BUDAPEST - When the coronavirus pandemic came to Hungary in March, media freedom in the country was already on life support. The consolidation of news organizations into the hands of a few government allies, and financial pressure placed on independent outlets, had led to a degree of media control described by Reporters Without Borders as "unprecedented" in the European Union.
News outlets globally are adapting to restrictions and regulations imposed under the pandemic, but Hungary's measures were condemned internationally for lacking a timeline and for their invasiveness.
A package of pandemic-related laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament March 30 gave the government power to rule by decree indefinitely, bypassing normal parliamentary procedures. Some fear the laws, known as the Authorization Act, could be used to silence critical media.
Among other things, the act allows prison terms of one to five years for those who "spread falsehoods or distorted facts" that could alarm the public. Distributing information that "inhibits the successful defense" against the pandemic is also punishable by five-year prison terms.
While the measures are temporary, the government will be able to apply the extended false news laws under future states of emergency.
The EU, which has repeatedly criticized Prime Minister Viktor Orban's attempts to tighten control on the media and judiciary, condemned the act as "incompatible with European values," and the broad language in the emergency measures caused concern over their potential scope.
"It is a definite risk that a kind of chilling effect will appear in the Hungarian media and self-censorship will occur," said Agnes Urban, an associate professor at Corvinus University in Budapest and media researcher at Mertek Media Monitor, a Hungarian nongovernmental organization. "Even true facts can be subject to provisions of the law if the government deems that they do not support its efforts to fight the pandemic."
While a thirst for information about the pandemic has led to a surge in readership for some independent outlets, several pro-government news outlets and prominent media personalities called for journalists to be arrested for their coverage even before the passage of measures on fake news.
In an interview on the pro-government Hir TV, one journalist suggested the time had come to "put a muzzle on certain parts of the press," while another wondered when Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-chief of Hungary's largest online news site, Index, would be "locked up."
"The government-tied media was constantly attacking Index, saying that we were spreading fake news, and it shocked and outraged us. We weren't spreading fake news, but reporting on facts which we considered important," Dull told VOA News.
In April, the website of the Hungarian public broadcaster's news program Hirado launched an online "fake news monitor" to debunk false statements about the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the items featured come from opposition politicians or articles by government-critical news organizations.
Szazadveg, a conservative think tank often commissioned by the government and Orban's ruling Fidesz party to conduct polling and research, publishes its own list of so-called fake news, including articles from critical media and Facebook posts from opposition politicians.
The site contested a claim by weekly magazine 168 Ora that Hungary's COVID-19 death-to-infection rate was exceptionally high by using a different metric than 168 Ora to measure deaths. The think tank also listed the Hungarian Academy of Science's recommendation for broad testing as "fake news."
Urban, the media researcher, says messages portraying independent outlets as purveyors of fake news "legitimize anti-democratic actions that should not be allowed."
"The legitimate goal [of countering fake news] is being confused with incitement against journalists and opposition politicians, which is terribly dangerous," she said. "[The pro-government media] are very clearly conflating crazy fake news allegations made on Facebook with the news printed by the independent media that the government doesn't really like."
Editor-in-chief of the pro-government website Pesti Sracok, Gergely Huth, who said on Hir TV that those spreading fake news will have to be "placed in police cars and taken away," told VOA that his words had been distorted, and that "it would not even occur to any sane person to arrest any journalist or subject them to any criminal sanctions."
"We were talking about the operators of the fake news factories that proliferated on the internet and on Facebook, who ... tried to incite the fear of death in people using fake news during the pandemic," Huth said.
Prior to the introduction of the controversial fake news provisions, Hungary's critical media were already marginalized after years of pro-government allies taking over major outlets and consolidating media holdings into powerful conglomerates.
The editor-in-chief of Hungary's then-largest online news site Origo was dismissed in 2014, allegedly under political pressure, and more than 30 Origo journalists later resigned over what they said was a pro-government shift in editorial content. Hungary's leading daily newspaper, the left-leaning Nepszabadsag, was suddenly shuttered in 2016 after being purchased by a firm with ties to Orban, a move that journalists described as a "coup."
And in 2018, hundreds of Hungary's pro-government outlets were simultaneously donated by their owners to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), a media conglomerate run by people with close ties to Orban and Fidesz. The 476 outlets account for 40% of all news and public affairs revenues in Hungary's media market, according to Mertek Media Monitor.
Hungary's competition authority launched an investigation into the merger but dropped its inquiry after Orban declared KESMA to be "of national strategic importance," exempting it from the authority's purview.
