Hungary exempts pro-govt media firm from competition rules

The creation in Hungary of a giant, pro-government media conglomerate will not have to be scrutinized by media or competition authorities.

An order signed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and published Wednesday in the official bulletin calls the merger affecting hundreds of broadcast, online and print publications of "national strategic importance in the public interest," exempting it from competition rules.

Last week, 10 companies donated media outlets to a foundation which, by some counts, will control nearly 480 publications and whose operations will be run by Gabor Liszkay, a publisher known for his loyalty to Orban.

Most of the publications given to the Central European Press and Media Foundation were acquired or founded by allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the past few years. Many turned from relatively independent outlets into uncritical supporters of Orban's policies, with a firm grip on the large majority of ads commissioned by state companies or directly by the government, one of the biggest advertisers in the country.

Analysts said the merger of the media companies into the foundation and its exemption from competition rules reflected a "new phase" in Orban's concentration of power.

"With this decision, what is effectively the government media empire has been elevated above the markets," said Peter Krausz, a specialist in media politics at the Policy Agenda think tank. "The lopsided (media) playing field was created long ago. This is merely the last drop in the bucket, the ratification of the centralization of everything in this right-wing media empire."

"With this foundation, they have created an incredibly huge advertising and readership hub which until now market rules did not allow to be formed," Krausz concluded, noting that in some earlier cases Hungarian authorities blocked much more narrow media mergers from taking place because of competition concerns.

Since Orban's return to power in 2010, international studies consider media freedoms to have steadily declined in Hungary. In April, Orban won a third consecutive four-year term, his fourth overall.

Numerous Hungarian and international journalist and media associations have expressed concerns about the effects the conglomerate may have on media pluralism and press freedoms.