Media freedom and pluralism have been under attack in Hungary since Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and KDNP (the Christian Democratic People’s Party) formed a coalition to take power in 2010. The Fidesz-KDPN government, through its absolute majority in parliament, has taken a series of legislative measures and other steps to limit independent reporting and facilitate media takeovers by owners and investors politically sympathetic to Fidesz.
This report highlights six areas of concern, each illustrated by specific cases or developments. They include: (1) politicized and biased media regulation, (2) declining media pluralism, (3) political interference in editorial decisions, (4) arbitrary obstacles to journalists’ access to government information and sources, (5) surveillance, including use of Pegasus spyware against journalists, and (6) smear campaigns against independent journalists.
Reporters Without Borders 2023 press freedom index ranks Hungary 72nd on its global press freedom scale, second worst only to Greece in the EU. Hungary’s now distorted media market, the government’s control of public service media, and pressure on independent and investigative journalists, including surveillance and smear campaigns, would not have been possible without the broader undermining and capture of democratic institutions by Orban’s Fidesz government.
The government’s increased control over public and private media, part of its broader assault on rule of law in Hungary, undermines the ability of the media to hold the executive to account, a vital function in a democracy. The attack on media freedom and pluralism in Hungary violates binding EU and Council of Europe standards that protect freedom of speech and information, and a free press and represents a violation of the principle of democracy as enshrined in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.
Following the Fidesz-KDPN 2010 election win, the government began its efforts to control the media. It used its two-thirds supermajority in parliament to overhaul Hungary’s media law, packed the Media Authority and Media Council—the country’s media regulator—with Fidesz loyalists, and sacked over 1,600 journalists and media workers at the national public media company (MTVA) in several waves of dismissals, replacing them with staff who follow the government’s narrative, effectively turning MTVA into a government-controlled broadcaster.
One current and one former employee at M1, a public service television channel under MTVA, told Human Rights Watch that reporters are told by their editors what to report on, which terms to use and to avoid, and, if they do not like it, to leave.
The government’s control of the media tightened with the 2018 establishment of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), a private foundation used as a vehicle to consolidate the pro-Orban media. Shortly after KESMA was formed, media owners close to the Orban government transferred ownership of media outlets to the foundation, in some cases without receiving any compensation, and it now controls more than 470 media outlets. Prime Minister Orban signed an order stating that the consolidation of ownership under the foundation was a matter of “national strategic importance in the public interest”, and so the government was allowed to and did bypass national competition rules. This concentration of private media outlets undermines genuine media pluralism, distorts the media market and impedes the ability of people to access independent information.
In addition to this consolidation, since 2010, a number of important independent media outlets have shut down, such as oppositional daily newspaper Nepszabadsag or turned pro-government overnight, including web-based outlets Origo and Index. This further limits the public’s ability to access independent reporting about the activities of the government and state authorities.
Journalists’ lack of access to official information and sources is another obstacle to effective independent reporting. Journalists report that state institutions often do not respond in a timely fashion, if at all, to data requests for vital public information that should be readily provided under freedom of information laws, or only produce it if they are challenged in court. In some cases, information is heavily redacted and sometimes illegible. Some independent journalists say they are arbitrarily kept out of government press conferences, are kept away from entrances to the prime minister’s office and face difficulty approaching senior officials directly to ask them questions on subjects of public concern.
Several independent journalists and outlets that operate in this hostile space have reported they have been targeted with Pegasus spyware and regularly face smear campaigns by pro-government outlets, creating a climate of fear and intimidation.
European Union institutions are scrutinizing Hungary over the deterioration of the rule of law, including in relation to media freedom. In an unprecedented move, the European Parliament in September 2018 concluded that it believed Hungary at risk of breaching the EU’s core values and triggered response proceedings under article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, proceedings now underway before the Council of the European Union.
Under a new rule of law conditionality mechanism launched in 2021 and other financial conditionality, which link access to EU funds to the respect for rule of law and fundamental rights, the EU froze funds to Hungary until the government addresses a long list of rules of law concerns, in particular on public procurement rules, judicial independence and the effectiveness of prosecutorial action, and the fight against corruption. In December 2023, the Commission decided to release a part of the funds linked to judicial independence, despite criticism and disagreement by Hungarian and international civil society groups that the needed benchmarks had not been fulfilled. The Commission kept blocked €21 billion over the Hungarian authorities’ persistent breaches of rule of law principles.
