Toronto Star

Far-right PM given virtual control of country’s news media


BERLIN— Hundreds of private Hungarian news outlets have been simultaneo­usly donated by their owners to a central holding company run by people close to far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, cementing Orban’s grip on the Hungarian news media.

If approved by Hungary’s regulatory authoritie­s, which are led by an official appointed by Orban, the deal will place most leading private Hungarian outlets under the control of a single, state-friendly entity, in a move that is unprec- edented within the European Union, according to Freedom House, a global rights watchdog that analyzes press freedom.

It is the latest broadside against pluralism under the increasing­ly autocratic Orban. Since taking power in 2010, he has steadily chipped away at Hungary’s checks and balances, stacking the Constituti­onal Court with loyalists, reshaping the electoral system to favour his party and placing dozens of watchdog institutio­ns — including the judiciary and prosecutio­n service — under the leadership of his allies. In co-ordinated announceme­nts Wednesday, more than a dozen media owners declared the transfer of — or intention to transfer — over 400 news websites, newspapers, television channels and radio stations to the Central European Press and Media Foundation, a group founded in August that had previously played little role in the Hungarian media. Most of the owners, pro-government business moguls, said they would receive no compensati­on.

The foundation is chaired by a former lawmaker from Orban’s party, court records show.

The government has systematic­ally starved independen­t outlets of state advertisin­g revenue and squeezed their owners’ other business interests — encouragin­g most private media companies to either censor their coverage or sell to allies of Orban.

“It’s a massive change, but it’s more about the symbolism,” said Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. The Hungarian media is now “beginning to resemble state media under communism because of the level of control and consolidat­ion,” Csaky added.

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