US Chargé d’affaires addresses media challenges in Hungary

Chargé d'affaires David Kostelancik of the US Embassy in Hungary held a press conference Tuesday morning at the headquarters of the Hungarian Association of Journalists with a speech entitled "Freedom of the Press: Enduring Values in a Dynamic Media Environment." Kostelancik's remarks highlight a visible shift in the US Embassy's willingness to directly address Hungary's media situation.

Kostelancik opened his speech by addressing America's commitment to the First Amendment and thanking members of the press for their work.

"Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the mountaintops remains a democratic staple and I truly appreciate what you do," he said.

"The need for accountability is one of the primary reasons that freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Our founding fathers, having witnessed the sharp restriction on speech and punishment for political dissent under the rule of the King of England, recognized that a free, democratic society cannot exist without a free press, fully empowered to inform the people about the actions of their government and given them the tools to make sure the government does not abuse its power.

"[P]rotections for freedom of the the press are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the NATO treaty, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the OSCE's Charter for European Security, and in the constitutions and law books for democracies throughout the world," Kostelancik said before adding: "Our strongest, most stable, most trustworthy allies are those that share this commitment."

While not specifically referring to Hungary per se, Kostelancik then said: "Democratic governments must not attempt to silence their critics. This temptation is perpetual, and it can happen in more than one way: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control, pressure on advertisers, attempts by government to manipulate the advertising market, and outright threats and intimidation of journalists.

"In recent years the United States has spoken on multiple occasions about negative trends in the sphere of press freedom in Hungary. Unfortunately these negative trends are continuing.

"Government allies have steadily acquired control and influence over the media market, without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies. Most recently, companies affiliated with pro-government figures acquired control of the last remaining independent regional newspapers.

"Journalists who work for these outlets – or who used to work for these outlets – tell us that they must follow pro-government editorial guidelines dictated by the outlets' new owners, and that they do not have the freedom to publish articles that are critical of the government.

"The government also directs substantial publicly-funded advertising contracts to the outlets of friendly owners, and almost none to independent outlets. We hear reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.

"And, in a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also to the principles of a free, independent media," Kostelancik said.

His remarks on Tuesday signal a shift in the public remarks by the US Embassy's most ranking officers to the media situation in Hungary. Earlier this year, US Ambassador Colleen Bell (who has since returned to the US) declined to comment three times, successively, that Népszabadság – Hungary's last national opposition print daily – had been shut down for political reasons.

Meanwhile, Hungary's biggest commercial TV channel, RTL programming director and vice-CEO Péter Kolosi gave an interview to about whether the 20-year-old commercial television station should be considered opposed to the government merely for failing to toe the government line, and about the "fake news" that the station is loss-making and up for sale.

Kolosi is one of the few managers at RTL who has been working there from the start. When Figyelő, the weekly publication that has become a pillar of Fidesz propaganda since being acquired last year by House of Terror executive director and pro-Fidesz historian Mária Schmidt, reported recently that RTL was for sale, Kolosi wrote on his Facebook page that RTL was being attacked with lies in a coordinated manner.

"Figyelő wrote this lie," he told "Origo also published it and further published a misleading, non-professional ratings analysis the same day. The goal was easily discernible: to spread and support the fake news about the sale."

Kolosi admits that the story was quickly forgotten but insists that RTL was attacked, even if in a ridiculous manner.

When asked about the proposed graduated advertising tax in 2014 that would have stripped the commercial broadcaster of much of its advertising revenue, he said the German-owned TVF channel had been the target of various political attacks over the past few years but he declined to cite any specific examples, claiming such "attempts at intervention are natural in some way."

"If one is proud of being independent in that neither their operations nor their news service depend on any of the sides, then whoever happens to be in power will not like this. The other side will have much less trouble. Believe me, this has been my experience for over twenty years. And my statement stands true not only in the case of news programs but for entertainment as well."

Considering the fate of TV2 (which was bought by government film commissioner and casino magnate Andy Vajna using a large loan from a state-owned bank), Kolosi explains how RTL Klub was able to ward off every political attack for twenty years by saying:

"It mostly depends on the expertise and ethical stance of the colleagues who work here. Moreover, an owner is necessary that lets one work with professional expertise, and for whom principles of ethics and independence are important."

Regarding RTL Klub's newscast, Kolosi denied that it had turned more oppositional in 2014 and later dealt more with tabloid news. When asked how interested people are in politics right now, he said: "Very much, as the ratings show. There was a period when people were much more apathetic."

The vice-CEO said he "strongly disagrees" with the characterizations of RTL Klub being an "opposition station."

"But everyone likes to categorize others, especially journalists. Fortunately, in the opinion of the majority, RTL is the most independent news source in Hungary," he said.

While many claim that recent shifts in media ownership into the hands of government-tied oligarchs merely serve to offset the 'liberal predominance' in the media environment, Kolosi disagrees that the "oppositional" RTL Klub is able to act as a balance to the pro-government TV2.

"The whole theory is untrue. Just because more and more media are working along partisan or ideological lines, that doesn't make the rest gravitate automatically to the other side. This is merely an optical illusion," he said.

When asked about the events at Őcsény and whether the media was responsible for the local residents' inability to assess the situation realistically, Kolosi said that "it is the responsibility of the press to always tell the truth in news reports. You must show the world and its diversity of opinions as they are. We can only be responsible for our own programming."

While to his knowledge RTL Klub is not boycotted by Fidesz politicians, Kolosi raised questions about why his station does not receive government advertisements.

"The size of state advertisements increased five-fold in the last five years, with the state becoming one of the biggest advertisers. But these advertisements go in a certain direction and mostly end up at TV2. It is not at all logical that the state advertisements go to TV2 while RTL is still the market leader."


Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 October 2017 15:32