VOLUME 34, No. 1-2 (Spring 1999) 

Mass Media in Post-Communist Hungary

By Rita M. Csapo-Sweet & Ildiko Kaposi

Hungary has a population of about 10 million people. This makes the Central European country a relatively small market for capitalist-style developments in its media. Yet, the 1989 post-communist period until the present, is a tale of rapid expansion in the country's communication and media industry. While even after four decades of socialist rule, politics still plays a prominent role in the mass media, today's Hungarian media outlets increasingly adapt to the Western-style market-directed structure. Free expression, commercial versus public media production, ethics in advertising and a new awareness of ethnic minorities are important issues in the newly diversified media, and consequently swirl in the public consciousness. These are major changes from the days of a single-party system modeled on the Soviet example. They pose significant challenges to the Hungarian population that is plunging headlong into capitalism and Western style democracy after decades of reliance on the state. Indeed, the media are instrumental in communicating and sometimes even bringing about those changes.

A "media war" erupted during the 1990-1994 term of the first democratically elected government. This directly resulted from the conservative government’s intrusion into the affairs of the most popular state television news programs. The move backfired. Misuse by the conservatives of national television for crude political propaganda actually helped the reformed socialist party to get back into power.

The present situation in Hungary can be best understood as one phase in the transition from socialism to democracy. Hungary's case clearly exemplifies that democracy is also a learning process. There are very different developmental paradigms to come to terms with before the country can evolve into a Western European-style democratic market economy. Studying the Hungarian media provides an intriguing story of such transitions, and paints a powerful picture of democracy in the making. The present paper discusses these transitions.

Newspapers and Magazines

The print media in Hungary are highly versatile in style, political affiliations and circulation. Traditionally in Europe, the print media are often affiliated with a political party, or an ideological agenda unlike the system of "objective" newspapers in the United States. In Hungary almost all publications were privatized early on in the course of the transition to democracy since 1989. However, certain loopholes in the ownership structure enabled political groups to still exercise power over printed content. Though nominally independent, nearly all publications can be associated with political groups or political agendas, regardless of the degree of foreign ownership in the newspaper. The largest circulation daily, Nepszabadsag (Freedom of the People) sells approximately 245,000 copies daily (Juhasz, 1998). In 1990 it had 60% Hungarian ownership. The other 40% was foreign and owned by Bertelsmann AG (Splichal, 38). Today, the newspaper is still owned by Bertelsmann AG, and clearly identifiable as the carrier of the socialist government’s messages to the public (Koczian, 1996). Apart from the Marquard-affiliated Magyar Hirlap (Hungarian Daily Newspaper), some major national daily newspapers are in the hands of Hungarian nationals. In 1990, only four major Hungarian newspapers were controlled 100% by Hungarian interests. They were the national papers, Nepszava and Pesti Hirlap; and the regional papers, Pest M. Hirlap and Delvilag (Splichal, 38).

One Hungarian media interest, the semi-state owned financial institute Postabank, claimed to have a media empire of 36 different publications catering to the needs of practically all political interest groups. Not quite a complete monopoly, the considerable media interests of Postabank range from conservative to liberal and from broa sheet to tabloid publications. The Postabank media portfolio has been losing money heavily, but the bank’s soft ownership structure prevented the owners from taking action against the management who were responsible.

After the 1998 elections when a new conservative coalition came into power and the government acquired the majority share in the bank, the management of Postabank was fired and the bank, including its media portfolio, was up for considerable restructuring. As a result , some of the Postabank-owned publications were stopped, while others will be up for sale after their financial situation becomes stable. The other major Hungarian player in the country’s press market, Vico, is an altogether profitable media empire, which is stable enough not to have been shaken by the death of its founder and owner, a Hungarian entrepreneur who was gunned down in his car last year.

Yet Postabank blocked the publication of stories exposing the bank's financial situation or political affiliations in a number of national newspapers. Postabank’s rival, Hungarian media group Vico publications, may occasionally run articles critical of the Postabank phenomenon. According to Tamas Karsai, former Editor of the Banking Section of Napi Gazdasag, (circulation 15,000), the financial daily has recently been acquired by a group of young investors. Most bias-free investigative coverage comes from several independent publications that include: the financial daily Napi Gazdasag (Daily Economics) which is currently up for re-privatization after the bankruptcy of the previous owner; the financial weekly Figyelo (owned by the Dutch VNU); literary-political Elet es Irodalom (Life and Literature); and the English-language weekly Budapest Business Journal. In addition to the national newspapers, there is a flourishing market of local and regional print media.

