Updated: Monday, 31 March 2014 11:24 | By Agence France-Presse

Hungary's media struggles for air under Orban

Few of the sweeping reforms by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is expected to be re-elected on Sunday, have created as much alarm as his shake-up of the media.

Hungary's media struggles for air under Orban

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at the European Union Council building in Brussels, on March 6, 2014, prior to a meeting of EU Heads of States - by Thierry Charlier

"Reporters have zero independence to ask their own questions, or write what they want," an employee in state-run public media told AFP, preferring to remain anonymous.

"As the election approaches it's getting worse. I can only ask opposition politicians about scandals, not about their policies."

In 2010, after Orban won a two-thirds majority, laws were passed forcing all outlets to register with the state and produce "balanced" reporting.

A Media Council watchdog was created, staffed by government-friendly appointees, with the power to levy fines and even close outlets down.

Public television and radio channels were merged and given the same package of information from the state news agency.

Klari Kovacs, a state television reporter for 13 years until being laid off with 500 other staff, told AFP that the manipulation after 2010 was "unprecedented".

"We always had to write into scripts how bad things were under the previous government and how Orban is some kind of god fixing everything," she recalls.

Coupled with other changes that critics said impinged on the freedom of other democratic institutions like the judiciary, the reforms sparked major unease.

There were street protests in Hungary and warnings from Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, the European Commission and rights groups, among others.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) warned the changes imposed a "chilling effect on freedom of expression and public debate".

- Advertising squeeze –

Many independent media outlets are struggling financially because advertising money from state bodies and companies now goes mostly to outlets owned by government allies.

And according to Attila Mong from investigative journalism website Atlatszo, which means "Transparent" in Hungarian, private advertisers have tended to follow suit to avoid trouble.

"There is a price to pay for editorial integrity in Hungary: less advertising revenue," says Mong.

Andras Arato, head of the opposition station Klubradio, which had to fight a series of legal battles to stay on air, says that state advertising used to make up 20 percent of revenue.

"By 2011, 95 percent of our revenues had gone, all of the state income and most of the private advertisers," Arato told AFP.

Neither Klubradio nor the opposition Nepszabadsag, Hungary's top-selling broadsheet, received anything from a lucrative public information campaign last year.

"The psychological result," says Balazs Weyer, head of an editors' association and a teacher of journalism, is that "more journalists and their employers (are) censoring themselves".

Online reporting, however, is thriving. Websites like Atlatszo, Origo, Index, and 444 are now the main breakers of scoops.

Last year, president Pal Schmitt -- an ally of Orban -- resigned after the online version of the HVG newspaper reported that he had plagiarised his university thesis.

"The Internet is where you to go to find out what is really happening in Hungary," says Aranka Szavuly, a freelance journalist who was fired from state media in 2011.

- EU commissioner cross -

In response to the criticism, Orban has softened some media legislation, including on journalists' source protection.

The government insists that the press is not threatened by anyone, pointing out that not a single outlet has been fined or shut down.

"No political or civil organisation has the right or means to intervene in the work of the electronic or print media," its communications office told AFP in a written response to questions.

"Nor has the government any influence on the work of public media employees."

But the European Union remains concerned about curbs on press freedom.

Neelie Kroes, EU commissioner responsible for media, told AFP it was a "shame that only a small part" of the recommendations from the Council of Europe have been made.

Brussels continues to fret over media diversity "in practice", Kroes said, with the Commission "monitoring developments, particularly in light of the elections".

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