In May, the European Parliament Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware (PEGA) in a report strongly condemned the illegitimate use of spyware by EU governments including Hungary.
Hungary’s government and public authorities have a duty to ensure an even playing field for media outlets and facilitate the publication of different views and opinions. Hungary’s government should cease its attacks on independent media, remove unjustifiable restrictions on access to information, and ensure that journalists can work without interference.
EU institutions should make it a priority to hold Hungary to account for its interference with media freedom, part of Hungary’s broader attacks on rule of law. The EU Council should move its scrutiny forward under article 7—the primary treaty instrument to address serious EU treaty violations—by adopting specific and time-bound rule-of-law recommendations, including on media freedom, and hold a vote under this mechanism in the EU treaty to determine if the actions of the Hungarian authorities in relation to rule of law and democratic institutions, including media freedom, constitute a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values .
To the Government of Hungary
- Ensure the genuine independence of the Media Authority and Council from political influence as a first step to toward restoring media freedom;
- Ensure government held public data and other information that should be publicly available, is accessible to all without discrimination paying particular attention to journalists’ access, and that journalists can receive timely responses from public bodies and ministries. Strengthen Freedom of Information legislation to reinforce this;
- Refrain from imposing, formally or informally, and remove where they exist, arbitrary restrictions on journalists’ movement inside parliament and outside the prime minister’s office;
- Resume regular press conferences, guarantee media invited includes independent outlets, and use the conferences to allow journalists to ask questions of government and receive timely responses;
- Grant accreditation for government events to all journalists who apply;
- Launch a credible and thorough investigation into alleged use of spyware by Hungarian authorities against journalists; comply with EU Parliament recommendations on addressing spyware-related abuses in the EU;
- Publicly condemn smear campaigns and attacks by politicians against journalists, and intervene where lawful to do so to end them;
- Ensure transparency in the funding of public service media and issue performance criteria that allow objective assessment of whether public service broadcasters are meeting their responsibilities of being balanced, impartial and serving the public interest;
- Strengthen the Code of Ethics of Public Service Media and ensure that public service media channels offer fair, impartial, and balanced news coverage that includes a variety of voices and opinions;
- Reform state advertising rules to ensure equal access for independent and opposition media outlets;
- Ensure fair competition in Hungary’s media market by adequately applying the Competition Act to address existing media concentration, including the concentration of media outlets by KESMA;
To European Union Institutions and Member States
- Members States should press for a vote in the EU Council under article 7.1 of the Treaty of the European Union to determine that Hungary’s systematic erosion of the rule of law and human rights, which includes attacks on media freedom, constitutes “a clear risk of a serious breach” of the founding values of the EU;
- Call on Hungarian authorities to repeal the defense of sovereignty law, that targets journalists and civil society activists;
- Refrain from releasing suspended funds under financial conditionality mechanisms until Hungary meets all remedial measures called for by the Commission, and raise concerns on restrictions to freedoms of the press and information in this context;
- Publicly condemn all politically motivated restrictions on the work of independent media and smear campaigns by Hungarian officials against journalists and outlets reporting critically on the Hungarian government;
- Continue EU infringement proceedings against Hungary over the discriminatory and arbitrary decision by the Media Council not to renew the license of Klubrádió;
- Trigger new infringement proceedings against Hungary for non-compliance with EU law guaranteeing institutional fairness in media competition;
- Ensure that the Media Freedom Act empowers EU institutions to address systematic abuses of legislative, economic, and regulatory powers to erode media pluralism and freedom in the EU internal market, and urgently consider triggering infringement proceedings on Hungary on the basis of the Media Freedom Act.
This report is based on analysis of relevant national and international legal and policy instruments, examination of secondary sources and interviews with media freedom experts, human rights and press freedom organizations and media workers.
