
abused his political power and used maffia methods to silence free press and build up his media empire.
What is the current situation?
It is difficult to quantify how many right-leaning news outlets there are, as many of them characterise themselves as „independent”. What is sure is that the regional newspapers (Hungary has 19 official regions) were all bought by an oligarch and are now spreading propaganda. Both the European Council and the European Federation of Journalist condemned the crackdown on free speech and independent media agencies. Orban’s actions in the media industry contributed to a dropping in the
Freedom House list that now describes Hungary as „partially free”.
Conclusion – What can liberals do?
These obvious violations of human rights, and the repression of dissent upset many liberal politicians and thinkers in Hungary. The media situation here in Hungary has to be changed, but not with abuse of power, as in that case we would not differ from Fidesz. Those who are responsible for the tragical media situation in Hungary should be held responsible, a future liberal government has to show that actions like Orban’s are not tolerated in Hungary. Retaliation is not the key, but accountability is. When it
comes to the changing of the media situation, the key to that is lifting the advertisement bans off of the free media outlets, stopping the repression and letting everyone freely express their thoughts. These actions can only be taken by a government, and until liberals become a governing power, there is not much latitude for us: We have to (financially) support the free media and keep the fate that better days will come.
With regards to Greece, the above – mentioned incidents are just some of the many that have provoked wide public discussions about the independence and role of Greece’s mass media. Countering conservative narratives is not an easy thing in Greece where conservative politics dominate since the fall of the military Junta in the mid-1970s.
Aristotle University, one of Greece’s leading institutions, has pointed out the importance of media literacy and fact-checking programs. NGOs, universities, and fact-checking organizations are encouraged to continue their programs and expand their initiatives to other fields as well. Most importantly, fact-checking is seen as a vital step to countering conservative narratives. Thus, Greek citizens will have access to verified information and credible news.
Furthermore, liberal organizations should underline the importance of freedom of speech and protection of journalists. Accordingly, the country’s media landscape should promote healthy dialogue among all communities and every citizen is encouraged to participate in public debates and discussions. Only in this way, democracy and freedom of speech will be safely guaranteed.