The Hungarian website that shows how a free press can die

The New York Times reports:

Hungary’s leading news website, Origo, had a juicy scoop: A top aide to the far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, had used state money to pay for sizable but unexplained expenses during secret foreign trips. The story embarrassed Mr. Orban and was a reminder that his country still had an independent press.

But that was in 2014. Today, Origo is one of the prime minister’s most dutiful media boosters, parroting his attacks on migrants and on George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist demonized by the far right on both sides of the Atlantic.

And if Origo once dug into Mr. Orban’s government, it now pounces on his political opponents.

“Let’s look at the affairs of Laszlo Botka!” a headline blared this month in a salacious take on the only mayor of a major Hungarian city not aligned with Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz. “Serious scandals, mysteries surround the socialist mayor of Szeged.”

If little known outside Hungary, Origo is now a cautionary tale for an age in which democratic norms and freedom of expression are being challenged globally — and President Trump and other leaders have intensified attacks on the free press.

In many ways, Hungary has foreshadowed the democratic backsliding now evident in different corners of the world. Since winning power in 2010, Mr. Orban has steadily eroded institutional checks and balances, especially the independent media. His government now oversees state-owned news outlets, while his allies control most of the country’s private media sources, creating a virtual echo chamber for Mr. Orban’s far right, anti-immigrant views.

The story of Origo’s transformation from independent news source to government cheerleader offers a blueprint of how Mr. Orban and his allies pulled this off. Rather than a sudden and blatant power grab, the effort was subtle but determined, using a quiet pressure campaign. [Continue reading…]

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