Hungary's media war raises eyebrows in West

Critics accuse the government of trying to gain media control, as a newly merged daily hits the stands.

It's not what you would expect from one of Central Europe's top post-communist reformers.

A media war has erupted in Hungary over what critics see as a government bid to gain greater control over public service and print news outlets, prompting rare criticism from the European Union, the US, and independent media groups.

The issue is threatening to become another bump in the country's long path to EU membership.

Gbor Lambert knows about the media war firsthand. Until earlier this month, he was a reporter at Magyar Nemzet, Hungary's oldest newspaper. He quit, however, when it was sold for $3,700 by the state privatization agency to a publishing house with ties to the center-right government.

Government officials justified the low price, pointing out that the paper was heavily in debt and had a circulation of just 40,000 after years of decline. But critics were furious that no public tender was held for purchase.

"I have more than a suspicion that this decision was made on political levels," says Mr. Lambert. "The government has said that it believes the press is made up of liberals and socialists ... that's why they have started this media war against them."

The publishing house has merged the paper with a right-wing daily, Napi Magyarorszg. The first edition hit newsstands on Monday. With a print run of 110,000, it has jumped to the second-largest circulation for a morning political daily in Hungary.

Gbor Liszkay, the paper's director and editor in chief, told the BBC that the merger was "primarily because of economic considerations."

Still, half the staff of Magyar Nemzet journalists have been fired in what critics call a political vetting.

The Magyar Nemzet move was not the first volley in the media war. Analysts say Hungary's right-wing, liberal, and Socialist political parties have been battling for control over the media through most of the country's decade-long post-communist transition. The conflict seems especially acute now, however.

"The government doesn't seem to understand that it's the press's job to supervise and criticize the people in power," says Mria Vsrhelyi, an analyst with the Openness Club, an independent media watchdog in Hungary. "They seem to view any criticism as an unjustifiable attack and become personally injured."

The current conflict began soon after the Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Party ruling coalition took power in July 1998, declaring that the media "was doing the opposition's job."

In its most controversial move to date, the Fidesz-dominated Parliament last year elected a special board to supervise Hungarian television, which contains only pro-government nominees. By law, the board is supposed to have an equal number of candidates nominated by the government and the opposition. Officials contend that the opposition was incapable of putting forward consensus candidates, as required.

The panel chooses the president of the Hungarian television, who in turn hires and fires TV staff. Now, Ms. Vsrhelyi says, almost the entire leadership has left or been dismissed, to be replaced by government sympathizers.

Earlier this year, the government elected similarly favorable boards to the public Duna Television and Hungarian Radio. Opposition Socialists have turned to the Constitutional Court to have the boards annulled.

The European Union and US ambassadors in Hungary are weighing in with rare criticism of the government.

"The public media can't be credible as long as it is not considered credible, as long as there isn't a balanced and objective supervision above it," EU Ambassador to Budapest Michael Lake said in a March interview. The EU is expected to pay close attention to the media battle in its next annual report on Hungary, a fast-track candidate for EU membership.

A tender for local radio stations also ended in what was seen as a right-wing sweep, with Hungary's National Radio and Television Board, another media board made up of political appointees, overwhelmingly favoring bidders with ties to Hungary's right. Well-known liberal and international bidders, such as a consortium of the BBC, Radio France, and Germany's Deutsche Welle were left out in the cold.

"If you want to look at this from a political democratization perspective, this simply underscores the fact that Hungary was never really as good a democracy as the Hungarian public-relations machine liked to depict," says Ben Flay, an analyst at PlanEcon, an economics research institute in Washington.

Fortunately, Hungary's politics don't seem to affect the performance of its economy, which is among the strongest in Central Europe. Foreign investors have pumped more than $20 billion into the country in the past decade, and growth remains twice the EU average.

Ironically, the media flap may be good for democracy, some analysts say. Fidesz is lagging in opinion polls after giving opposition parties excellent ammunition.

Even though the public-service media has its problems, with two independent private TV stations and five daily papers, Hungary still can claim a free press.

"It would be a disaster if Hungarian public television were the only source of information, but fortunately it is not," says Sndor Orbn, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Budapest. "The situation is bad, but it is not tragic."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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