Better EU tools are needed to protect media freedom as a "pillar of democracy" rather than just a player in the national economy, EU Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said on 3 May to mark World Press Freedom Day.
Jourova was asked about the status of competition in the media conglomerate comprising some 500 outlets close to the Hungarian government and why the Commission does not actively use the competition rules against state interference.
Hungary's media landscape has changed dramatically since 2010, when the ruling radical rightwing government took power. Prime Minister Viktor Orban began to build up a media conglomorate systemically, which came to fruition in 2018.
A handful of media owners affiliated or sympathetic to Fidesz transferred the ownership rights of their media holdings to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) in November 2018. More than a dozen media companies joined the foundation, without any form of compensation for the owners. An antitrust investigation was blocked by the government.
A government decree, citing national strategic goals, excluded Hungary’s competition watchdog and the Media Council from any scrutiny on the KESMA, thereby limiting de facto their independence, the Central and Media Pluarism and Media Freedom observed.
KESMA outlets operate with vast financial resources from state ads, while independent media is struggling to live off the market. The conglomerate also co-ordinates the message of its publictions to benefit the government.
The European Commission began an investigation into the pro-government foundation and its implication on competition.
“Of course, I would like to move, but the current competition rules are designed to catch much bigger cases than that. In financial terms, the KESMA case in Hungary is too small," Jourova explained on Monday.
Jourova said she was in discussions with Commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for the single market, to come up with a "media freedom act" next year to give the EU the means to protect press freedom across Europe.
The European Union currently handles media companies solely as economic actors and not as vehicles of information and contributors to democracy. As such, it cannot make any moves against the kind of media concentration that occurred in Hungary, media analysts say.
Hungary has slipped three notches to 92nd out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Among EU states media freedom was only worse in Bulgaria. Since 2013 Hungary slid 36 places, and it now lags behind countries like Albania, Moldavia or Lesotho.
Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga ridiculed the Czech commissioner on Twitter, saying, "How sad that there are rules which prevent politically motivated moves by the Eurocrats."
Varga wanted to know "why is it so frustrating for a commissioner that everything is working properly in a member state?"
Jourova came under fire in September after she referred to Hungary as an "ill democracy", a pun about the illiberal democracy established by Viktor Orban over the last few years. At that time she criticised media freedom in Hungary, saying that the majority of Hungarians have no room to express their free opinion. The Hungarian prime minister called for Jourova's resignation after her comments.