It includes firsthand accounts of the harmful effects of the government-led clampdown on independent media drawing on Human Rights Watch interviews with two media organizations, 10 journalists and editors, and one media owner. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of local and international non-governmental organizations focusing on media freedom, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Hungarian Mertek Media Monitor, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders.
Interviews were conducted in private in English or Hungarian. Interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview. They were told that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any specific questions. No interviewee received compensation for providing information. Pseudonyms have been used for some interviewees to protect their identities.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Hungarian government in August 2023 seeking their response to a summary of the report findings. At the time of writing no response had been received. Human Rights Watch also wrote to M1 and the Media Authority in December 2023 seeking their response to report findings. At the time of writing M1 had not responded. The Media Authority replied in a letter sent via email dated December 22, 2023, and its responses are reflected in relevant sections of the report.
With respect to terminology this report refers to the Fidesz-KDNP and Fidesz government interchangeably, as the political party alliance or coalition that has been in power in Hungary since 2010.
Politically Motivated Media Regulation
Using its two-third majority in parliament, Fidesz-KDNP in 2010 adopted a new set of media laws that replaced Hungary’s former regulatory bodies with a single entity, the Media Authority, to oversee media and telecommunications. The law also established the Media Council—a body within the Media Authority—to monitor and enforce the new media laws.
According to the 2010 laws, the president of the Media Authority is appointed by the prime minister for a nine-year term, and also serves as the chairperson of the Media Council. The Authority president then appoints the other four senior leaders of the Authority’s management. The remaining four members of the Council are selected by a two-thirds vote of parliament, also to nine-year terms. Given Fidesz’s two-thirds majority in parliament, the Authority and Council are de-facto under Fidesz control, so that the long-terms of the members do not provide any meaningful measure of independence as they might if the appointments process and operation of the bodies was different.
In the run up to the 2022 national elections, the chairman of the Council, nominated by Prime Minister Orban, went into early retirement, enabling Fidesz and Orban to again nominate and appoint a new chairman, this time with a term that runs until 2030. The Media Council has extensive powers in influencing the media market, notably including oversight of the Media Services and Support Trust Fund (MTVA)—a body that manages public service media—and decides on tenders for TV and radio broadcasting licenses and approves media mergers.
The European Commission 2023 report on the rule of law in Hungary, notes that the European University Institute’s Media Pluralism Monitor downgraded its assessment of the independence of Hungary’s Media Authority’s in 2023:
Given the ongoing issue with regard to the authority’s composition, the 2023 Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM) has changed its previous assessment of the independence and effectiveness of the Media Authority from medium to high risk, also referring to the authority’s ‘openly discriminatory’ decision making.
With no meaningful legal safeguards to ensure the Council’s independence, decisions on approving tenders run the risk of being one-sided, discriminatory, and politically motivated. This was evident in the case concerning the sole remaining national radio station critical of the government, Klubradio, which the Council eventually forced off air in June 2021 following lengthy legal proceedings. In response, the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Hungary for refusing to renew Klubradio’s frequency on “highly questionable” grounds that were “disproportionate and non-transparent.” In July 2022, the European Commission referred the case to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU). The case was pending at this writing.
According to Mertek Media Monitor, a Hungarian non-governmental media monitoring organization, between 2018 and 2021, the Media Council awarded 75 percent of all tenders to local radio stations that serve Fidesz’s interests.
While the 2010 Media Act prohibits media concentration, independent analysis concludes that up to 80 percent of Hungarian media outlets are owned by companies whose owners have close links to the government. Media sources, such as 444.hu, and Mertek Media Monitor, have long documented on reported on ties between the government and pro-government business leaders.
The clearest example of media concentration occurred in 2018 when pro-government media owners transferred their media holdings to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA). To sidestep competition rules, the government passed a decree declaring the merger a “national strategic interest,” which also speed up the process and avoided formal scrutiny by the Competition Authority and the Media Council.
In 2020, the politically compromised Constitutional Court, with a majority of Fidesz appointed judges, ruled the merger constitutional, an example of the ways in which the undermining of different democratic institutions by the Hungarian government intersect and amplify the rule of law crisis in the country.
