Last week, in the run-up to key elections in Hungary, a group of activists toured villages south of Budapest to hand out makeshift newspapers, printed on a single sheet of A4, explaining to residents that public TV is lying to them and that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, is close to Vladimir Putin. “We take articles from the independent press and reformulate them in simpler language so that everybody can understand them, including in the small villages,” Erika Orban (no relation, presumably) told Le Monde. The project behind the newspapers—called “Nyomtass Te Is!” or “Print It Yourself!”—published more than a million copies for delivery nationwide, leaning on funding from donors including the liberal Hungarian billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. It drew inspiration from samizdat—the tradition of clandestinely distributing banned literature in the former Eastern Bloc.
If this seems extreme for a country that is now a member of the European Union, then Hungary’s institutional media climate makes it seem much less so. Since taking office for a second time, in 2010, Orbán has overseen the erosion of press freedom in the country, with his allies buying up many independent news outlets and turning them into propaganda vehicles, and his government squeezing others out of business. Two years ago last week, Orbán used the cover of the pandemic to force through a power grab that harshly criminalized the spread of so-called “false” information, among other things, and that observers variously characterized as the death of Hungary’s democracy and the birth of “a full-blown information police state.” The power grab was formally rolled back, but critics warned that deleterious effects on the rule of law and press freedom would persist; since then, Orbán allies have squeezed the influential independent news site Index, officials have forced the independent station Klubrádió off the airwaves, and the government has apparently used the potent Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists. As the election approached, Orbán’s words blanketed state TV. His principal opponent got five minutes of airtime in the entire campaign.
On Sunday, the votes were counted, and Orbán’s party quickly declared a crushing victory. International observers, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have since raised concerns that the election was not fought on a level playing field, not least due to Hungary’s slanted media environment, but Orbán had already moved to dispel such criticism, and in a speech on election night, he further bashed “the left at home, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Soros empire with all its money, the international mainstream media, and in the end, even the Ukrainian president.” Orbán, who is indeed close to Putin, has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also tried to distance Hungary from the broader Western response, leading Ukraine’s President Zelensky to brand him a Russian stooge. Much top-line international coverage of Orbán’s win has cast it as a win for Putin, too.
The same has been said of another election that took place in Europe on Sunday, just across Hungary’s southern border in Serbia, where Aleksandar Vučić, the Putin-aligned president, also won a comfortable victory. Vučić, too, has overseen the erosion of press freedom in his country while accumulating influence over swaths of the media and TV in particular; in January, one local observer told the New York Times that media control is “the skeleton of his whole system,” and in some ways greater than that ever enjoyed by Slobodan Milošević, whom Vučić once served as minister of information. In 2019, Vučić appeared on a press-freedom panel at Davos and pledged, in a sheepish tone, to do better; since then, the Serbian government has used the cover of the pandemic to crack down on independent reporting and apparently surveilled journalists’ emails. Late last year, with the election approaching, Vučić scored forty-four hours of (largely favorable) TV coverage, compared to three hours of (largely negative) coverage for the main opposition party. International observers, including from the OSCE, have now raised concerns that the election was not fought on a level playing field.
This coming Sunday will see another election in Europe, this time in France. (The first round of an election, at any rate; the top two presidential candidates will advance to a runoff scheduled for the end of the month.) At first glance, France—with its entrenched democracy, thriving media ecosystem, and decidedly Western president (even if Zelensky has criticized him, too)—would seem not to be comparable to Hungary and Serbia on such terms. Even there, though, the stakes of this election have occasionally been sharp from a press-freedom standpoint, with Eric Zemmour, a journalist turned far-right journalist-basher, and his supporters channeling violent anti-media rhetoric (as well as actual violence). Zemmour sucked up inordinate media oxygen in the early stages of the campaign, but has since faded; by contrast, Marine Le Pen, the more established far-right candidate, has quietly gained ground in the polls, profiting, as I’ve argued elsewhere, from the explicit normalization of her agenda across parts of the French media, as well as her implicit normalization in the shadow of the Zemmour panic. Le Pen’s anti-media rhetoric (perhaps correspondingly) is not as extreme as Zemmour’s, but she is no stranger to bashing the press and excluding reporters she doesn’t like from events. And, as Jean-Yves Camus, a prominent expert on far-right radicalism, told me last year, many of the people in Le Pen’s orbit “are not the kind of ‘democrats’ I would really like to see in the Élysée Palace.” She remains unlikely to win, but that was never a good reason not to take the prospect seriously.
In the international press, in particular, the elections in Hungary, Serbia, and France have all been overshadowed, to a greater or lesser extent, by the war in Ukraine. Given that war’s escalating human cost and geopolitical ramifications, it’s understandable that our focus might be elsewhere. But the war has also dominated much—if by no means all—of the discussion that we have seen around these elections, and that’s a more fraught proposition. While the war has of course factored into the campaigns, myriad domestic issues have made these elections important in their own right; Le Pen’s focus on cost-of-living issues, which are war-related but not exclusively, has been offered as a key reason for her recent poll rise. Each election has also been internationally consequential in its own right—in Hungary, in particular, nothing less than the democratic model is at stake, and with it press freedom. In recent months, many on the US right and in its media have promoted Orbán as a model for what they’d like to do to the US. This angle has been much covered, including around Sunday’s election. Without the war, though, Orbán’s victory would surely have been a much bigger story in mainstream US media.
