Orbán & Co. – A Beginner’s Guide to Dismantling Democracy Through Media

by Szymon Butryn

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

Every morning, I wake up scrolling through numerous articles and posts, perhaps unaware, as most millennials are, of my growing insensitivity towards the news itself. On 10 February, however, there was just one report released by Polish news outlets: “Media without choice.”

A controversial taxation bill proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) had been met with opposition from the vast majority of Poland’s private media; 43 media groups deemed the plan “extortion” in an open letter to the Prime Minister. It marked the first time government policies led to such a terse, united response from the media. “This is where your favourite programme should be,” the message read. “We have no choice.”

I, on the contrary, had a difficult decision to make—namely, whether to stay in the dark for the rest of the day, or resort to the state-controlled outlets promoting a pro-government, anti-liberal agenda. Truth be told, the state of journalism in Poland has been generally declining in recent years, as demonstrated by its fall from 18th to 62nd place in the World Press Freedom Index since 2015. It was therefore not a question of standards, but of principle. Isn’t freedom of speech exemplified in one’s freedom to choose one’s sources of information?

Media monopoly is a concept associated chiefly with authoritarian or totalitarian rule. In a democracy, however, newsfeed supremacy leads to a degradation of the electoral system and socio-political discourse as they gradually tilt towards the interest of opinion-based, private news corporations owned by media moguls. As a result, Eastern European right-wing populists have waged a war against media outlets hostile to their cause, assuming power in the process. Their master plan is simple: if the only media narrative is the one produced and sanctioned by the government, the media cements, rather than challenges, its authority and decision-making. And, apparently, it’s working. Their vendetta against unfriendly coverage not only undermines the importance of unbiased reporting but, de facto, puts democracy on trial. 

Catch 1989

I will not be the first observer to point out a populist wave sweeping across Europe in recent years, nor will I begin the debate on anti-democratic changes made by some eastern EU member governments. Indeed, the political dynamic of the continent began to drastically shift—but also vary—from one member-state to another. As evidenced by the current issues the European Union is facing, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a consensus on many key grounds in light of differing interests, especially during a pandemic. After the tragic harvest COVID reaped (both in lives and livelihoods), people are riled up and exasperated at the ineffective guidance their leadership provided. Whereas some administrations have already stepped down, others cannot afford to efficiently govern, let alone further consolidate power, with their political survival at stake.

Some politicians, however, have comfortably stacked their decks against any opposition. Taking a page from Victor Orbán’s playbook, leaders of Poland and Slovakia followed in Hungary’s footsteps in their crusade against media independence. Can you spot the catch here? The aim is not to take their opposition hostage, but to strip them of their weapons. For if their populist expedition succeeds, there may never be a future political skirmish they lose. 

What is the key similarity between Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński (PiS chairman), and Janez Janša (Slovenian PM)? Having begun their careers under communist regimes in their respective countries, they’ve built strong platforms and incontestable political authority over the last 30 years of democratic rule. This fact may not jump off the page to a Western observer perhaps unfamiliar with at least one of these politicians, but helps outline the universal features of their current campaigns.

Young Viktor Orbán (left) at a 1989 Fidesz meeting in Budapest

The 1989 Autumn of Nations established new political elites east of the Oder and Danube rivers. Said elites diligently constructed a new governing order, distancing themselves from the socialist past, but also mirroring some of its features. It is no coincidence that in 2021, the same men wield power in those states—it is indeed easy to achieve success in a game for which one sets the rules. Recognising the importance of propaganda for communism’s sustainability, they placed media as a cornerstone of their newly emerging democracies. 

Poland, Slovenia, and Hungary did not have solid democratic legacies like France or the UK, nor did they possess a functional administrative apparatus like unified Germany. Wary of the closed media systems under previous communist regimes, post-Soviet nation builders worked to construct a diverse, independent media landscape that could hold the new democratic government accountable to the people. These opinion-creating outlets would ideally ensure political accountability while limiting social polarisation through multiplicity (and availability) of choices. The structures of the government were not bound to the media itself; independent outlets shaped popular approval of the government to the extent that politicians were responsible to the media rather than the electorate. Alongside unbiased courts, they served as true columns of the newly emerged system. As governments have increasingly turned their back on liberalism, while subjecting rule of law to political influence with meticulous parliamentary procedures, independent media has become the last bastion of defence for democracy in Eastern Europe.

From scratch

Undeniably, an overwhelming majority of newspapers and media are associated with a certain political option, whether exemplified by an existing party or not, and thus lean towards or against policies of an elected government. Contrary to the American system, Eastern European democracies usually consist of multiple parties representing different interests and focus groups. They may run a joint parliamentary or presidential campaign but usually form coalitions only after elections are held. The idea was to prevent the creation of a system where voices of voters between propositions A and B are simply ignored, bent to the generalised proposition endorsed by either party. Being historically divided, Eastern European democracies could not afford to implement a fundamentally divisive mechanism into the law, even though they still resort to referendums in important cases.

