It Doesn’t Take a Dictator to Smother a Free Press

It Doesn’t Take a Dictator to Smother a Free Press

As the leaders of Hungary and Poland have shown, the right combination of political and financial muscle is enough to control the media.

Hungary's Viktor Orbán, 2011 (European People's Party / Flickr)

On February 17, Donald Trump issued what remains his most notorious tweet since taking office—an impressive distinction amid the daily tantrums that have characterized his presidency so far. The media, he proclaimed, is the “enemy of the American People!” The tweet provoked outrage from liberals and conservatives alike, with talking heads at outlets from Democracy Now to Fox News condemning Trump’s comments. Yet a week later, the Trump team only doubled down on this attack on the press, barring reporters from the New York Times, CNN, and a half-dozen other outlets from a White House press briefing. And just this weekend, Trump again pulled out his refrain against the “fake news” media in an hour-long speech to Pennsylvania supporters at the rally he held instead of attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

Fortunately, Trump’s attacks on the media for now add up to little more than bluster. But this alone should be no cause for complacency. It doesn’t take a dictator to smother a free press: the right combination of financial and political power will do.

To see how this works, we need look no further than Eastern-Central Europe, where politicians have for years been waging a determined war against the liberal vision of the public sphere. The populist right’s successful efforts to undermine the free press in these countries show how quickly authoritarian-leaning leaders can erode democratic institutions—and should serve as a warning to the American public.

On Saturday, October 8, the employees of Hungary’s largest opposition newspaper, Népszabadság, were greeted by strange news: after sixty years in operation, the paper was to shut down immediately. Its journalists and editors couldn’t even go to the office to get their personal belongings. Népszabadság’s parent company, Mediaworks, invoked commercial reasons for the shutdown, but the explanation didn’t hold up. Even if the newspaper weren’t producing enough revenue, it would be near unthinkable to shut down such a large and important outlet overnight.

For Népszabadság’s employees, the paper’s closure represented nothing short of a media coup, orchestrated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government in cooperation with businessmen close to them. The script was already sadly familiar. In 2014, the editor-in-chief of one of Hungary’s online media giants,, was forced to leave his position after publishing articles criticizing the excessive spending habits of top government official János Lázár. The connection, of course, was never officially acknowledged, but it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to recognize the role that political pressure played. Soon after, Origo was acquired by companies close to the government and was in essence turned into a government mouthpiece.

The similarities with the Népszabadság case are impossible to ignore. In October 2016, Mediaworks was acquired by a Hungarian firm with close ties to the government, which now in effect has control over not only state-owned media, but also most regional newspapers. This is only part of a larger trend of high-profile business and entertainment figures close to the ruling party’s dividing the media cake among them. What media remains independent in Hungary is under economic pressure, as a large part of their income depends on state advertisements, and the government’s long-held grudge against influential foreign investors and philanthropists—personified by George Soros—certainly doesn’t help grassroots and nonprofit initiatives obtain funding for independent reporting.

Having the power to unilaterally legislate and to put enormous financial pressure on media organizations, the government holds both the carrot and the stick. It has the ability bully to opposition newspapers, radio, and television channels into self-destruction by withholding funds from them while pouring state money into loyal media companies. This makes for an extremely powerful political tool, not to mention a windfall for loyal media moguls.

The Népszabadság journalists brought their case in court, and in January, Mediaworks’ sudden decision was ruled illegal. But the court imposed no fines or criminal penalties on the company, making the victory symbolic at best. At this stage, neither legal action nor the condemnation of EU officials can do much for press freedom in Hungary, which has been in steady decline since 2010, when the now-reigning government came to power and passed highly controversial legislation against the media that is openly condemned by the Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament. The Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, which measures freedom of media and journalists in 180 countries, now ranks Hungary sixty-seventh—down from twenty-third in 2010. The index cites outsized government influence as the main reason for this precipitous decline. An independent report published by WAN-IFRA (the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers) seconds Reporters Without Borders’ findings, labeling the systemic pressure exerted on the Hungarian media a form of “soft censorship.”

This strategy has already paid off for the Orbán government. On October 2, 2016, Hungary held a referendum on the EU’s refugee quotas, adopted in September 2015, which require EU member states to accept a number of already vetted refugees proportional to the country’s population. Hungary, together with other Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia), has been opposing the quota system since it was first proposed, even though it would require Hungary to accept less than 1,000 refugees.

