On Sunday, Hungarian voters handed the governing right-wing Fidesz-KDNP alliance a landslide win and Prime Minister Viktor Orban his fourth consecutive term in office.
Some Western commentators suggest that the contest wasnt really free. They blame the conservative governments alleged control of the media. But far from being controlled by the government, the media market has grown and diversified since Orban took power. Progressives and liberals are free to express their opinions but without a complete, Soviet-style monopoly of ideas; social traditionalists, Christian Democrats, and champions of national sovereignty also have a voice, though they often dont enjoy a dominant position.
Conservative opinions are simply free to compete with liberal narratives, which may look like "government control of the media" to Western commentators who are used to silencing noncompliant voices on the Right. "Free media" likely means liberal-only media to them.
Not in Hungary.
Still, the international establishment never tires of warning that Hungarian media are under assault. To make it official, Freedom House downgraded Hungary to "partly free," though recently leaked documents showed former director of the Soros Foundation Andrej Nosko admitting that the ranking is part of a coordinated campaign against the "illiberal" Hungary and Poland. What, then, is the media market in Hungary, a country of 10 million?
According to media research, 6.8 million Hungarians turn to conservative outlets for information, 6.7 million to liberal sources, with 6 million reading both. Most major media companies across the political spectrum are profitable. It wasnt always this way. When Orban and his conservative government came to power in 2010, there were 33 left-liberal media outlets, mostly foreign-owned. Now, there are 43, mostly Hungarian-owned. There are also five new, right-leaning, anti-Orban outlets. Together, they represent 45% growth of the anti-government, politically relevant media on Orbans watch.
Is that what a government takeover of the media looks like?
All top media outlets are liberal. Out of 29 left-wing and 11 conservative online news portals, three liberal outlets 24.hu, Telex, 444 consistently rank highest in readership. There are three conservative and two liberal TV stations. As elsewhere in Europe, there is a major state-owned Hungarian television network, the MTVA ("Royal TV"), run by government appointees. The left-leaning RTL Klub TV attracts the most viewers. In radio news, five stations lean conservative, four are liberal, and one centrist. In print, there are five conservative and three liberal dailies on offer left-leaning Blikk and Nepszava have the highest readership. Among the weeklies, out of four conservative and six liberal titles, anti-government HVG and Magyar Narancs enjoy the biggest audience.
Despite the Hungarian media markets dynamic growth over the last 12 years, there have been losers, too. Before 2010, the ownership was predominantly foreign, mostly German. Following a flurry of domestic acquisitions, media companies are now 95% Hungarian-owned, although the 5% remaining in foreign hands represent one-third of the market by income and profit.
Ironically, the government-takeover-of-the-media narrative comes not from the oppressed Hungarians, but from foreign-owned outlets whose control over Hungarys media market was successfully challenged by local players after Orbans Fidesz came to power.
The result? In Hungary, you can criticize migration, Islam, or the LGBT-movement; you can question liberal pieties. And/or you can openly and loudly oppose the conservative government.
Far from taking over the media, the conservative government has liberalized media laws and helped create a more diverse news market. There are more choices. As Hungarians vote, their media landscape reflects the diversity of opinion that the West used to have when it was still a beacon of freedom, before political correctness and cancel culture destroyed the marketplace of ideas. After 44 years of communism, thats not the path we Hungarians want to follow.
Gergely Szilvay is a Hungarian journalist at Mandiner based in Budapest.
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