By the early 2000s, both Hungarian and Polish leaders of right-wing parties presented plans that simplified the conditions on their respective political stages, largely concentrating the public discourse around a conservative versus liberal debate. That swiftly coincided with a generational shift in post-communist countries, which would see those born after 1989—who were raised in and accustomed to freedom—gradually replacing those who lived the majority of their lives under a repressive regime. Fueling the effect is a large economic discrepancy between urban and rural areas, which sees entire regions abandoned by the benefits of westernisation and globalisation both economically and culturally, prompting resentment of the new and yearning for the old. 

Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán in Poland’s Sejm

Fidesz, PiS and SDS have all based their success on a strong support base in rural regions and a wave of disappointment with the last 20 years amongst middle-aged, low/average-income adults. The rhetoric of their politics created an enemy in different (LGBTQ+, immigrants, even atheists), liberal forms, and continued antagonising their electorate against political opposition while rallying around strong leadership. The youngest voters, at least until 2015, have not realised the dangers of increasingly authoritarian rule or have simply not taken interest in their democratic duties. In these circumstances, the media became as polarised as the political landscape and heavily opinion-based on both sides. 

While pro-government media enjoy mutually beneficial relationships with the state, the rest, regardless of their opinion of Orbán or Kaczyński, are destined for war with the state apparatus. This time, the Hungarian and Polish governments do not need to crush the opposition media like the communist regime kept doing until 1989; they can simply bleed them with laws and regulations, until they fall on their own. That is what makes this fight for democratic freedoms even more unfair. 

Revenge or redemption?

Not that it would matter with Orbán or Kaczyński, of course.

Both politicians hold a grudge against liberal media so deep that their crusade will not be finished until the last bastion of defence is conquered. There is almost a fanatical aspect to their fascination with the media, perhaps deriving from the belief that the media and bad publicity are responsible for the past failures of each man. Orbán’s narrow defeat in the 2002 elections brought an end to the most divisive campaign season the country has seen since its transformation. 

Feeling that Fidesz’s message got squashed in the media frenzy in 2002, Orbán appropriated the position of “the people,” initiating popularly-backed referenda on newly adopted policies while preparing to capitalise on a major crisis that would eventually come (and came, in the form of the 2008 financial crisis). Actively representing the ever-growing right, he began shaping the public debate in his favour, using freedom of speech as means of polarisation. “We can’t be the opposition because the nation can’t be in the opposition,” claimed the Hungarian PM following the party’s electoral defeat. Note the deliberate wording of this statement. Identifying his electorate as the representation of all Hungary, he confronts every citizen with an emotional rather than rational choice: are you a patriot or a traitor? 

Established as early as 1998, Fidesz’s partisan, fiercely nationalist media empire was an investment made with hopes of achieving substantial influence in public discourse, with electoral success being its chief aim. Funded by wealthy and devoted donors, it quickly became prominent in their respective niches. Growing audiences, combined with a strong partnership with the state’s leading conservative party, led them to present manipulative perspectives on reality that heavily influence opinions of their viewers while gaining the attention of their opponents. What makes Fidesz’s machine uniquely efficient is its approach towards national identity and history. “Orbán’s media” creates an idea of national unity based on specific—at times false—historical analyses, while creating a sense of uneasiness about national security and the future of one’s own identity. National pride does not derive from a sense of superiority, but from feeling scorned and abhorred in both the past and the present.

As Paul Lendvai, an expert in Central and Eastern European politics, points out, nowhere in post-communist Europe can a self-critical discussion about the nationalist past be found. To create the idea of an independent, free nation, one must rewrite the history books and push boundaries that often flirt with nationalism. As such, nationalism is much more clearly defined but also extremised; certain elements of what is considered excessively nationalistic abroad remain perfectly acceptable elements of national identity in post-communist European countries. Consequently, so long as versions of extreme right-wing politics remain tolerable parts of the public discourse with clear links to history, liberal propositions are not only more easily rejected, but also criticised with twice the power. 

Photo by Tibor Janosi Mozes

Orbán’s victory in 2010 could very well be attributed to the media empire he helped to found and the nationlistic narrative he put forward. By the time he regained the PM’s cabinet, his 12-year long media campaign had already bore fruit. Now it was up to him to sweep the media opposition under the carpet, not as a tyrant, but a defender of the Hungarian way of living, appropriating patriotism as the core tenet of his movement.

V for Vendetta 

The same can be said with regard to Poland.

Kaczyński’s vendetta against the left (recently all the way to centre-right) plays on perhaps the only common sentiment among an otherwise socially varied population: the resentment of communism. The PiS Chairman made a career of denouncing his former ally, Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Lech Wałęsa, as a Soviet collaborator, only to consolidate the centro-conservative, Christian electorate under the Law and Justice banner. By 2006, he and his late twin brother had already become the only brothers in history to simultaneously hold the office of Prime Minister and President. 

Then, having grown frustrated with his coalition partners, Kaczyński took the biggest political gamble of post-transformation Poland, calling for early elections in 2007. In light of corruption allegations against an important junior member of the coalition, private media portrayed the government as corrupt, fueling the narrative for what would be a swift victory for the main opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO). The move backfired and left Kaczyński out of power, hence gradually appropriating the position of “the people” while waiting for a major crisis, like Orbán. 