Each Hungarian county has its own and sometimes more than one daily newspaper, as well as smaller community publications. These add up to several hundred different newspapers across the country. The ownership structure of local newspapers and magazines shows great variety, from municipally owned newsletters to Axel Springer affiliated dailies. The 50,000 - 65,000 circulation of the biggest county dailies, however, places them with only a slightly smaller circulation than the newspaper Nepszabadsag (Freedom of the People). Accordingly, these county newspapers are among the primary sources of information for Hungarian citizens (Mediawatch 1997). In 1990, a survey of roughly 20 regional newspapers showed, that seven were foreign owned (100%) by Axel Springer Budapest, two had 100% Hungarian ownership, and the remaining 11 were jointly owned (in an approximately fifty/fifty percent distribution) by Hungarian and foreign interests (Splichal, 38).

The rich variety of Hungary’s daily papers is complemented by an abundance of both high quality and tabloid-like weeklies. Modeled on England’s The Economist, Hungary’s Heti Vilaggazdasag (commonly referred to as HVG) combines political, economic and cultural writing. HVG boasts a circulation of 120,000, making it one of the most financially successful magazines in Hungary. However, lightweight women's magazines like Kiskegyed with a circulation of 450,000 easily outsell even the popular and respected HVG. Distribution of all print media is presently controlled by the national post office, although efforts to change this are underway (Mediawatch, 1997).

1998 saw an explosion in the glossy magazine market. Cosmopolitan was the first classic women’s magazine to appear in Hungary. But it was quickly followed by similar publications, including women’s and men’s, as well as lifestyle magazines. Apart from these, publications launched recently cover the gossipy, celebrity-oriented tabloid segment of the market. The notable exception of this is Metro, a daily newspaper that is supported by advertising exclusively and is available in Budapest’s underground subway free of charge. The result of much of this change is that there are fewer and fewer market gaps left in Hungary’s printed press market.

News Agencies

Hungary has a national news agency, MTI (Magyar Tavirati Iroda - Hungarian Wire Service), along with its financial branch MTI Econews. However, journalists do not exclusively rely on these agencies as their source of information. Apart from another Hungarian-language news agency, Ferenczy Europress, several major international agencies are available to newsrooms. These include Reuters, financial Bloomberg, and Dow Jones databases. It is now also possible to operate smaller, more specialized news agencies. For example, in the wake of the new awareness of ethnic / minority issues, the small independent news agency Roma Press Center provides the major publications with news releases and feature articles on the issues concerning the Romani minority in Hungary.

Broadcasting: Radio and Television

Magyar Televizio (MTV) began in 1958, although there were experimental broadcasts in Hungary as far back as 1954. In 1974, the government Council of Ministers (under whose jurisdiction television belonged) issued Decree No. 1047:

The functions of Hungarian television to play an effective part in making known in a responsible way the policy of the Hungarian People’s Republic, to provide modern communication and swift information, and to contribute to the cultural use of leisure time. With the means at its disposal, it helps to improve the information and culture of Hungarian citizens and helps them play an active part in constructive socialist work" (UNESCO, p. 59).

The Council of Ministers was assisted by the State Radio and Television Broadcasting Committee. Essentially, this body of ministers oversaw the functioning of broad areas of programming. It included the Chairman of both Radio and Television, as well as the Ministers of educational and cultural programming. This rigidly stratified hierarchy allowed both centralization and also a reasonable degree of autonomy in production and programming at the lower levels. The structure evolved into numerous departments, directly responsible for programs: Program Production Division; Division of Political Broadcasts; News Division; People’s Education Division; Division of Youth and Education; Division of Literature and Dramatic Art; Entertainment and Music Division; Film and Co-production Division (UNESCO, p. 59). All operations of Hungarian Television were under the authority of the postal services.

During the 1970s and most of the 1980 the monolithic structure remained in place. Television was financed by the state and there were only two channels, TV1 and TV2. The annual budget for MTV was determined by the Ministry of Finance which collected the income and covered the expenditures. Advertising existed but it was negligible as a factor in financing programs. There were three categories of advertising with corresponding rates: health and education (free); cultural products (50% discount); and advertising for consumer goods (full fee). The revenue from advertising was turned over to the Ministry of Finance which redistributed the funds to MTV (UNESCO, p. 59).

