Orbán ally eyes Serbian media for potential investment – EURACTIV.com
A close ally of Viktor Orbán is among the candidates for national television licenses in Serbia.
Tendering began in April for four TV broadcasting licenses, with the final award by Serbia’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (REM) expected in August. Among those who have reportedly joined the bidding process so far are Lőrinc Mészáros, Hungarian businessman and close friend of President Viktor Orbán.
Mészáros’ involvement signals a potential extension of a pattern seen over the past decade in which Hungarian government allies have invested significantly in media outside the country, including in Romania and North Macedonia. North, expanding a model of “media capture” that has developed nationally to alarm media freedom advocates.
Hungary is a “textbook case” of this model, Marius Dragomir, director of the Central European University’s media centre, told EURACTIV, pointing out how it has been exported to countries like Poland and Turkey. Czech Republic.
“You have this influence in many Eastern European countries,” he said, but noted that the driving force behind it varies: “In some cases you have people in power or oligarchs in other countries trying to replicate the model, and in other cases the Hungarian oligarchs are expanding to other countries.”
Media-focused civil society organizations have already begun calling for openness in the licensing process following concerns raised in the 2021 Media Freedom Rapid Response Report, which described Serbia’s EMN as “highly politicized and ineffective”.
In a letter published in May, several leading European media outlets urged the body to “ensure a fair and transparent bidding process” for the licenses, in accordance with national law and international freedom of expression standards.
The European Commission has also called for improvements to EMN, stressing in a 2021 report on Serbia’s progress towards EU membership that the organisation’s independence should be strengthened “to enable it to effectively safeguard media pluralism.
However, more could have been done at EU level to deal with rising media uptake in general, Dragomir said. “What we have today is largely the fault of the EU institutions. Fortunately, in recent years, we have seen more movement and not only at the level of legislation”.
Among those reported as bidders for the four available licenses in Serbia is Mészáros, now one of the country’s wealthiest citizens.
It would not be the first media venture included in the business activities of Mészáros, who in 2017 bought a 16.9% stake in Opimus, owner of Mediaworks, a major media company in Hungary and publisher of several influential newspapers.
Mészáros’ investment in the country’s media landscape is part of a broader trend of “media capture” in Hungary, which has seen outlets bought up by investors associated with Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party. since 2010, as well as stricter control of public media. media, media regulation and state advertising.
In a study published earlier this year, the International Press Institute mapped the influence of Hungarian capital in foreign media, noting significant investment and expansion in Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and North Macedonia, especially in areas where Hungarian minority communities and thus potential voters in Hungarian elections live.
The IPI concluded that in Serbia, whose president, Aleksandr Vučić, was closely linked to In Hungary, there is considerable political influence in the Hungarian-language media ecosystem, both in terms of pro-Fidesz figures in local government and funding received from the Hungarian government through a local foundation.
Dragomir also noted that the rise of media capture is not a new phenomenon: “It started more than 10 years ago, and there were many signals from experts and activists whenever someone something used to happen when a regulator was taken over, or a country’s public media was filled with people close to the authorities.
Despite these alerts, he said, the EU argued that no instrument could be used to remedy the situation, as media regulation was the responsibility of each country.
The Commission is expected to publish its Freedom of the Media Act in September, an executive initiative designed to protect media pluralism and independence by strengthening the financial sustainability of the media and increasing transparency regarding media ownership.
The Commission last week also launched legal proceedings against Hungary following its 2021 Media Council’s decision to reject the broadcast license application of the country’s last independent radio station, Klubrádio.
“It’s really important that these institutions wake up and try to step in and build effective instruments,” Dragomir said, adding that transnational application would be key to ensuring their effectiveness.
‘I think if they are, if they’re tied to EU funding,’ he said, ‘they’re going to be very powerful because a lot of these countries are dependent on EU funds for everything , essentially, even for media uptake”.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Alice Taylor]