Scared into silence
While some journalists say they do not believe the fake news laws will be used to jail reporters, uncertainty over what qualifies as a crime and the threat of mere accusations could lead to self-censorship.
"That law was not aimed at professional journalists, reporters and newsmakers, but was made to intimidate regular people," said Peter Erdelyi, senior editor and reporter for news portal 444. "Exactly the kind of people that got taken away by police last week."
On May 12, police detained a 64-year-old man near Szerencs on suspicion of fear-mongering over a Facebook post that criticized the government's handling of the pandemic and called Orban "a cruel tyrant." Prosecutors found no crime.
The following day, a member of the opposition party Momentum was taken into custody on accusations of "obstructing efforts to combat the pandemic" over a social media post that was later found to be true, according to reports. He also was released without charge.
Nearly 100 criminal proceedings have been launched for spreading false news that could alarm.
Such arrests, coupled with frequent televised reminders by Hungary's coronavirus emergency task force to be mindful of what is shared online, are leading to an atmosphere of intimidation that makes it difficult for journalists to obtain information, Erdelyi said.
"It affects sources a great deal. Even people who used to talk to us won't talk to us anymore because they're intimidated. It's a whole atmosphere," Erdelyi said.
Obtaining information of even a nonpolitical nature has become more difficult as potential sources stay quiet, said Dull, of Index. Medical experts "who could give relevant data about the pandemic" are being told not to speak to the media, forcing them to provide anonymous information which the government then brands as "fake news," he said.
Journalists have also struggled to obtain information from official sources. At its daily virtual news conferences, the emergency task force answers questions emailed in advance, with no opportunity for follow-up questions.
Independent journalists complain that the task force responds to more questions from pro-government media outlets and that questions from some journalists are rarely addressed.
In April, the weekly magazine Magyar Narancs published 15 questions it had been submitting to the emergency task force for weeks with no reply.
A spokesperson for the government told VOA by email that the emergency task force receives many questions each day, which are pooled by topic. The spokesperson did not comment on how the task force decides which questions to answer.
A government decree has also extended from 15 to 45 days the deadline for state institutions to respond to Freedom of Information requests for public records if answering the requests "would endanger public tasks related to the emergency." For larger data sets, the deadline can be extended to 90 days.
"Accessing public information was already a slow process before the epidemic, and with the extended deadline for public information requests, it's possible that you'll only receive answers in three months when the whole epidemic might already be over and the information might have completely lost its relevance," said Blanka Zöldi, a journalist with the nonprofit investigative journalism center Direkt36.
"Journalists are getting stripped of the possibility to share public information and data in a timely manner, when people are actually interested in them," Zöldi said.
Despite these challenges, readership at independent outlets has jumped significantly. Internal figures at Index show daily readership jumped from around 1.5 million to 2 million per day, around one-fifth of the country's population, while page views have grown by millions.
"However much the government media says that we're fake news and shouldn't be believed, we've seen that people are reading us the most. Our readership has grown radically," Dull said, adding he has found that Index's online broadcasts of the daily emergency task force briefings were sometimes viewed at 10 times the rate of the same briefings on the government's webpage.
"It shows that people are turning to the medium that they believe," he said.
In March and April, reader donations drastically increased at 444, which provides its content for free. But Erdelyi says the increase in support has not been enough to offset losses in digital ad revenue, which makes up the majority of the site's income.
"The economic crisis is just setting in, and our readers are not immune to it. If you lose your job or a significant part of your income, are you still going to support the newspaper that you like?" he said.
Hungary's justice minister has said the measures will be lifted next month, but legal observers say a bill recently submitted to Parliament on ending the special legal order would again indefinitely authorize the government to extra-parliamentary rule.
Some provisions in the act, including laws on spreading news that may cause alarm, will remain on the books for use under future state of emergency measures.
In any case, the lifting of the special legal order will not mean the end of the independent media's difficulties.
Before the pandemic, critical outlets struggled to survive on advertising revenues, taking little benefit from the millions the government spent on advertising in select media. In 2017, nearly 88% of total ad revenues for Fidesz-tied daily Magyar Idők came from ads paid for by the government, while the centrist Magyar Nemzet received less than 3% of its ad revenue from the government that year.
Media researcher Urban says that the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could pose an existential danger to Hungary's already delicate environment for independent media.
"No one knows how they can survive in the next months and years. I can imagine that the current independent news portals will simply disappear in a few months. These media companies are extremely vulnerable right now."