As the UN independent expert on media freedom noted following her visit to Hungary in 2022, the Media Council could nevertheless have looked into the merger either at the time or later, but failed to do so:
The Media Council did not pronounce itself on the merger of almost 500 outlets under the control of KESMA. Nor has it made any effort since then to evaluate the impact of the merger under KESMA, or the consequences of the closure of other independent media outlets (or those critical of the Government) on the freedom, independence, pluralism or quality of the media in Hungary.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch dated December 22, 2023, the Media Authority described itself as an “autonomous regulatory body accountable solely to the law” and the Media Council as an “independent body” whose members are bound by “strict conflict of interest” rules and whose decisions can be challenged in administrative court. The letter states that the nomination processes to the Media Authority and Council are in line with relevant domestic laws.
In response to Human Rights Watch findings on the Media Council’s refusal to renew Klubradio’s frequency, the letter from the Media Authority says that it was done on objective grounds, claiming repeated violations by Klubradio to submit monthly data regarding program quotas.
The letter from the Media Authority contained no substantive response to questions regarding safeguarding the independence of public service media, merely stating that the Public Service Foundation, under the authority of the Media Council, should “provide public service media and news service programs and protect their independence.”
Declining Media Pluralism
Media ownership concentration poses a serious risk to media pluralism in Hungary. It threatens diversity in media content and increases the risk of one-sided reporting, both of which undermine people’s right to obtain information and the ability of the media to hold the executive to account.
Transparency of media ownership is opaque and limited and formal owners are not necessarily the real decision makers when it comes to editorial matters. The 2023 Media Pluralism Monitor report on Hungary puts the risk to media pluralism in the country as high. The 2023 EU Commission Rule of Law report puts media pluralism at very high risk in Hungary. In her January 2022 report on Hungary, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, stated that “the distortionary practices in the media market by successive Fidesz coalition Governments have led to the predominance of pro-government outlets and the decline of independent media or media critical of the Government.”
Private media outlets part of the KESMA have adopted a pro-government editorial line. An obvious example of how news stories are disseminated through multiple outlets under the pretext of media pluralism is the 19 regional outlets, corresponding to Hungary’s 19 counties, which frequently run identical news stories, with identical typography, fonts, pictures, hyperlinks, published at the exact same time, calling into question their journalistic independence and suggesting that the number of outlets on offer does not amount to genuine media pluralism or diversity.
In addition to the 2018 consolidation of pro-Orban media under the KESMA foundation, mentioned above, the ruling party has benefitted from the forcible closure or takeover of previously independent media.
The forcible closure in 2016 of Hungary’s biggest opposition daily, Nepszabadsag, is an example of the former. The 2014 and 2020 takeovers of web-based news sites Origo and Index are examples of takeovers.
In 2014, the editor-in-chief of then-independent Origo was fired following the publication of a story on alleged misuse of public funds by the state secretary in the Prime Minister’s office.  While Origo justified the firing as part of reorganization and restructuring, editorial staff say the dismissal was ordered by Magyar Telekom, the company that owned Origo at the time. At least 30 people resigned from Origo in protest and a newly appointed editorial team adopted a pro-government editorial line.
Following a management proposal to outsource content creation in July 2020, the chief executive of Index resigned in protest, and the editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, was removed from the managing board and fired as chief editor. Dull had expressed concerns in April 2020 that the new ownership would endanger the news site’s editorial independence. Despite a unanimous request from Index staff to reinstate Dull, the management refused, leading the majority of staff to resign, after which Index adopted a pro-government editorial line.
The concentration of private media aligned with the government and ruling party has significantly eroded media pluralism and diversity, effectively depriving people of information necessary to make informed choices about political governance.
Political Interference with Editorial Content
Ruling party politicians and government officials directly influence the content of news at public service media outlets, actively influence private pro-government media outlets and seek to interfere in editorial content at outlets that remain independent.
The European University Institute’s 2023 Media Pluralism Report on Hungary states that the ruling party has “a very strong influence over content production and editorial decision making in the PSM [public service media], as well as in many private media.”
