EU funds fact-checking website in Hungary ahead of crucial election – EURACTIV.com

Agence France-Presse (AFP) is launching a website to fight disinformation in Hungary, just three months before the elections that will determine Orbán’s grip on power. However, experts remain skeptical.

lakmusz.hu, the first fact-checking website in Hungary, was launched on Tuesday 11 January following an EU project with an initial duration of 15 months. The European Commission awarded it to the French public press agency AFP, the Hungarian site 444.hu and the Media Universalis Foundation.

AFP will mainly ensure the training and know-how of a team of local journalists from the investigative community. In recent years, AFP has developed an international network of fact-checkers. In Hungary, the agency is Facebook’s first partner in the fight against misinformation.

“We are proud to be part of this innovative initiative to help fight disinformation in Europe, a major challenge for our democracies,” said Phil Chetwynd, director of information at AFP.

Hungarians will go to the polls on April 3 in what promises to be the tightest elections in more than a decade, since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party came to power in 2010 with a parliamentary majority of two-thirds.

Since then, Fidesz has passed a number of media laws, including the controversial 2010 media law. More recently, Orbán’s government passed a legislative ban on media content “promoting or depicting” homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors.

Hungarian media to publish LGBTI campaign despite risk of fines

Three TV stations and several magazines will publish an awareness campaign to educate LGBTI families, although Hungary’s media regulator has previously taken legal action against the networks on the same grounds, EURACTIV media partner Telex reported.

International media

After the fall of the communist regime, the Hungarian media market greatly diversified with the arrival of international players from Germany and European countries. The situation began to reverse after the financial crisis of 2008, combined with global trends such as the drop in advertising revenue and the surge in online platforms.

As a result, many international media groups left the media market, precisely at a time when the government of Viktor Orbán and businessmen close to him began to exercise increasing influence over the media sector.

However, there may be recent signs of a reversal in this trend, as AFP is not the only increasingly active international media outlet in Hungary. US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty restarted operations in September 2020. German broadcaster RTL, one of the few foreign operators not to have left the country, launched an information programme.

Despite this, Dr. Gábor Polyák, associate professor at the University of Pécs, considers that these initiatives can do little to address the structural problems of the Hungarian media market, which is largely distorted by public funding and advertising. politically allocated.

Structural problem

For Polyák, the heart of the problem is that the government has made the media sector economically unattractive, which is reflected in the type of international media operating in the country.

“They are not market players. They risk nothing because they are funded by the US or German government,” he added.

The objective of the fact-checking project is to examine public statements or information that may have a significant influence on public discourse, with particular attention to politicians and public figures.

Yacine Le Forestier, AFP’s deputy director for Europe, told EURACTIV that “the project is not about having a conflict with the authorities or criticizing the government”.

Nevertheless, early articles on the site show him colliding with the Fidesz-led government, and some pro-government outlets are already labeling him as an agent of George Soros, the Hungarian billionaire often targeted by conspiracy theories.

Polyák notes that in such a politicized context, initiatives such as Lakmusz “have no chance of reaching Fidesz voters”.

“It’s a misunderstanding of the whole Hungarian situation after 12 years,” he said, pointing out that the problem in Hungary is not the lack of quality journalistic content, but that the media system is so polarized that pro-government supporters will not listen to critical voices.

Polyák has been instrumental in bringing two complaints to the European Commission over the use of public funds, which have so far resulted in no action, allegedly because the EU executive does not believe it has a strong enough case for the defend in court.

“They don’t need to have new regulations. These are based on European competition law which is used day-to-day, but not as far as Hungary is concerned,” the academic concluded.

Hungary could see takeovers of last free media, experts warn

Recent reports confirmed the negative trend for media freedom in Hungary, but also underlined the negative impact of Budapest on press freedom in neighboring countries. On World Press Freedom Day (3 May), EURACTIV spoke to two of Hungary’s leading media experts.

In the meantime, the Commission maintains that it is unable to follow up on complaints and that it would need new powers to intervene.

“This frustration that we can’t do anything through competition rules leads us [to] thinking about better rules,” securities commissioner Vera Jourova said last year.

Instead, the EU executive promised to present a legislative proposal by the third quarter of 2022.

The so-called European law on freedom of the media is supposed “enhancing the transparency, accountability and independence of actions affecting media freedom and pluralism”.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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