In preparation for the October referendum, the government spent astonishing amounts of money (comparable to the budget of the Leave campaign before the Brexit vote) on a xenophobic campaign about the dangers of letting migrants into the country. The campaign stretched from billboards and booklets into the “independent” state media. As Democracy Reporting International’s study showed, during the campaign 95 percent of state TV channels’ coverage was devoted to promoting the government’s agenda by sharing negative news on migrants and the opposition and occasionally even encouraging people to cast their vote against the quotas.

As a result of this massive effort, 98 percent of the valid votes were in favor of abolishing the EU-imposed refugee quotas. Fortunately the referendum itself was ultimately invalidated, partly due to a high number of intentionally invalid votes—some 3 percent of the total—and, moreover, to a very low participation rate. Still, the result showed an alarming level of support for the governing Fidesz party’s anti-immigrant position. As Fidesz asserts ever more control over the public sphere, Hungarians are increasingly forced to choose between parroting the party line and not participating in the discussion at all.

Despite the severe infringements on press freedom, opposition forces do find ways to get their messages to the public. In the lead-up to the referendum on refugees, the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party (originally launched as a joke) successfully ran large-scale poster campaigns funded by private donations. More recently a new movement called Momentum successfully petitioned for a referendum against Hungary’s financially ruinous bid to host the 2024 Olympics, which resulted in Budapest withdrawing from the running. These efforts, however, are largely confined to the capital and larger cities, and they are very much hindered by the absence of national, independent media, let alone opposition outlets.

The fusion of state, government, and governing party into one “central force field” wielding practically unlimited power over the media would be bad enough in one country. But what happened in Hungary has since spread.

When a new conservative government led by PiS (Law and Justice, Prawo I Sprawiedliwość) took power in Poland in 2015, overhauling the media was near the top of its agenda. PiS promised drastic reforms to the country’s media laws along with significant rebranding of the Polish state radio and television channels, which were to be labeled “national” rather than “public” media. The implication was clear: that the media must serve the national interest.

While the names have yet to change, much in the actual operations of state-owned and private media already has, for the worse. As many as 220 journalists and media workers have resigned or been fired. In response to subtle forms of censorship, many commentators and pundits with liberal and left-leaning views no longer appear on major shows. A number of journalists, for example, say that their comments on Wiadomości, the main television news program, are edited and cut so extensively that the original intention or context of whatever they have to say is obliterated. A journalist from the center-conservative daily Rzeczpospolita (The Republic) recently joked on air (on a private channel), “They often call me to compliment the government or criticize the opposition, but they never call me to criticize the government and praise the opposition.” As Polish law—and good practice—requires, any news item on the show should give voice to at least two sides of the aisle. The way Wiadomości often achieves this nowadays is to show opposition politicians stumbling with words and making fools of themselves, while members of the ruling party appear composed and in full command of their message.

Meanwhile, tensions between new TV leadership and former crew have spilled over into ugly arguments online: a former employee of Poland’s main state television agency, for example, was told by the current head of Wiadomości that she, as a “Belarusian journalist,” should stop “making a fool out of herself” and “keep her nose in her own business.” The government’s defenders argue that none of these incidents in themselves violate the law and that critics are overreacting. Legally speaking, they may be right, but what matters more is the chilling effect. Much like in Hungary, fewer people engage in debate in public media. Fewer people watch the news than before—ratings dropped instantly after PiS took power—and those who do are exposed to a one-sided, deeply partisan message. A recent poll shows that news broadcasted by public television is deemed trustworthy almost exclusively by those who support the ruling party. And in March 2016, a nonpartisan report commissioned by KRRiT (Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji), the national broadcasting council that oversees media and broadcasting standards, concluded that national broadcasters are acting contrary to their duty, which is to present a plurality of viewpoints and impartial reporting. In response, the Polish Parliament essentially dismantled KRRiT, changing the law to create a completely new oversight body staffed by political appointees. The government pulled all advertisements and public interest campaigns it could from the liberal press and lavished sympathetic media outlets with public funds.

In light of these developments, the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index now situates Poland forty-seventh, while only a year ago it was eighteenth—a record drop of twenty-nine places. And the real “reform” is yet to come. Parliament so far has managed only to pass the bill enabling the layoffs of the previous cadre, but not yet the more dramatic “national media” law promised.