Average weekly viewing time during that period on TV1 amounted to 65 hours, TV2 17 hours. TV2, however, broadcast only for a few hours in the evening. There was no programming on either channel on Mondays and only TV1 broadcast on Sundays (UNESCO, p. 59). This structure applied to programming produced primarily in Budapest and broadcast to all of Hungary. At the same time however, there was also a network of regional stations that functioned much like the system of public access in the United States. The transmission capabilities of these stations were limited but their programs were largely home grown. As cable began to be introduced in Hungary the possibilities increased for program diversity.

Television broadcasting was always centralized in Budapest, Hungary's capital city. However, production also occurred in regional studios such as in the cities of Szeged and Debrecen. These centers evolved into the local public access cable television studios of today. Programming from MTV was received by Hungarian speaking people in the five surrounding countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the former-Yugoslavia, and the former USSR. An important goal of Hungarian television was to reach its neighbors with expanded programming (UNESCO, 1981). Throughout the 1980s about 10% of Hungarian families watched television broadcasts originating in neighboring countries. These cross-border telecasts were in fact an important ingredient in the pro-democracy revolutions that swept Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1993. For example, in the Hungarian speaking area of Romania (Transylvania) the population received and regularly watched Hungarian television that was at times specifically targeted at this population. In fact, the spark which ignited the Romanian revolution of 1989, was struck in the Hungarian-speaking city Temesvar in Transylvania (now belonging to Romania).

This structure of MTV was challenged in 1990 with what was called the "Media War" (Hankiss, 1994). After the first free democratic elections in Hungary since 1947, the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) announced that the party would chose one individual to run Hungarian Television and another to run Hungarian Radio. They would be the first independent presidents of those institutions since the Communist takeover in the post war period. Two political scientists were chosen: Elemer Hankiss to run Hungarian TV (MTV) and Csaba Gombar to run Hungarian Radio. It was believed that these men could maintain an impartial position between the party in power and the opposition. Each accepted under the condition that a new media law be adopted to regulate the appointment of presidents of radio and television.

Hankiss and Gombar wanted to ensure the independence of these institutions by breaking the structure implemented by the previous Communist governments. During the Communist period these positions were appointed by the Council of Ministers under the auspicious of the Politburo. The power of the president(s) was completely dependent on the government and directly controlled by the Prime Minister. Hankiss and Gombar agreed to hold office until a media law was passed and their successors more democratically chosen. Unfortunately, while their goals were noble, reality proved more complicated. A media law was not passed until December 21, 1995, so that the two appointees remained in office for two and a half contentious and politicized years (Hankiss, 1994). It was however, one of the most creative and politically independent periods in the history of both Hungarian Radio and Hungarian Television (Hill, 1996).

During this transition period, Hungarian Television began a process of decentralization. The old, highly stratified and centralized programming and production structure was replaced by autonomous production units. The structure of large departments (e.g., School-TV, entertainment, youth programming, etc.) was replaced by smaller independent production units. Under the Hankiss administration the monolithic pyramid structure was replaced by a lateral system of some 20 production teams or studios. This innovation, however, lasted for only two and a half years. When Hankiss was replaced by a chief who was more in sync with the prevailing political structure, the first order of business was to dismantle the new production units, and to bring back the old system (Hill, 1994).

Another innovation coming from the Hankiss administration was DUNA TV. DUNA TV began during that period and continues today. DUNA TV was the first satellite channel in Hungary that was initially on the air for only a few hours each day. During the Hankiss period, Hungarian Television consisted of Channel One, Channel Two, about 200 small local cable stations, and DUNA TV (Hill, 1994). The first two were terrestrial channels, DUNA TV was satellite. DUNA TV was government run, but showed programming that was intended to reach Hungarian speaking audiences in neighboring countries. This had a very profound effect on the region during the extraordinary period of historical political restructuring and social upheaval in the late 1980s and early 1990s. DUNA TV reached Hungarian minorities in Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia (later Slovakia), the USSR, and Austria.

