Ethics and editorial control are in the news again in Hungary where journalists who have been fighting interference by the right-wing FIDESZ government over the past year now face political threats from the left.
Press freedom groups, journalists and media owners are angry at an attempt by the Hungarian Socialist Party to intimidate the independent left-leaning daily newspaper Népszava after it carried an advertisement on July 24 for KÖZGÉP, a major construction company owned by a business friend of the President Viktor Orban.
The socialist party leader Zoltán Lukács issued a statement calling on the paper, which is a small player in the daily news market, not to carry such advertisements and to cut all ties with the company. This provoked an angry response from Editor Péter Németh. In an editorial on July 26 he wrote that this type of media advertising is a matter of routine in a democracy and would be “business as usual in any normal country. Except this isn’t one.”
The Association of Hungarian Journalists weighed in accusing the socialist party of a cynical violation of the press freedom and the Hungarian Electronic Press Association also complained, insisting that decisions over contents of media – editorial or otherwise – are for media professionals alone.
Anywhere else this might be regarded as a minor storm caused by a political maverick shooting from the hip, but this is Hungary where last year the ruling party controversially established a powerful media regulator packed with its political friends causing a storm of protest inside the European Union and within the global press freedom community.
After 18 months and numerous protests this threat to media has been largely seen off, but the latest incident illustrates why journalists need to remain vigilant amidst new fears for the Hungarian press.
My friends in Budapest tell me that there are now fears that KÖZGÉP may try to buy Népszava outright. And there are continuing worries over the future of Nepszabadsag, the influential and highly-regarded left-wing liberal paper, which is more independent from the socialists than Népszava.
The majority owner of Nepszabadsag is the Swiss-based Ringier group which is about to merge with Axel Springer in Hungary and there is speculation that the company may sell this political daily to the socialists.
Despite this continuing uncertainty within journalism, there are positive signs. The creation of an independent editors group earlier this year has opened the door to a new debate about editorial independence, ethics and media self-regulation, but the task is not made easier when politicians of every colour in Budapest show they are ready to exercise their own muscular forms of editorial control if they can get away with it.