Taking a page from Putin's book, Hungary's Orbán muffles his critics

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán openly admires the 'illiberal' models of Russia and China. Critics say his Fidesz party is using Putin-like tactics to cut the funding of newspapers and NGOs that conflict with the Orbán government.

Laszlo Balogh/Reuters
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech at an event of his ruling Fidesz party to celebrate the results of recent local government elections in Budapest, Hungary, on Oct. 19. The sign reads 'Trust Fidesz!'

It’s the start of another week at Népszava, one of the oldest daily newspapers in Hungary.

But once again, the editor-in-chief isn't in the newsroom. He's not out gathering news, but instead desperately searching for new investors and potential advertisers for the paper which this summer was on the brink of collapse.

“Our editor-in-chief is very busy these days, he’s looking for supporters,” says Deputy Editor György Sebes, explaining his colleague’s absence. “He tries to get some money, [while] we are making the newspaper.”

Since 2010, government advertising, an important source of money for newspapers, have been directed overwhelmingly to right-wing outlets that provide favorable coverage for the ruling conservative Fidesz party, which was re-elected in April.

It is just one of the ways that critics say Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Fidesz are using tactics from Vladimir Putin's playbook – with open admiration for the Russian president's model of governing – to consolidate power and shut down opponents' voices in the public sphere.

“The feature which the Russian government and maybe the current Hungarian government share is some type of an inherent mistrust of grassroot activities,” says Viacheslav Morozov, professor of EU-Russia studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. “There is this idea that politics is about manipulation [fundamentally], it’s not about people taking the initiative, people discussing things in a free way and coming up with proposals.”

In the past four years, Mr. Orbán's government has tightened control over the media and cracked down on the civil society, drawing comparisons with Russia and straining ties with Western governments.

Orbán has strengthened relations with Moscow, criticized the European Union’s sanctions on Russia, and expressed support for autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in neighboring Ukraine.

Indeed, Orbán has said he plans to turn Hungary into an “illiberal” state in the model of Russia, China, and Turkey, which he has described as successful nations.

Relations with the United States in particular have grown tense. In September, US President Barack Obama publicly called out Hungary, as well as Russia, China, and Egypt, for “endless regulations and overt intimidation” targeting civil society in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Pressure on the press

Journalists working at Népszava, a left-wing daily linked to the Socialist party, say they are feeling the brunt of Fidesz' pressure on its opponents.

Népszava and the country's other major leftist paper, Népszabadság, received almost $500,000 total in state advertising funds between January 2013 and June 2014, according to Népszava. By comparison, two right-wing papers, Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, received over $6 million, despite having lower combined circulation numbers.

Under previous governments, public advertisements were much more equally distributed, says Mr. Sebes, the Népszava deputy editor. He adds that private companies are also hesitant to buy advertising space in Népszava, fearing they may be seen as loyal to the opposition and lose government contracts as a result.

The pressure has taken its toll on the paper. In the last four years, Népszava has lost 20 reporters. Nine were let go because of financial pressures and 11 left voluntarily. In June, the paper said its Swiss owner was pulling out and it needed to raise up to $62,000 more per month to survive; the Socialist party has also stopped funding the paper.

Zoltán Kovács, a spokesperson for the government, denies any political motivation in the allocation of advertisements. He says public funds have “nothing to do with freedom of the press” and decisions on where to advertise is based on an “advertising strategy that’s been set up by [an] agency, not the government.”

Hard times for NGOs

The pressure on news organizations comes in concert with heightened scrutiny of Hungarian nongovernmental organizations by the government, which critics say resemble Russia's increasingly strict controls. Under a law passed in 2012, Russian authorities have the power to label NGOs that receive foreign funding and are deemed to be politically active as “foreign agents.”

Orbán has begun to use similar language: In July he called members of the NGOs under investigation “paid political activists” and accused them of promoting “foreign interests.”

Last week, authorities announced that their investigation into Ökotárs, an NGO, had found “mismanagement” and “irregularities” in its allocation of funds from a grant program financed mainly by Norway. The government investigators said they intend to file a criminal report against the organization.

The director of Ökotárs says the findings provided “no facts or data” supporting these conclusions.

Like Hungary's opposition media, the NGOs under investigation are under financial pressure. Krétakör, a theater group under investigation and which has refused to cooperate with authorities, has seen its state funding dramatically decreased from about $382,000 in 2009 to $23,000 in 2013. The group has not received any public money this year.

Krétakör Managing Director Márton Gulyás says the goal of the investigation is to intimidate NGOs and present them as “corrupted organizations.”

But Mr. Kovács says the criticism – particularly Mr. Obama's lumping Hungary together with Russia, China, and Egypt – is “completely unfounded."

“We have over 80,000 civil organizations who are in this country,” he says. “We are talking about about a dozen who are under investigation so any kind of comparison or suggestion that is trying to say that Hungarian civil society is under attack in this country is just absurd.”

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