Victor Orban's controversial media law entered fully into force in July. After one month, the upshot is: mass layoffs of critical journalists and the allegation that the head of government is forcing the public media to toe his own line, making his regime ever more authoritarian.
The layoffs – so they’re not really politically motivated, not an attempt to get rid of unwanted editors? So they’re lying, then, the laid-off Hungarian journalists who claim the state fired them because they were too critical? The spokeswoman for the state MTVA, a newly created and complex structure that calls itself the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund, sits in her Budapest office, speaks softly, and smiles a lot. But now her smile slips from her face. "Anyone who makes such a charge should stand behind it by identifying himself."
They would be only too happy to do that, the over 550 journalists and staff at the public broadcasters who got their pink slips in July. Many of them would like to speak up, state their names, and demand accountability. Or at least an explanation. But there is this little clause in their contracts... If anyone talks about his employment relationship without the permission of his employer, all severance payments are gone. A father or a mother, with a child or two at home, will consider very carefully whether to risk that. And so the journalists keep silent on the record. But they do have a great deal to say.
It was July 5 when a quiet, grey-haired man – let's call him Mr. A – was told over the phone to be at work the next morning at ten clock. The call was followed up by an e-mail to confirm that the message had reached its recipient. This was the first step in a mass dismissal, and Mr. A. was only one of many.
"The large envelope meant: this is the end…”
The next day, as Mr. A. told it, he arrived at work. Four colleagues were already waiting in the hallway. One after another they were called in, and when they came out they held either an envelope or a sheet of paper. "The large envelope meant: this is the end,” said Mr. A. "The sheet of paper meant: you've been lucky.” The paper was a new employment contract, signed straight away under the eyes of the superiors.
Mr. A. was third in the queue. No conversation lasted longer than five minutes. As he entered, three people sat down across from him. He did not know them. "As you know, we’re restructuring, and unfortunately..." Mr. A. knew what was coming. He took the envelope and left. The whole day went that way. “It wasn’t human,” says Mr. A.
That the ones hit by the layoffs feel they have been treated unfairly is not unusual. That the colleagues who were kept on are speechless – that’s unusual. Those who were let go included the best of them, they say. There is no doubt that the redundancies were used to get rid of undesirable journalists.
Party politics prevailed
Those let go were winners of the Hungarian Pulitzer Prize, moderators known throughout Hungary, and emerging, award-winning young talent. Those promoted were journalists who could quickly take over news broadcasts, although previously they had been familiar mostly with tabloid formats. Or editors such as the 32-year-old Daniel Papp, former media spokesman for the radical right Jobbik party who recently falsified a report on Green politicians and Orbán critic Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
In the report, Cohn-Bendit was asked whether he believed that sexual harassment of children belongs among European fundamental rights. Cohn-Bendit answered the journalist in detail – but in the report, the politician appears to leave the room without saying a word. Papp was not let go. He was promoted to head of the main newsroom.
The grey-haired Mr. A. does not deny that lay-offs had to be made. The public broadcaster in Hungary is a bloated and costly apparatus, which brings in few viewers and is saddled with inefficiency, corruption and financial problems – and more than 3,000 employees. Since the previous media law was passed in 1996 no government has made any serious efforts to improve the structure – or to stay out of partisan politics. Not even the Socialists.
"Orbán has succeeded in creating the most dangerous of strongholds against himself."
Now Viktor Orbán has grasped the nettle the way he always grasps the nettle: seizing on a genuine grievance, he uses it to advance his ideology. In April last year his Fidesz party won a two-thirds majority in parliament, and since then Orban has felt called upon to make good his ideology of "national unity" across Hungary. He has had a new constitution adopted, weakened the constitutional court, and staffed the most important institutions with his own people. His power would thus go on radiating outwards even if he were voted out of office.
In the winter he pushed through a media law that has been in full force since July and that dissolves the old radio broadcasting structures. All journalists with the four public channels are now under the authority of the MTVA. All the production and programming will be contracted out centrally, from the MTVA, which will also produce the news for all the channels through its own agency. And the private sector? Two stations considered critical of the government do not know whether their licences will be renewed and on what terms. For a while now they have not been picking up any government advertising contracts.
On a rainy summer day in Budapest several dozen journalists, almost all dismissed, hold a meeting. They look suspiciously at others who, although they still have a job, come in – an expression of solidarity? Or perhaps some mole who will submit a report afterwards? A young reporter is proud to have been fired, since it confirms to him that he did everything right. He points to the crowd of laid-off journalists, laughs and says: “They’re among the best. By laying them off Viktor Orban has succeeded in creating the most dangerous of strongholds against himself."
And it’s growing. The next round of layoffs will come in September. This time, approx. 400 employees will be affected.