A March 2022 Direkt36 investigation shows leaked emails dating back to 2019 from the Prime Minister’s chief of press to the director of the Hungarian Telegraph Office, MTI, which is the state news agency part of the public service holding company. The emails instruct the MTI on a story and how to write and source it. According to the Direkt36 investigation, the leaked emails show how the government exercises influence over news by having journalists working for publicly funded MTI consult with the government before reporting on certain topics, while preventing reporting on other topics, leaving no room for editorial or journalistic freedom.
A journalist at the public broadcast channel M1 explained to Human Rights Watch that important editorial content decisions at the channel are dictated directly by government leaders:
All [editorial] decisions, agendas and narration come from top and down the hierarchy. I don’t write anything that goes against the narrative.
The journalist corroborated what the Direkt36 investigation exposed, that the channel director of M1 and director of MTI, Zsolt Nemeth, takes decisions on what gets reported and that Nemeth and other M1 colleagues receive communication on this from Fidesz which they pass on down the M1 hierarchy. Nemeth disseminates approved topics to daily editors who in turn distribute story assignments to reporters. The journalist said that M1 reporters are forced to use stories that are featured in pro-government daily outlets such as web-based news site Origo and daily Magyar Nemzet. According to the journalist:
It’s like the PR department at a company. Reporters shouldn’t be curious. They shouldn’t reveal things and certainly shouldn’t be critical. They must follow directions and be good team workers.
In a leaked audio recording from a 2019 meeting, Balazs Bende, foreign news editor at public service broadcaster M1, can be heard telling staff that “this institution doesn’t support the opposition coalition,” and “we all work accordingly” and that “anyone who doesn’t like it should resign.” Leaked video footage from a March 2019 interview from M1, shows how an M1 reporter tells a pro-government political analyst to use a certain word, informing the analyst that “they asked us to use this word.”
The Direkt36 investigation quotes anonymous sources in public service media who state that ministry press officers reach out to them via phone to dictate what should be highlighted and what should be left out when covering a particular story. It also quotes several leaked emails where staff from government ministries instruct public service media on what stories to report on and how.
Another journalist who formerly worked at the publicly funded state tv channel, M1, Andras Rostovanyi, had similar experiences of political interference working at M1. He specifically mentioned he received direct orders by email from his editor not to refer to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty in his reporting. Human Rights Watch received multiple emails from Rostovanyi from his time at M1 that show political and editorial interference in his and others’ work.
Both M1 journalists stated how they were told what stories to write, how to write them, and, at times, what terminology to use. The current M1 employee told Human Rights Watch that journalists were not allowed to use the word “refugee” in 2015 during the refugee crisis but had to use the word “migrant.” Rostovanyi said that he similarly had to use the word “migrant” instead of “refugee” and was instructed not to use pictures of migrant children in his reporting. A directive to use “migrant” or “illegal migrant” instead of “asylum seekers” or “refugees” is consistent with the government’s hostile migration and asylum policy and insistence on describing those who arrive at Hungary’s borders as economic migrants unworthy of international protection.
Independent journalists and a media owner also reported attempts of political interference with their investigations. Tamas Bodoky, editor-in-chief at Atlatszo, an independent investigative news site, recalled several incidents to Human Rights Watch when he was contacted by government officials or Fidesz politicians concerning stories he was working on coupled with requests for meetings.
Zoltan Varga, the owner of Hungary’s largest independent media company, Central Media Group, which includes news site 24.hu, told Human Rights Watch that he frequently receives phone calls from people working in ministries telling him not to run certain stories.
Varga said that businessmen close to the government tried to get him to sell his media portfolio, which includes Nok Lapja, a women’s magazine that reaches hundreds of thousands of women across Hungary, some who do not necessarily follow political news. This makes it a publication of interest to the ruling party, Varga said.
Varga told Human Rights Watch that when he purchased Central Media Group in 2014, he was invited to several meetings with Minister Rogan and one with Prime Minister Orban. “They made it clear that they wanted to buy my company,” said Varga. “I didn’t want to sell it because I didn’t want to turn it into another government propaganda machine. I didn’t want to see the country fall into total darkness.”
