550 employees, the majority of them journalists, of public news organizations have lost their job last week in Hungary; by the beginning of the fall, this number could total as many as 1000, almost one-third of the public media employees in the entire country.
Hungary’s media law has been the subject of criticism on many occasions and in many settings. On every single occasion critics bring up concerns over the country’s newly found disregard for media independence – as for example last week in Strasbourg, at the plenary meeting of the European Parliament – the Hungarian government’s response is that the regulations are far from being the armageddon that the opposition tends to conjure up in connection with it. Nevertheless, the assault on critical and independent journalism continues in Hungary. Not surprisingly, this latest development was also made possible by the much maligned media law. It is due to the fundamental changes made to the country’s media state supervisory authority that such politically motivated firings could be the news of the day in a country which, under its increasingly dictatorial government, is no longer likely to see independent news service in the future.
The list of those receiving pink slips this summer was finalized by the managing director of the Media-Services Support and Property Management Fund (Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelő Alap, MTVA). István Böröcz made the decision about the extent of the cuts, though we can only speculate about who came up with the list, those on it are highly-respected journalists who practice critical journalism in the service of the public.
There is no doubt that the name of this fund is an obscure one (even in Hungarian it fails to make much sense), and understanding what it’s role is in Hungarian public life is even more difficult, The fund has been supervising the work of journalism performed in the public media since January, when the new media law had finally come into effect. As the name of the fund insinuates ever so subtly, the state’s supervision and control over what appears in public media is exercised both by appeal to its rights of property in the means of its production (the fund is property manager of this equipment), and in its supervisory function of the employers who provide these services of the media.
The media law had arranged for the fund to employ all but just a handful workers of the Hungarian public media. These journalists and the technical and support staff used to work directly for their respective TV or radio stations (for the Hungarian Television, Duna Television or the Hungarian Radio).
Since the restructuring instituted by the media law, about 50 employees remain directly employed by Hungarian public media – their job is to maintain the specific profile and scheduling of each station. The rest of the journalists, pooled together into one organization produce the program delivered by the Fund to the stations. Their news room was merged with the MTI, the Hungarian News Service; in other words, the news on the public media channels come from the Hungarian-language news-wire, though it is of course not the merge with MTI but the change in conception that serves as the rationale for the firings.
The director of the fund is appointed and supervised by Annamária Szalai, the director of Hungary’s National Media and Infocommunications Authority (Nemzeti Média és Hírközlési Hatóság, NMHH). Holding the top position in the organizational structure brought into being by the controversial media law, Annamária Szalai was appointed the head of the Authority by the government. It is because the media services of the public television and radio stations have been reorganized to fall under a government-appointed position that critics of the media law had complained about government interference with news production in Hungary. To appreciate just how crucial these news programs are for the public, it is important to know that the news programs of the Hungarian Radio remain the most popular source of daily news in the country and while the Hungarian Television is less popular, there are regions in the country where commercial channels are not available and people depend entirely on public media.
One of the most often cited problem with the media law is that it has practically “cast into concrete” the state-dictated agenda on what kind of reporting is adequate for the political realities of the country. This is because the appointment of delegates who make up the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, and their forewoman, Annamária Szalai require a two-third consensus and last for nine years (c.f. the four year that takes place in between parliamentary elections). It is likely therefore that those who currently have the legal authority over all matters public (and even commercial) media-related will remain in their position for another 8.5 years (they were appointed to their position in October 2010) and that not only is it impossible to recall them, but, once their replacement is required by law, another candidate will require considerable negotiations between governing and opposition parties. This problem applies to the public media’s clean-up in that it provides for practically no political recourse to remedy the firings, their evident political slant, their blindness to political merit, or the disapproval they were met with from the viewers and listeners of Hungarian public media stations.
As it is well-known, in the current legislative cycle, Hungary’s ruling party holds more than two-thirds of the seats in the legislature, which thus far has enabled it to pass legislature in all areas that have been recognized as requiring national consensus by those who designed the Hungarian Republic’s democratic constitution in 1990. Areas that needed national consensus at that time were noted in the fundamental law by their special status: their regulation required approval by a two-third majority of the legislature. This equivocation of “a matter for nation-wide deliberation and consensus” and a “two-third majority” was rooted in the peculiar arrangements of the electoral system. In the beginning of the 1990s, the country had a multi-party legislature (the first freely elected Hungarian parliament had six parties) and it was impossible to imagine one party acquiring two-thirds of the votes. Since the 1990s, as the electoral system had undergone piecemeal changes, and two main parties have come to emerge and are likely to be in position to form a government (though the current Hungarian parliament still has four parties). Since 2010, however, the governing party’s two-third majority allowed them to submit the Hungarian political system to grave transformations, among them the frequently criticized media law. In April 2011, they even discarded the constitution of the country, passing after only three weeks of legislative activity a new constitution, one which puts the governing party in a position to perpetuate its power beyond the end of the electoral cycle and which is also alarming due to its nationalist-chauvinistic overtones.
Public media (of the state-financed kind) is under assault almost everywhere in the world. What makes the Hungarian situation different, however, is that the motivation for firing these journalists is not primarily an economic one. Prize-winning journalists have been let go off by the dozen. In the meantime, celebrity journalists who were better at entertaining their audience than at asking uncomfortable questions are being retained – some of them in spite of the fact that their show no longer runs, i.e. they render no service to these public news channels. When one cuts down a workforce in order to save money, one keeps those who are recognized as the best of their profession, and targets those whose loss makes less of an impact on the organization.
The decision to build down on the news services of the public media was also contrary to audience preferences: while most programming on the Hungarian Radio and Television is low on viewership, their journalists tend to enjoy the trust and loyalty of wide audiences (these journalists also tend to be critical of the government, a quality which in Hungary is becoming less and less tolerable – in any profession, but especially in journalism).
Accordingly, demonstrations have been scheduled for next week. The firings appear to be the culmination of a long history of “media wars”, a history that goes as far back as 1994, when less than 150 journalists were fired by the right-of-center government of the time, stirring enormous political outcry and memorable demonstrations. Understandably, this matter is going to remain in front and center of opposition activity for the next few weeks.
What is truly tragic about this round of firing, however – besides the sheer number of casualties – is that there is something terminal about this battle. Those who were let go are not likely to find jobs in their profession anywhere in Hungary in the current political climate (they still have the option to join commercial radios or for-profit journalism, neither of which is going to support the investigative journalism or the in-depth reporting and commentary they are known for). The regulative framework of the Hungarian media would be extraordinarily hard to set back from these excesses in the near future (especially as its current personnel is in power for the next eight years) – even if winds of change do create the will in the Hungarian people to restore the freedom of their press.