Most recently, the ruling party has proposed a so-called “deconcentration” law—prompting speculation in the press over whether the Polish government means to ban the term “Polish death camps”—that would drive out foreign stakeholders, mostly German and Swiss, from the media. In this scheme, Poland would buy foreign shares with state assets and “renationalize” newspapers under foreign ownership, thereby turning them into vehicles for state propaganda. This is what the ruling party calls a “deconcentration” of capital. It is possible that the law would make it mandatory for owners to turn over their newspapers, almost a first in the EU, where free and open markets is one of the pillars of the European treaties. Should this plan succeed, the government would be a dominant force in almost all segments of traditional media—television, radio, and press.

The Polish government, and the country’s right in general, openly embraces Budapest’s example. Not a day has passed since Népszabadság was shut down when pundits from conservative outlets have not proclaimed that this is exactly what should, and will, happen to Poland’s liberal media. The fate of Népszabadság, the “Communist mouthpiece spouting liberal-leftist bullshit” as it was introduced in one article, is supposed to be a warning to Poland’s main liberal newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Indeed, shortly after Népszabadság closed, Gazeta Wyborcza released a statement saying that circulation was dropping and some of their staff would be laid off. In a highly unusual move, the state media ran this as a big news story for days and used it to show how badly the paper was doing. It was as if NPR were to invest its time and resources into celebrating the “failure” of the New York Times. Omitted from this Putinesque stunt was the fact that Gazeta Wyborcza still enjoys the highest circulation among Poland’s daily newspapers.

It is important to remember that all of this is happening not in far-away dictatorships or military autocracies. These are democratic countries, members of the European Union, that ostensibly maintain the same standards as the UK or the United States. Since the fall of communism, Poland in particular has presented itself as a beacon of democracy and poster child for market reforms. Its rapid backtracking on free expression reveals how quickly democracy can be hollowed out even as its formal structures remain in place. Press freedom in Hungary and Poland is suppressed not by decrees nor by threat of imprisonment or execution, but by financial machinations, legislative maneuvers, and political pressure. Rich and powerful elites are now capable of buying out dissident news outlets or putting them under economic pressure until they conform. These countries did not have turn into Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey to undergo such a rapid decline. The concentration of political and financial power in a few hands was enough.

The threat here is not so much that the propaganda’s message takes root instantly, although its effects are notable. The “effectiveness” of these moves is measured more in how many can be fatigued into silence. The regime wins not just when there is majority support for its agenda, but when the majority lacks the interest, energy, or dedication to voice dissent. This is how democracy ends up on its head: the minority vote prevails over the majority’s abstinence. When public debate loses all integrity, why debate at all? This is why “illiberal” governments don’t necessarily need to create stronger, more credible media tools to disseminate their message, nor collaborate with major titles to mutual advantage. Illiberal governments triumph by making all media weaker, for their ultimate goal is to eliminate debate—not necessarily to win popular support.

Such subtle methods of oppression, manipulation, and domination are becoming the norm rather than the exception amid the nationalist and populist surge in Eastern Europe today. Journalists are finding themselves in situations that were familiar to a previous generation: the absence of suitable channels through which to speak to their fellow citizens; the inability to voice their opinions; the inability to be fully fledged members of the public. Dissident voices are being muted, trapped in small corners of big cities, the apartments of intellectuals, opinion blogs that reach only a few thousand people. Knowing that the government’s position is virtually the only one allowed in public, people are being forced back into what Václav Havel called the “quiet life”—keeping to themselves and not disturbing the machinations of power.

There’s no sense—nor need—to make a direct analogy between what happened in Hungary and Poland and what might happen in the United States. The American administration doesn’t own any media in the way European states do, nor has it, yet, voiced intentions to buy out or force independent publishers to shut down. Still, we should not downplay the threat that joint financial and political power poses to a free press, particularly when the president construes the media as “the enemy of the people.” The sharp decline in trust in the media, increasing polarization, and resignation and apathy among middle- and working-class people that has allowed Hungary and Poland’s aspiring authoritarians to thrive spans both sides of the Atlantic.

Some might hope that even if formal opposition media is suffocated, the digital sphere will still provide a space to express one’s opinions openly, a space where freedom of expression cannot be destroyed. But opinion counts for little without facts and investigation, without the resources to uncover the misdeeds of the powerful and hold them accountable to the public—that is, the main political function of the free press. This function remains a cornerstone of democracy—and, in turn, of a dignified human existence. It is critical for us to defend it, while we still can.

Jakub Dymek is a journalist and commentator in Warsaw.

Zsolt Kapelner is a philosopher, lecturer, and journalist in Budapest.