The crisis came in 2010 with the tragic death of the president, his twin brother Lech, and though it did not result in electoral success, it gave PiS the media ammunition they desperately needed. Sparking conspiracy theories and instrumentalising the martyrdom of the victims, Law and Justice began sowing fear and doubt in people’s minds of whether they truly feel better in a liberal, globalised Poland. Support for an administration is usually as long-lived as the government is successful, and having drowned in scandals and second-term mediocrity, the PO government lost consecutive elections to PiS in 2015. Having created the narrative of threats towards people’s livelihood, Kaczyński embraced their fear and gave them the answers, appropriating patriotism and Christian morals as integral values, thereby monopolising the historical identity many Poles (and Eastern Europeans in general) long for. 

The opposition, painted as “the worst sort of Poles,” soon became PiS’s badge of honour in public discourse. Appointing politicians and right-wing activists as heads of public media, the most popular news outlets in the country—boosted by a record 2 billion zloty (~450 million Euros) of annual government funding for their propaganda campaigns—only deepened the divide between Law and Justice supporters and their opposition, Finally, nationalist and right-wing extremist groups happily jumped on the populist bandwagon, solidifying their position as important voices omnipresent in popular worldview debates, and permanently polarising political affiliations. 

Amidst an apparent identity crisis among many middle-aged Europeans, the main threat to PiS rule arose from the European Union. At the time, Orbán had already shown Kaczyński the way. Poland and Hungary joined forces in making a mockery of anti-authoritarian restrictions and limitations imposed by the EU, vetoing resolutions of the European Parliament hostile to their “cause”. Many have raised questions over the future of unpunishable political machines when the critical EU budget-approval resolution, conditional to respecting the rule of law, passed. The new budget brings a long-awaited relief package for the COVID-struck economies of the European Union, essentially a lifeline for its members, subject to new measures of lawfulness and democracy standards. Yet in reality, both regimes receive an unprecedented economic boost for their coronavirus-hit economies, which are to be distributed with little to no supervision from an ineffective EU judicial system. 

The diplomatic crisis over the rule of law amendment backfired against its own aims; rather than scare off any other authoritarian aspirations among European politicians, both Slovenian and Italian right-wing governments began to form a united front with Orban & company. The Slovenian Prime Minister is almost too adamant in his attempts to imitate his Hungarian and Polish counterparts. The communist past of Janez Janša is reflected in his explicit antagonism towards any form of criticism. Upon assuming power, he began his crusade against media opposition. Responding to the open letter penned by 22 Slovene editors that warned of the imminent threat to independent Slovenian journalism, Janša published a 2020 paper emphatically entitled “War with the Media.” In the words of Petra Lesjak Tušek, the president of the Slovenian Association of Journalists, “Press freedom is more and more in danger.” This time, however, there is no excuse for us not to take notice. 

On February 10, 2021, Polish news outlets ran the “Media without choice” announcement on the screens of the Warsaw Metro. Photo by Marek Mazurkiewicz

Along the lines of this article, the media subject gently faded away, giving way to history and social repercussions of descending democracies of Eastern Europe. Correspondingly, the importance of media to the democracies of Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia has gradually fallen, with the media itself becoming a shadow of its former self in the process. In order to counter the propaganda channels meticulously created around electorally important target groups, the independent media lowered its standards to match the provocative and offensive narrative of their counterparts, regardless of their factual accuracy, in what is a desperate attempt to sustain their presence in the news stream. Troubled by private interests and economic dependability on profit, they fail to form a united front against the Orbán and Kaczyński media empires. That makes the quality maintained by outlets like OKO.press, the Baltic Times, and the legendary Radio Free Europe all the more noteworthy.

With the attack on the Capitol, Brexit, and the ever-lasting battle against the pandemic, the fall of the last bastion of independent journalism in Hungary went completely unnoticed in global media outlets. The Polish media protest made more headlines but soon became one of the many “daily sensations” that don’t live to see another day. Perhaps, upon opening this text, you may have hoped for a detailed explanation of the independent media struggle itself. What you have read instead is a beginner’s guide for dismantling newly established democracies. 

In that context, the famous motto of The Washington Post seems convincing: democracy does die in darkness, yet not in a complete one. Our TV screens will still broadcast various programmes, newspapers will continue to cover miscellaneous stories, social media will remain full of colourful, appealing content. Captivated by that entertainment, we not only begin to disregard our own freedom, but gradually lose interest in it. Without the media, there is no one to remind us of its importance. And so it dies, applauded by bemused crowds, replaced with a democratic mirage drawn out of people’s frustrations and dissatisfaction.

Szymon Butryn is a third-year History student at Queen Mary University in London specializing in Early-Modern and Political History. He has also studied at the University of Sydney, where he participated in academic projects on Natural Philosophy and the Sociology of Terror.

Categories: Europe & Russia