It’s vital, of course, to cover what the results of these elections might mean for the short-term course of the war; a change of leadership in France would be particularly seismic, not least given Le Pen’s past closeness to Putin (though she has condemned the invasion). Zoom out, though, and the rise of illiberalism and far-right values in all three countries is itself a story about Russia and its war, or at least one that is strongly adjacent: a story about the democratic world order, and those who would erode it. Democracy breathes through elections, and the conditions under which they are fought always demand close media scrutiny. Diluting our focus might not be Putin’s top aim. It certainly isn’t his foulest sin. But it is, ultimately, another win for him.
Below, more on press freedom around the world:
- France: Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent president and favorite for reelection, has only belatedly entered campaign mode and is even now skipping out on certain pre-election rituals; he already refused to debate the other candidates prior to the first round of the election, and has now opted not to take part in a program tonight on France 2, a public TV channel, that will feature all his rivals. (Bound by French laws around candidate airtime, France 2 will instead broadcast excerpts of a speech that Macron gave on Saturday.) Macron’s entourage has denied that he has anything against France 2, in particular, but according to Le Monde, insiders at the channel fear that’s not the case. In an open letter, journalists at France 2 asked Macron why he’s avoiding them.
- Serbia: Last month, Miljko Stojanovic, a reporter in the eastern Serbian town of Zaječar, profiled a Ukrainian refugee who had fled to Serbia; subsequently, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, his Facebook page lit up with dozens of messages supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and insulting Stojanovic and the refugee, with some threatening violence. “Stojanovic regularly shares reporting and commentary on his personal Facebook account, where he has about 250 followers. He told CPJ that he has lived ‘in fear’ over the threats, and was prescribed medication for stress.”
- Cape Verde: In recent months, authorities in Cape Verde, a West African island nation with a traditionally good press-freedom climate, have interrogated three reporters over their coverage of a murder investigation implicating a government minister. The reporters “can’t continue to use the classified information they had access to in any successive reporting,” Al Jazeera’s Nick Roll reports, and must also notify officials if they leave their homes for more than five days or change their phone numbers. A hundred reporters recently protested outside the attorney general’s office in solidarity with their colleagues.
- Canada: CPJ’s Katherine Jacobsen spoke with Mohsin Abbas, a journalist who was forced to flee Pakistan for Canada twenty years ago and has now stepped in to revive the Tilbury Times, an Ontario newspaper that shuttered in 2020 due to the financial headwinds of the pandemic, as well as two other publications. “I felt a [kindred spirit] with the people in the community who wanted their stories to be told,” Abbas said. “It reminded me of when I was a child in Pakistan and didn’t see my own community reflected in stories from larger publications. Local stories were being lost.”
Other notable stories:
- Malachy Browne, David Botti, and Haley Willis, of the visual-investigations team at the Times, analyzed videos and satellite imagery to debunk Russia’s claims of a Ukrainian “hoax” in Bucha, a town near Kyiv where horrifying scenes of death and destruction have emerged following a Russian military withdrawal. The Times’ analysis confirmed that numerous civilians in Bucha “were killed more than three weeks ago, when Russia’s military was in control of the town.” Some of the bodies “were beside what appears to be an impact crater. Others were near abandoned cars. Three of the bodies lay beside bicycles. Some have their hands bound behind their backs with white cloth.”
- Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the final installment of its latest report on the state of climate science, warning that the world must act now to have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. As The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey notes, the findings have been overshadowed in a news cycle saturated with coverage of war and pressing domestic issues in various countries. A prior installment of the IPCC report dropped just as Russia invaded Ukraine and was “completely ignored” by major media, one scientist noted.
- According to a forthcoming book by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, two reporters at the Times, President Biden said privately last year that he believes Rupert Murdoch to be “the most dangerous man in the world.” As CNN’s Brian Stelter, who gained advance knowledge of Martin and Burns’s reporting, observes, the remark is notable since—according to the Factba.se database of his speeches, interviews, tweets, and other public statements—Biden has never spoken about Murdoch in public.
- In a bid to counter what he perceives as “gotcha” media coverage, Eric Adams, the new mayor of New York City, told officials that every communication from any city agency will need to be approved by his office going forward, with anyone caught “sabotaging this administration” risking termination. Adams’s remarks, of course, leaked, to Politico’s Julia Marsh.
- An unlikely newspaper war in Storm Lake, Iowa, is over after the Storm Lake Times, a celebrated local paper, acquired the rival Pilot-Tribune, with the titles now set to merge into a single, twice-weekly publication. The Times also bought the Cherokee Chronicle Times. The acquisitions came about after John Tu, a tech billionaire, heard Art Cullen, the Times’ editor and publisher, on NPR and decided to make a big donation.
- Alan C. Miller is stepping down as CEO of the News Literacy Project, which he founded in 2008; Charles Salter will succeed him, with Miller staying on in a different capacity. In other media-jobs news, Bob Sorokanich will be the editor of Jalopnik, a G/O Media site that covers cars. And Keith Bradsher, the New York Times’ lone reporter in China since its other correspondents were expelled in 2020, is now the paper’s Beijing bureau chief.
- The British government is pushing ahead with plans to privatize Channel 4, a network that is publicly owned but funded by advertising, with Discovery one possible buyer. Officials insist that private ownership won’t threaten the network’s public-service mission, but Channel 4 executives have warned of risks to its programming, and its news output could face cuts. (My colleague Emily Bell slammed the privatization decision on Twitter.)
- And Elon Musk bought a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him its largest shareholder. Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien thinks that Musk wants to push Twitter around more than make money from it, having vocally criticized the platform’s approach to free speech. Politico’s Jack Shafer reckons that Musk “is that obsessive Twitterer who so loves its milk he wants to buy the cow. Also, the herd, the dairy, and the pasteurization plant.”
Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.
TOP IMAGE: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, right, shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, July 8, 2021. Orban is on a one-day official visit to Serbia. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)