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The Slippery Slope Towards an Unfree Press – Lessons from Hungary and Poland

In Hungary and Poland, journalists and commentators are losing their jobs for criticising the Government – while in the UK Boris Johnson wants the BBC to ‘move into line’ When Boris Johnson spoke to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs on the one year anniversary of lockdown, it may have come as a surprise that…

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2021. Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire/PA Images

The Slippery Slope Towards an Unfree PressLessons from Hungary & Poland

In Hungary and Poland, journalists and commentators are losing their jobs for criticising the Government – while in the UK Boris Johnson wants the BBC to ‘move into line’

When Boris Johnson spoke to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs on the one year anniversary of lockdown, it may have come as a surprise that he decided to devote a section of his address to comments about the BBC. 

Johnson accused the BBC of having a “degree of instinctive metropolitan bias” in its newsroom and said “let’s hope they learn from what their viewers and listeners want.” He went to state that “it’s pretty clear from the whole Brexit experience that the BBC was pretty detached from a lot of its viewers and listeners and I hope they move more into line.”

The comments come after numerous attacks on the BBC and its journalists in the last week. These include Conservative MP James Wild criticising the design of the BBC’s annual report – asking the BBC Director General whether he “found it surprising” that the document contained no images of the Union Jack. 

Flags were also in the spotlight after presenter Naga Munchetty was forced to apologise for “liking” tweets deemed “offensive” when her colleague Charlie Stayt made an “off the cuff” remark about the size of a Union flag on display during an interview with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick. Both Munchetty and Stayt were “spoken to and reminded of their responsibilities.” 

These incidents may seem trivial in isolation. But they form a pattern of behavior that seeks to ferment a culture war positioning a free and independent press as elitist and anti-patriotic. 

They sit at the top of a slippery slope that speeds towards the undermining of press freedom. To see what it looks like at the bottom of that slope, we only have to turn east to recent events in Hungary. 

Footballers Facing Censure

Over the weekend, it was announced that two football commentators in Hungary would be leaving their TV jobs having shown support for the Family Is Family campaign for LGBTIQ rights. 

The campaign follows a ban on gay adoption in Hungary, alongside wider attacks on the LGBTIQ community.

János Hrutka, a former Hungarian national footballer, spoke out in favour for the Family Is Family campaign and expressed solidarity with footballer Péter Gulácsi. The latter has been under fire after he wrote on Facebook:

“Everyone has the right to equality. Just as every child has the right to grow up in a happy family, that family should be made up of any number of people, of any gender, of any colour, of any religion.”

Hrutka has now been fired from his role at Spiler TV where he has worked for over three years. The press department of TV2, which runs Spiler TV, said “that there were other reasons behind the parties continuing on separate paths.”

According to Budapest Pride, a second commentator Viktor Lukács has been “fired” from his role at TV channel M4 for expressing solidarity with Gulácsi. 

A spokesperson for Budapest Pride told Byline Times “we consider it particularly important that public actors (artists, athletes and celebrities) take their intellectual responsibility, talk about public issues and draw the attention of the majority society to current social issues. The statements of Péter Gulácsi and János Hrutka are extremely brave, because they have stood up for the rights of a minority in an environment where it is not usual to do so.”

Hungarian LGBTIQ rights organisation the Háttér Society told Byline Times that “firing two reporters because they have expressed their support for our Family is Family campaign is yet another example of the well-oiled machine that undermines anyone who dares to go against the Government’s homophobic ideology. The message is clear: if anyone dares to defy the Government’s oppressive ideology, they will lose their jobs and livelihoods.”

The dismissal of the two commentators has put media independence in Hungary back into the spotlight – not least because the press outlets involved are close to the Government.

TV2 is described as “a pro-Government media, loyal to the ruling Fidesz party.” In 2019, it came under the “influence” of Hungarian oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros when his close colleague József Vida purchased the media portfolio of the channel group. Mészáros is a childhood friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. According to Forbes he is a “big player thanks to contracts from the Government.”

M4, where Lukács was a commentator, is a public channel run by the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund – a Government organisation controlled by the Media Council of Hungary

‘Not Suitable for Children’

That same Council has now announced it will launch legal proceedings against the RTL Hungary media group after it aired the Family Is Family campaign – a direct attack against both press freedom and the LGBTIQ community. Hungary’s media law includes a clause that public service broadcasting should promote “respect for the institution of marriage and family values” and the Council claims the programming was “not suitable for children”. 

According to the Háttér Society, “for years, the Fidesz-controlled public media has suppressed even the mention of any LGBTQI-related issues.”

The move has been criticised by Members of the European Parliament, who in an open letter to the European Commission described the legal threat as causing a “chilling effect on media freedom and freedom of expression in the country” as well as leading to “further discrimination against LGBTI people.”

The firings and legal proceedings follow the closure of Klub Radio, one of the few remaining independent broadcasters in Hungary. Klub Radio was often critical of the Government and its closure was decided by the Media Council.

One journalist speaking anonymously explained how, while she quit journalism because she “wanted a more stable career path”, this was an “indirect consequence of Government suppression.”

“If the government had not distorted the media landscape in the past years I am pretty sure I would have not made this decision,” she said. “But unfortunately there are very few independent media outlets left and those that are still out there have to operate in great financial and existential uncertainty.”

Charged For Saying ‘Moron’

Hungary’s fellow Far Right authoritarian Government in Poland also has also hit the headlines in recent days after writer and journalist Jakub Zulczyk was charged for making “offensive” and “unacceptable” comments about President Duda. Zulczyk called the President a “moron” on Facebook. Poland has made it a crime to insult state leaders and Zulcyk faces up to three years in prison if found guilty.

Earlier this month, editor-in-chief of Agora, Adam Michnik, wrote to the European Union asking its leaders to defend the free press in Poland, saying we are “witnessing a “creeping coup d’état” in Poland”. He claims that the Polish media “been fully appropriated and turned into a propaganda machine” while independent press like Agora “treated as the enemy and attacked with the hatred we know from some of the speeches of former US President Donald Trump.”

Michnik’s intervention follows the buying up of the Polska Press media group by oil giant Orlen, as well as a proposed tax on advertising that seeks to undermine press independence. In protest at the tax, last month TV and radio stations and newspapers across Poland joined forces to condemn attempts to “destroy the independent media”. Radio ZET suspended its normal programming to repeat the message “we are protesting so that you can convince yourselves what Poland will look like without an independent media. We apologise to you, our listeners and business partners, for the change to today’s schedule. But we have no choice.”

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