The re-election of Viktor Orban, the leader of the far-right and anti-immigration Fidesz party, in Hungary has led to the closure of several independent and opposition media outlets across the country, leaving little place for political dissent and public debate according to observers.
Orban will serve his third consecutive term as Prime Minister after his party secured over two-thirds of the parliament in Sunday's General Election.
The Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), one of Hungary's leading opposition -but conservative- dailies, will close its doors Wednesday due to financial problems, according to its publisher, ending the lifespan of its 80 year long printed edition and its website.
“Due to the financing problems of Magyar Nemzet, the owners have decided to cease media content production activity from April 11, 2018. Therefore Magyar Nemzet and its online version mno.hu will close,” the publisher said in on its website.
The closure is, however, no coincidence. Magyar Nemzet's owner Lajos Simicska used to be an ally of Orban and Fidesz before breaking up with them and becoming a fierce opponent. The political shift proved to carry a high price after the government stopped commissioning advertising space in the publication, leading to its eventual collapse.
“Simicska dedicated his past year to revenge (against Orban), and his media portfolio was a conduit for that,” Policy Solutions analyst Tamas Boros said. “Now that he sees Orban with another two-thirds majority, it was no longer worth his while.”
“He sees the results, anticipates government revenge, and is shutting down unprofitable media organizations," Boros added.
Lanchid Radio, a broadcaster associated with Magyar Nemzet's parent company, will also close and the group's publisher is already looking for buyers for other publications and broadcaster Simicska outlets, which could be acquired by government allies.
Orban's allies have already acquired other media outlets -reportedly at his request-, and state advertising has been channeled to government-friendly outlets, setting up an unfriendly environment for independent journalism and critic voices.
Business people close to Orban purchased Nepszabadsag, the country’s top opposition newspaper, in 2016 to shut it down. Other local and regional dailies, as well as dozens of radio licenses, have also been bought by government allies to reproduce the official narrative.
The closure of Magyar Nemzet will be a milestone in the gradual disappearance of independent media in Hungary that western European Union leaders and international rights groups say underlines the country’s slide into authoritarianism.
The only remaining independent publications with significant reach are the RTL television group owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann and the news website Index.Hu, where a close Simicska associate sits on the board of the foundation that owns the company.
The other independent national newspaper, Nepszava, is owned by ex-Socialist Party treasurer Laszlo Puch via an Austrian company but has far less readership than Index.
International observers raised concerns about Hungary’s general election, saying cooperation between Orbán’s party and state institutions made it hard for opponents of the prime minister to compete. The vote “was characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis,” said Douglas Wake, head of an election observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Wake also said that election advertising using taxpayer money was remarkably similar to advertising promoted by the ruling party.
The mission also noted “hostile and intimidating campaign rhetoric, limited space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice.” Stating that it was “clearly" public media "favored the ruling coalition.” They also noted the freedom of the media and assembly were restricted.
Hungary was rated as the 71st place on the World Press Freedom Index in 2017, falling far below the 23rd where the country stood when Orban was elected prime minister in 2010.
Orban ran on an anti-immigration political platform and anti-Muslim rhetoric, becoming one of the heads of Europe's far-right political sphere.
Sunday's definite electoral results are still to be announced, as votes sent from abroad are still being counted, but everything suggests that Orban, Fidesz and their ally the Christian Democrat Party, will have about 134 seats out of 199 in the national assembly, which means they will have the possibility to amend the constitution and entrench their power.
He announced his third consecutive term -and his fourth overall- will be different than the previous, suggesting “significant changes.”
“We will not continue governing, but a new government will be formed instead,” said Orban, “We don’t intend to extend the previous term but instead we will open a new term. Thus significant changes and modifications can be expected.”