The weapon against populism: European public media! – The Weekly 44

The debate on the Hungarian, Polish and Slovenian media situation was one of the most highly publicized items on the agenda of the European Parliament’s latest plenary meeting. It came as no surprise since Europe’s democratic political forces have been trying for years to tackle the challenges posed by populist politicians spreading fake news and conspiracy theories. 

The problem can no longer be swept under the rug because, as the plenary debate showed, the number of affected countries is growing: even Slovenia is “on the radar” now.

In my opinion, there are two main areas that you definitely need to mention when you talk about the situation of the media in the 21st century. The first issue, which was also raised in the plenary session, is the authoritarian-leaning governments’ actions against the freedom of speech and media pluralism. As I pointed out in my speech, Hungary is probably in the gravest situation within the EU in this regard as the Orbán regime’s repeated attacks have almost completely liquidated the independent media during Fidesz’ now 11-year-long rule. The process started by reorganizing the Media Council back in the early 2010s. Since then, Orbán’s Fidesz has been the only party to delegate members into this body. The next step was the occupation of the state-run public media, reducing it to a mouthpiece for Fidesz. Since 2016, it’s been common knowledge in Hungary that the public media conveys nothing but Fidesz’ views and it never gives voice to any opposition speaker or political dissenter. In fact, the supposedly public service media often conducts smear campaigns against opposition politicians, regularly using discriminatory and hatemongering remarks in its programmes. However, it was not enough, the process did not stop there: in the meantime, Fidesz took control of all regional newspapers, which serve as the primary source of information for Hungary’s rural population. After that, they began to steamroll all opposition newspapers through politically motivated operations disguised as business transactions with their strawmen. The most widely publicized operation was the liquidation of Népszabadság, the leading leftist-liberal daily paper, but the centre-right Magyar Nemzet, the former opinion shaper suffered an only slightly better fate: the entire editorial staff was replaced and the old newspaper logo is now attached to an inciting outlet that releases fake news. Albeit to a lesser extent, but the same happened to Index, Hungary’s leading online news portal. The opposition Klub Radio was silenced through administrative measures.

Consequently, today’s Hungary has no radio channel to broadcast any opinion other than that of the government, and no printed media outlet is completely independent from the cabinet, either. 

The opposition media has almost entirely been squeezed into the online sphere. Personally, I find it shocking that this was allowed to happen in an EU member state.

The other key area is social media which, on the one hand, is the last stronghold of free voices to speak up against authoritarian regimes but, on the other hand, it also enables the politicians operating such regimes to widely spread their messages. No wonder that the issue of regulating social media and the Internet has more and more often been raised by democratic thinkers as well as populists in recent months.

So what could be the solution in this situation? In its 2019 programme, my Jobbik party has already suggested launching a European public media service. 

I repeated this proposal in my speech addressing the plenary meeting. I believe that every community, including the European Union, needs to speak up in its own voice, especially in critical times like these. They just can’t afford not to. The most obvious solution to reinforce our otherwise fundamental right to freedom of expression and information would be to create a European public media service which, similarly to its state-run counterparts, is independent from commercial advertising, operated by the the European Union and able to reach out to each EU citizen in their own native language. To achieve this goal, the EU could mandate the member state governments to render the EU public media service accessible for all citizens, similarly to the content of state-run media services.

As a result, the European public media service would be independent from member state governments; it would be a credible outlet that conveys information with a consistent concept but in many different languages, thus reinforcing our European identity, unity and cohesion in the face of populist fake news. 

If we can soon organize the widely awaited conference on Europe’s future, I believe the issue of the European public media service should definitely be on the agenda so that we could take real steps to put the plan in motion by engaging our citizens and the civil society. -JOBBIK MEP MÁRTON GYÖNGYÖSI