The year 1997 saw the launching of the first terrestrial commercial television channels in Hungary (Magyar Hirlap, 1997). Two successful bidders started broadcasting in October 1997 amidst loud disputes about delays connected with auctioning off the two state terrestrial frequencies. The decision making process by the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT), the state body responsible for judging the applications and announcing the winners, was hotly criticized. There was a great deal of competition for these channels, and three primary Western investor-bidders vied for the territory: Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Telediffusion (CLT); Scandinavian Broadcasting System (SBS); and Central European Media Enterprises (CME). The stakes were indeed, very high. Hungary is a market that outperforms all it’s neighbors in the region in ad revenues. In 1995, before the advent of commercial TV in Hungary, the ad revenue for Hungarian Television was $168 million (Nadler, 1996).

In July 1997, Hungary auctioned off two of its TV franchises. That ended months of fierce competition for what was considered the "grand prize" of Eastern European media interests. Hungarian TV’s ad revenues are so lucrative that the advertising market grew from $168 million in 1995, to $188 million in 1996 (Frank, 1997). The old state channel TV2 now carries the programs of MTM-SBS, a company that combines Scandinavian Broadcast System (22.8% owned by the Walt Disney Co.); TeleMunchen of Germany; and Hungarian partner MTM Communications (Frank, 1997). SBS announced that TV2 won 30%-35% of the viewing audience during its first four days on air. RTL Klub was launched on the 58 frequency, which originally served Russian troops stationed in Hungary. RTL Klub boasts owners like the Luxembourg-based CLT and the British Pierson group (Economist, 1996).

The third bidder, Central European Media Enterprises (belonging to American Ronald Lauder), decided to sue ORTT for the decision, citing the fact that the board did not fulfill its own criteria for selection. CME's Hungarian partner Irisz TV offered 12 billion Hungarian Forint for the channel RTL acquired for 9 billion, and 12.5 billion for the other channel that went to MTM-SBS for 8 billion. CME has since acquired a major share in a small commercial satellite station, TV3, and began broadcasting as yet another player in a crowded television market. Although CME did not win the coveted TV2 franchise in Hungary, it has developed quite a network of media holdings in Central Europe, including channels in Slovenia, Romania, and Ukraine (Economist, 1996). Although all the bidders declined to disclose the exact amounts of the offers for the Hungarian channels, it is known that the lowest bid was for $50 million. The final deal includes certain requirements regarding advertising, and a minimum of locally produced programming (Frank, 1997).

Currently, there are three state television channels broadcasting terrestrially and via satellite. Also, two national land-based commercial channels exist, plus several small commercial satellite and cable channels, including the pay-per-view Hungarian version of HBO. However, access to the proliferating television channels ultimately lies in the hands of the cable companies carrying the requested channels to the homes of viewers in packages. The situation of the cable companies is close to chaotic. Companies and services vary from town to town (Nepszava, 1997). According to several recent reports, packages that were paid for before the appearance of the new terrestrial channels were changed without consulting any of the subscribers. There were numerous incidents when new channels were suddenly missing from the screen and thereby dropped out of the viewing package (Magyar Hirlap, 1997).

Distribution attracted the attention of the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT). The board which is comprised of representatives from the political parties in Parliament is considering buying a 25% share in Antenna Hungary. Antenna Hungary is the state company responsible for national transmission of terrestrial television signals. Its financing comes from the concession fees charged to bidders for the commercial stations, that, by law, must be spent on technical improvements made to the TV transmission and cable networks. Despite such early difficulties, the outlines of a new structure for the television market are emerging. This structure includes both commercially financed channels, as well as tax-funded state channels that produce and broadcast public service programs. Public service broadcasting, however, does not exclude advertising in-between programs. Unfortunately, there are still many details of this new system that need to be worked out. For instance, it is not specified exactly what kind of programming qualifies as public service. The existing requirements can be satisfied by re-broadcasting and recycling previously broadcast public interest programs. This, however, does not address the issue of how to best spend the tax-payers’ money that was specifically earmarked for producing public service programming.

There is yet another issue arising from the peculiar situation of local television channels. Owned by municipal governments with the exception of one small private station, local television stations struggled to survive for years. The 1995 Media Law prevents the altogether several dozen stations of all sizes from forming a national network. This leaves them to rely on loopholes and innovative ideas for survival. However, their programs, especially the local news and current affairs magazines, attract enough viewers to firmly place these stations on the media map of Hungary. According to Peter Molnar, Member of Parliament, and the of Committee on Culture, Education and the Media during the SZDSZ government, among the examples of foreign broadcasting used to shape the Media Law of Hungary were Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio of the United States. The American mix of private and state support, as well as American public broadcasting’s attention to public service programming was seen as a model for enlightened and responsible radio and TV production.


