The re-election rout for Hungary's governing party, Fidesz, brought few surprises: With broad popular support, and a scattered opposition, the party coasted to a second term. Unsurprisingly, the government's victory in the April 6 polls was met with widespread domestic and international criticism and concerns over slanted media coverage and restrictive campaign rules that analysts say stifled opposition voices and tilted the political playing field in the government's favour.
The controversy highlights concerns over sweeping legislative reforms - including new media laws, a new constitution, and a new election law - passed by Fidesz since it come to power in 2010. Critics warned early on that these measures would give the government excessive control over the media and thwart the democratic process in Hungary.
At a press conference in Budapest on April 7, the OSCE election delegation told international reporters that these changes have weakened the "checks and balances" system in Hungary and created an "undue advantage" for Fidesz at the polls. The delegation specifically cited "restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the state".
The change in the media's role and presence in this election cycle was demonstrable compared to previous election years when the media flurry around parliamentary campaigns would reach a fevered pitch. There were no televised debates after Fidesz dismissed invitations by opposition candidates. Restrictions on political advertising meant candidates were given no airtime on commercial TV, and just a few minutes of airtime on public TV during the course of the campaign.
|Listening Post - Feature: Hungary's media battle
OSCE delegates also noted a dominance of pro-government campaign coverage in the broadcast media. The organisation's monitoring of TV coverage since mid-March showed that three out of five monitored TV stations displayed a "significant bias towards Fidesz by covering nearly all of its campaign in a positive tone while more than half the coverage of the opposition alliance was in a negative tone".
The OSCE's findings corroborate growing evidence of the government's increasingly tight grip over broadcast media since Fidesz came to power in 2010. According to the Hungarian Media Council's monitoring data, between 2011 and 2013, government officials and Fidesz MPs were allotted roughly 70 percent of airtime by the country's top public and private TV news programmes.
This trend reflects the intense political and economic pressures on Hungarian media outlets since the government's new media laws came into effect in early 2011. Uncertainties over new regulations, and the possibility of fines or sanctions by a politically-appointed media regulator, combined with a dramatic shift in government advertising to friendly outlets, have worked to tame government criticism and generate pro-government coverage, particularly among commercial broadcasters.
There are notable exceptions: The left-leaning ATV, a private national TV station owned by a consortium of Christian foundations, is openly critical of government and Jobbik Party's policies - which also means the station frequently comes under fire from Hungary's media regulator and right-wing politicians. In 2013, the Media Council issued ATV a warning for describing Jobbik as "far right" during the station's coverage of a Jobbik MP who called for a list of Jews in Hungary because they pose risks to national security.
A right-wing media empire?
Pressures on private broadcasters have coincided with the government's overhaul of the country's public media system, which was brought under the management of a new Fidesz-appointed body in 2011. More than 1,000 employees were laid off, and left-leaning editors and reporters were replaced with government-friendly journalists. The public media, which has since been heavily criticised for its pro-government bias, has been embroiled in numerous controversies over reports of censorship, manipulation of news, and funnelling public funds and production contracts to government-friendly companies.
PM Viktor Orban has emerged as one of Europe's most agile political strategists, adept at placating Brussels with meagre reforms, while bellowing anti-EU rhetoric to bolster support at home.
Critics and opposition politicians now warn of a growing "right-wing media empire", pointing to the rise in government-linked media moguls steadily gaining holdings and new licences across the national and local TV and radio markets. Most recently, in December 2013, one of the country's top national commercial TV stations, TV2, was sold by German media conglomerate ProSiebenSat 1 to Fidesz associates - sparking an outcry from the opposition. The station was reprimanded by Hungary's Constitutional Court in March for illegally broadcasting Fidesz campaign ads in violation of the rules on paid broadcast campaign advertising.
With broadcast media under the government's boot, the bulk of critical and investigative media coverage in Hungary comes from left-leaning print and online outlets. A new crop of online investigative reporting sites, like atlatszo.hu and 444.hu, regularly break stories about government corruption and private deals between government and business elites. Yet these stories rarely are picked up by mainstream broadcast media - which reflects a growing polarisation of the media culture in Hungary around pro-government and "opposition" camps.
But these camps are not evenly matched: The dominance of pro-government media over broadcasting, the primary source of news and information for Hungarians, gives Fidesz a clear advantage in connecting with the public - and with voters - and in controlling not only its own message, but also those of the opposition as well.
This was especially evident in the recent campaign cycle, as limits on political advertising, combined with the dominance of pro-government media coverage, drastically restricted political debate, public discussion and the availability of information on opposition policies and candidates. The result was an eerily muted, heavily regulated campaign cycle - and an uneven political contest that analysts and the opposition have labelled as "free but not fair".
Shrugging off critics, government officials are hailing the victory as an affirmation of the electorate's support for its policies, and a signal of the party's renewed mandate to expedite more legislative reforms. Given Hungary's successful track record at weathering controversy, it is unlikely that this latest wave of criticism will shake the government's resolve. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has emerged as one of Europe's most agile political strategists, adept at placating Brussels with meagre reforms, while bellowing anti-EU rhetoric to bolster support at home.
The more critical question is whether Hungary has carved out a new standard of "free but not fair" elections that other EU-member countries might follow - and the broader impact this could have in generating further democratic backsliding across the EU.
Amy Brouillette is the Director of the European Media Project at the Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS), the School of Public Policy, at Central European University in Budapest. She currently leads the center's research and projects on European and Hungarian media policy. She was the lead researcher and editor of Hungarian Media Laws in Europe. Her views do not represent those of the Central European University.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.