As a result, Varga said, the pro-government media in 2015 and 2016 launched a smear campaign against him, accusing him of tax cheating and falsehoods about his private life. “Then government ‘friends’ would reach out about selling… I feel cornered, trapped but I have to stand my ground. I’m not selling,” Varga said.
The government escalated its attacks on the free press when the national tax authorities in November 2022 pressed criminal charges against Varga for alleged tax fraud. Varga told Human Rights Watch the probe is baseless. His case was under investigation at this writing.
Denial of Access to Information and Sources
I can’t really work as a journalist… I don’t get responses, not from Fidesz, not from government, not from public institutions. We just don’t get answers to questions. We can’t get into government press conferences, with the excuse that there is ‘no space,’
— Istvan Devenyi, editor at Magyar Hang, March 2023
The government deprives Hungarians of vital information by making it unusually difficult for independent journalists and others to access information from public authorities. Journalists told Human Rights Watch that obstacles include: no response or slow response by public authorities to requests for data and public information that should be readily provided under freedom of information laws; lack of physical access to, or responses from, government officials and institutions; and the drying up of sources primarily within government and state institutions.
According to journalists, problems in accessing information increased after the government in March 2020 declared a state of emergency due to Covid-19, allowing it to rule by decree without parliamentary or effective judicial oversight. The state of emergency extended the response for public institutions to freedom of information requests from 15 to up to 90 days, frequently resulting in information received being outdated or if provided, heavily redacted. The regulation ceased in January 2023.
The government also used the Covid-19 state of emergency to prevent hospital workers from speaking to independent media, criminalized “fear mongering” and the spreading of “fake news” during the pandemic and banned independent journalists from visiting hospitals.
Journalists told Human Rights Watch they struggle to obtain timely information on what should be straightforward subjects. Journalists at Direkt36 for example struggled for a year to obtain public information about the number of hospital acquired infections from 2017 to 2021 and only received it after suing authorities. “If you get any response, which is rare, it’s heavily redacted, it’s too late, it’s no longer a story,” Andras Kiraly, editor at independent online news site 444.hu, said. “But most often, authorities don’t even bother responding at all,” Kiraly said.
Atlatszo editor Bodoky described how authorities use various methods to obscure information, if they respond to freedom of information requests at all, including forwarding information as illegible Excel sheets and blurred scans that are all but incomprehensible to the reader. As a result, independent journalists and outlets too often have to resort to court proceedings, suing authorities for failing to provide public information. “We have taken multiple freedom of information request cases to the courts,” Bodoky said. “We usually win those cases but by the time we get access, which can take up to two years, the story is not interesting or relevant anymore.”
Independent media outlets told Human Rights Watch that regularly-held government press briefings are one of few fora where they get a chance to ask questions and sometimes get answers. Even during such briefings, pro-government outlets are favored by the government, with others are among the last to be called upon. Andras Kiraly, editor at 444.hu, said that while his outlet receives invitations to government press conferences and attends, 444.hu is among the last to be allowed to ask questions and frequently receives no substantive answers to questions from the Prime Minister’s Office hosting the conferences.
One independent outlet, Magyar Hang, does not even get invites to such briefings and its reporters do not gain access. “They [the government] usually claim the room is full, which is of course not true. We don’t even get invites to government press conferences,” Istvan Devenyi, journalist at Magyar Hang, said. Despite repeated questions by Magyar Hang and other outlets as to why the outlet is not allowed to attend the briefings, the government has failed to provide a concrete reason. Magyar Hang is one of the biggest national news weeklies in Hungary; and pro-government outlets with significantly smaller circulation regularly attend government press briefings.
Journalists also face difficulties meeting with or posing questions to ruling party parliamentarians and government officials for responses to questions on matters of public interest. Following amendments to the house rules by the speaker Lajos Kover (a Fidesz MP) in 2019, journalists are restricted to a small cordoned off pen in parliament which ruling party politicians easily evade, thus avoiding their questions.
