Hungarian government finds new ways to silence its critics

The government has raided the office of a grant-distributing NGO and rolled out a new tax that seems to target Hungary's largest independent broadcaster.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Members of the new Hungarian government take the oath of office in Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, earlier this month.

A trio of incidents in Hungary are stirring fears that the government is intensifying a clampdown on freedom of expression.

The three situations – a government investigation into Norway's funding of Hungarian civil-society groups; a new tax that appears to target Hungary's largest independent broadcaster; and the dismissal of an online news editor who published a story alleging misconduct by a public official – are independent of each other.

But they are just the latest accusations against newly reelected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government, which has repeatedly been criticized for imposing excessive oversight and controls over the media since returning to power in 2010.

The US mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe added to the critical chorus last week. It called on the Hungarian government to find solutions that "uphold Hungary’s OSCE commitments to freedom of association and freedom of expression, including media freedom."

Norway Grants

The most geopolitically fraught of the three incidents is the investigation into Norway Grants, a 13.5 million euros ($18.3 million) Norwegian program that promotes democracy and human rights in Hungary. 

The government is investigating the role of Ökotárs, an organization that distributes Norwegian grants to nongovernmental organizations, over alleged ties to a small political party, LMP. Earlier this month, authorities raided the organization's offices and seized documents. 

In a written response, the government said these alleged ties justify an examination “to see if there has been any abuse, such as for instance biased decisions with regard to the distribution of funding.”

But the Norwegian government and others say that the investigation is an attempt to control how the funds are allocated. Norwegian Minister of European Union Affairs Vidar Helgesen said in a statement he was "deeply concerned" about Hungarian efforts to limit freedom of expression. Norway's ambassador to Hungary Tove Skarstein says Ökotársmust remain independent and “should not be controlled by the government.”

According to Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs, the organization has no political affiliations. “It never gave money to LMP, never received money from LMP,” she says.

Some of the NGOs that benefitted from the Norwegian funding have have been highly critical of the government. One of them is Atlatszo, an investigative media organization. Tamás Bodoky, an editor at Atlatszo, says that since 2010 the ruling Fidesz party has built up its own network of civil society organizations.

“Our government seems to me very determined that they won’t let anyone stay independent in the country,” he says. “If you are not on their payroll then you are their enemy.”

The government calls this claim “absolutely unfounded." 

Advertising tax

Last week saw Hungary adopt a new tax on advertising revenue of media outlets – though the tax appears tailored to the only large independent media company left in the country. 

The tax applies to advertising revenue above 500 million Hungarian forints ($2.2 million). The tax goes from 1 percent for revenue up to 5 billion forint, up to a maximum of 40 percent for revenue over 20 billion forints ($88.7 million).

The only company in Hungary earning enough to pay the 40 percent rate is broadcaster RTL Klub.

The tax was “tailor made” for RTL, says Péter Kolosi, programming director at RTL Hungary. He told The Christian Science Monitor this move is “an attack against freedom of the press in Hungary” and the company will challenge it in court.

Several print and broadcast media, including some generally pro-government outlets, protested against the tax by airing blackouts on their stations and publishing blank pages in their newspapers.

The aim of the tax, according to the government, is to share the public financial burden. It insists no company is being targeted.

Political pressure?

Meanwhile, the unexpected dismissal of the editor-in-chief of news portal Origo, allegedly for political reasons, has also raised alarms.

Origo reported in late May that the prime minister’s chief of staff, János Lázár, claimed 2 million forints ($8,800) in expenses for work-related trips. Mr. Lázár denied there was anything inappropriate about the expenses but agreed to pay the money back.

One week later, Origo editor Gergő Sáling was let go. About 30 journalists from the website resigned in protest.

Days later, another news portal called 444 reported that, during negotiations for a frequency license, the government, including Lázár, asked Origo’s owner Magyar Telekom (MT), a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, to tone down Origo’s critical coverage. Mr. Sáling was fired because he continued to publish critical reports, according to 444.

The government declined to comment on this issue but both Lázár and MT have denied involvement in Sáling’s dismissal.

Blanka Zöldi, one of the journalists who resigned from Origo, says the official reason given for Sáling’s firing at an editorial meeting was that management wanted to take the website in a different direction.

She and her former colleagues “have our doubts” about this explanation, she says, because they had already experienced “pressure coming from [some] of the politicians and the current political system” regarding their coverage.

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