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article imageHungary media shake-up fuels new press control fears

By AFP     Nov 30, 2018 in World

A sudden centralisation of pro-government media in Hungary fuelled fresh concerns Friday of increasing control by Prime Minister Viktor Orban over the sector.

Ownership of ten publishers comprising an estimated 500 media outlets including newspapers, websites, television and radio stations was transferred this week to a holding company headed by a loyal ally of Orban.

The aim of the conglomerate, named the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF), is to develop "public discourse based on national values", said a statement by the foundation Wednesday.

The move is the latest upheaval in Hungarian media that has been transformed since Orban came into power in 2010.

The firebrand nationalist has turned the country's public media into a government propaganda organ while his allies have steadily bought up swathes of the private media sector, benefiting from lucrative state advertising revenue, critics say.

The deal merges those private companies under one umbrella group where they can come under "complete central control," according to Gabor Polyak, an analyst with Mertek Media Monitor.

"Such a concentration of media power in the hands of one entity is unprecedented in an EU member," Polyak told AFP Friday.

"To do this so openly is a message to both Hungarians and Europe, that the government believes it can get away with anything," he said.

Prior to the move the outlets had been owned by a raft of government-linked figures like Orban's hometown friend Lorinc Meszaros, secretive advisor Arpad Habony, and Austrian businessman Heinrich Pecina.

Now, the conglomerate of "donated" companies, to be run on a "non-profit" basis according to CEPMF, will be headed by Gabor Liszkay, a publisher with a reputation for loyalty to Orban.

"The holding company symbolises right-wing unity, while the left-wing is falling apart," said a triumphant statement by Origo.hu, one of the websites in question, after the announcement.

Origo’s transformation began in 2014 when the then-editor was sacked soon after the site published an expose alleging extravagant travel expenses by a government minister.

That prompted a mass walkout by staff who suspected political interference. The site’s German owner Deutsche Telekom quickly offloaded the site to a media firm linked to Fidesz.

With the arrival of a new editorial team in 2016, Origo’s content has openly lurched in a pro-government direction.

Since then its front pages have been dominated by hit pieces on Orban’s favourite targets: opposition parties, migrants and the Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros.

Hungary's competition authority must decide within a week if the transactions necessitate an anti-trust probe but will likely rely on the judgement of the media regulator NMHH, a body seen by critics as biased toward pro-government media.

Set up in 2010 as part of Orban's first overhaul of media structures, the NMHH last year blocked a deal between Germany's RTL Klub and the owner of an independent news-site as it would "threaten citizens' rights to a diversity of information sources".

But since the CEPMF announcement, the only statement the regulator has issued has been a criticism of bad behaviour by participants on a reality TV show.

According to investigative journalist Tamas Bodoky who runs the Atlatszo.hu investigative site, the latest media swoop "makes the state capture of Hungarian media more visible and transparent".

"Before we had to explain how different privately-owned media outlets controlled by the government are working together to praise it and discredit its critics like opposition politicians, NGOs and even journalists," said Bodoky.

The reorganisation comes days after a survey by the Median firm and Mertek showed that 73 percent of Hungarians thought that Fidesz had a dominating influence over media.

The lopsided media landscape and "restricted" access to information in Hungary was cited by OSCE election observers as part of an "adverse climate" that helped Orban win a third consecutive term as premier in April.

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