Similarly, the Prime Minister’s office building has been cordoned off since late November 2021, with a large police presence guarding the area. The cordon prevents journalists from asking questions of the prime minister and other government officials. The authorities claim it is a construction site and also refer to its status as a “protected object,” a security designation used for a number of high-profile government sites, to justify the cordon. While adjacent buildings have construction going on, there is no visible construction to the Prime Minister’s office building and government officials walk in and out of the area without protective gear, as prescribed by law for entering a construction site. Police in July confirmed to local activists that they had orders to protect the site and, by extension, Prime Minister Orban.
Obstructing access to information and officials interfering with the work of journalists demonstrates the government’s abuse of power and harmful effects on freedom of information and the work of free press.
According to an investigation by the European Parliament Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware (PEGA), the Hungarian government has used Pegasus spyware, which it purchased in 2017, to target journalists, politicians, and activists. The European Parliament has called for a full investigation by Hungarian authorities into the misuse of Pegasus and for institutional and legal safeguards to prevent future abuse. The Hungarian government has admitted purchasing the software but denied using it on Hungarian citizens. A January 2022 report by the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (hereinafter ”Data Protection Authority”) found that the government’s use of Pegasus spyware against citizens was lawful, justifying use due to national security concerns.
According to Daniel Dobrentey, Director of the Media Freedom Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, technical surveillance is one of the main issues facing independent media in Hungary, as it deters sources from speaking to journalists knowing that there is a possibility they might be surveilled.
Technical investigations of cell phones by Amnesty International shows that at least four independent journalists have been targeted by the Pegasus spyware.
Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative journalist at independent online news site Direkt36 who was among those identified by Amnesty International as having been targeted, told Human Rights Watch:
I lost sources after the Pegasus incident… . It’s harder to work now because people are afraid to talk. This phenomenon has increased now more than before Pegasus. Meeting me comes with its extra risks.
Agnes Urban, researcher at Mertek Monitor, a civil society organization monitoring press freedom in Hungary, stressed the detrimental effects of Pegasus and other spyware on free speech and freedom of information. “Pegasus was a message to sources that it’s dangerous to give information,” Urban said.
Journalists also reported being subjected to physical surveillance with the aim of intimidating and deterring them from working on sensitive stories.
Kiraly, the editor of 444.hu, told Human Rights Watch how he was physically surveilled and threatened in late 2013 in connection with a story he was investigating concerning the Hungarian government’s secret service agency upgrading its voice recognition capacities and automated telecommunications surveillance. Kiraly said that when he was out one night with colleagues, he was approached by a stranger who told him to be careful about who he talked to on the phone. “He [the stranger] then left and I felt shaken up, I knew it was in connection with the story I was working on,” Kiraly said.
Varga, the owner of Central Media Group, told Human Rights Watch that on several occasions between 2015 until end of 2022, he spotted strangers outside his house taking pictures, and others following him on the streets and public places. According to Varga, the alleged surveillance ceased after what he says were politically motivated tax fraud charges brought against him in November 2022.
Pro-government media discredit independent media outlets and journalists, referring to them as traitors, fake news factories, “Soros mercenaries,” and “dollar media”—a term used by pro-government media to discredit independent outlets, accusing them of having a political agenda financed by US liberals.
Tamas Bodoky, editor-in-chief at the independent news site Atlatszo, told Human Rights Watch how the outlet and he personally became targets of a smear campaign in December 2022. It started when the pro-government daily news site, Origo, ran a story alleging Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros built “dollar media” by linking independent media outlets and journalists to opposition parties, and falsely accusing Atlatszo of being part of a leftist propaganda machine controlled by the opposition. The smear campaign against Atlatszo culminated in January when the pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet ran an op-ed by pro-government journalist Gergely Huth who falsely claimed that Atlatszo was endangering the lives of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. Bodoky explained:
He [Huth] accused me of taking Judas money, referred to me as “traitor to the nation” and called on secret services to stop me. We wanted to reply to Huth’s op-ed in Magyar Nemzet but the daily said no.
Bodoky said that the following day, pro-government organization Civil Union Forum held a press conference concerning national security, allegedly following an investigation of Atlatszo’s funding. Bodoky explained:
Civil Union Forum [erroneously] concluded that Atlatszo is lying about foreign funding and that we are a money laundering platform, that we are a spy organization embedded from abroad, and called on secret services to investigate us.
In October 2023, pro-government outlet Origo ran a piece entitled “The Soros Dollars are Pouring into Telex,” insinuating that Telex’s news reporting is controlled by George Soros. Also in October 2023, Origo published a video discrediting several independent journalists and outlets, calling them “liars” and “propagandists.”
The false claims of independent media working as political lobbyists on behalf of the opposition is linked to a government investigation of opposition parties receiving foreign funding during the 2022 election campaign.
According to Bodoky, the government has since extended the investigation to include any media outlet that gets financial support from abroad. Prime Minister Orban, in a January 2023 radio interview with state radio broadcaster Kossuth, said that Hungary needs a new law to prevent foreign funds reaching media. In December 2023, the Hungarian parliament passed the government’s “defence of sovereignty” law which allows investigations into what groups and individuals the government describes as “left-wing journalists, pseudo-NGOs and ‘dollar’ politicians” who allegedly receive foreign-funding.
Hungary’s International Obligations
Hungary is party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and as an EU member is also bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. All three treaties protect fundamental rights to freedom of expression and information, privacy, freedom of association, and personal security, all of which are at stake in the attack on media outlined in this report.
International human rights law protects the right to privacy and bars arbitrary or unlawful infringements on the right. Restrictions on privacy are only permissible if they are necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose and provided for in law. Pegasus spyware has been used to illegally or arbitrarily surveil activists or journalists, violating their rights to privacy, undermining free expression and association, and threatening their personal security and lives.
Media freedom is part of the state’s obligations to protect freedom of expression as set out in article 10 of the ECHR, article 19 of the ICCPR. Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, protects freedom of expression and information and explicitly guarantees respect for freedom and pluralism of the media. 
The European Court of Human Rights has consistently underscored that freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, is “one of the essential foundations of a democratic society” and that that there can be “no democracy without pluralism” in media. This is further reflected in the inclusion of freedom of expression as one of the fundamental values on which the European Union is founded, in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.
The European Court has unequivocally stated that governments are under the duty to protect, and if need be, to take positive measures to safeguard and promote media pluralism. Emphasizing the importance of media pluralism, it has condemning situations whereby a powerful political group in a society is permitted to obtain a position of dominance over the audiovisual media and exercise pressure on broadcasters. The Court has observed that with respect to media pluralism, as well a negative duty of non-interference, governments have a positive obligation “to put in place an appropriate legislative and administrative framework to guarantee effective pluralism”.
Freedom of information means that citizens should have access to a variety of information, primarily different opinions and ideas, but also a variety of cultural aspects and expressions. Through its deliberate actions to dismantle media pluralism and its continued clampdown on independent journalists, the Hungarian government is in breach of its obligations on freedom of expression, including under ECHR article 10 and article 11 of the Charter on Fundamental Rights.
The EU Rule of Law Mechanism contains specific reference to media freedom and pluralism, including independence of media regulatory bodies, transparency of media ownership and government interference and frameworks for protection of journalists. The 2018 Audiovisual Media Service Directive contains relevant legal safeguards binding on EU member states, including online content moderation, independence of media regulators and the transparency of media ownership.
To set rules to protect media pluralism and independence in the EU, the Commission in September 2022 proposed a European Media Freedom Act. The Act is currently under negotiations before the European Parliament and Council.
This report was researched and written by Human Rights Watch. Benjamin Ward, deputy director in the Europe and Central Asia division, edited the report. The report was also reviewed by Judith Sunderland, Europe and Central Asia associate director, Iskra Kirova, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, Philippe Dam, EU director, Zach Campbell, senior surveillance researcher, Technology and Human Rights, and Arvind Ganesan, Economic Justice and Rights director. Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor, provided legal review. Joe Saunders, deputy program director, provided program review. Elida Vikic, senior coordinator in the Europe and Central Asia division, provided editorial assistance. Travis Carr, publications officer; Fitzroy Hepkins, senior administrative manager, and José Martínez, administrative officer, produced the report.
We would like to thank all those named in the report and those whose names we withheld at their request or for security reasons, for giving of their time and sharing their experiences with us. Without their willingness to speak, this report would not have been possible.