Hungary's telecommunication market is still dominated by MATAV, the former state telephone company which enjoys a monopoly on domestic long distance and international calls until January 1, 2002. The company is now owned by Ameritech and Deutsche Telecom. This arrangement allows the state to retain a "golden share," giving the government a say in important decisions. In November 1997, MATAV stock shares were introduced at the Budapest and New York stock exchanges (Oxford Analytic, November 1997). It appears that the company is set on a course to a highly profitable near future.

A new company has already been formed to take on the present monopoly after its license expires in the year 2002. The alternative telecommunications provider, MKMTel was formed by the state railway company MAV, the oil company MOL, and KFKI, a physical research institute and technology provider, and new investors such as Antenna Hungaria joined in (Oxford Analytica, November 1997). Meanwhile, the mobile phone market also underwent dramatic changes. At first glance it appears that there are at least as many mobile phones in the streets of Budapest as in any Western European or American city. The competitive prices and services of the mobile phone companies make this medium of communication attractive to Hungarian customers who in Socialist times had to wait years for installation of home or business phone line. Mobile phones have also rapidly become a symbol of new social status and wealth. In fact, fake mobile phones that look exactly like the real thing (but not connected) are the hottest selling item in Hungary! As a result of all these challenges in the marketplace, MATAV reacted by making major improvements in service and promised new services with an eye to the future. Among other projects, they now have an interest in the mobile phone company Westel; offer Internet access to customers; have an interest in the satellite that carries state channel MTV2; and even hired one of the academic gurus of media education in Hungary to consult them on public relations.

Film, Cinema, and Video

The end of Communism had a profound impact on the film industry. Prior to 1990, the film industry in Hungary was subsidized by the state as all film production was financed by the government in the countries of the East bloc. Filmmakers who worked within that system learned to live by the rules of the game. Once someone could get their script past the censors, money was no problem. For decades this uneasy truce existed between artist and state official. However, after the end of Communism, filmmakers have had to increasingly rely on a combination of dwindling state support, co-production possibilities, and other methods of creative financing. Hungarian filmmakers have had to learn the hard lesson of Western cinema.

By 1996 the trend of dropping box office receipts for Hungarian films during the past 3 years began to reverse. The entire Hungarian film industry underwent a massive reorganization in the post cold-war era. In 1996, 14 million Hungarians bought tickets for domestic films that totaled in excess of 30 million USD (Reichenberger, 1997).

One of the major influences on the changes that the Hungarian film industry has undergone, is the rise of multiplex theaters. This trend is consistent with the growing popularity of multiplex theaters in the United States and elsewhere in the world. In Hungary, the building and operation of these multiplex theaters is a combination of domestic and foreign investment. Several multiplexes opened recently and include the Corvin Budapest Film Palace; Intercom’s Hollywood Multiplex; and the Cineplex Odeon built with Canadian money (Reichenberger, 1997). In December 1996, 46.1% of total box office ticket sales were distributed among the three Budapest multiplexes. Not only are they tremendously popular with the Hungarian filmgoing public, but the fact that they are open from morning till night accommodates far more people than the older movie houses which were primarily open in the evening. In 1996, attendance at these older single-room theaters dropped 21% from the previous year (Reichenberger, 1997).

While Hungarian mass audiences flock to the multiplexes there are many among the filmmaking community who worry a great deal about this new trend in entertainment. Many worry that a taste for high action Hollywood movies, washed down with buttered popcorn and super sized Cola will destroy the interest in Hungarian films. This will result in the closing of more single screen theaters. According to film producer Gyorgy Durst, however, filmmakers may be able to capitalize on this new trend in a way that benefits both the Hungarian film community and industry. This could be done by levying a tax on multiplex theaters so that some of the huge profits would go back into a fund to support Hungarian film production. Others have suggested that some multiplexes specialize in art films (both Hungarian and foreign) so that this new trend not add to the further "McDonaldization" (Ritzer, 1996) of an already seriously endangered Hungarian cultural identity.

1996 was a good year for the production of Hungarian films. Reversing a trend in recent years of decreasing numbers of domestically produced films, the output of the previous year was doubled in 1996. In 1995, only nine Hungarian films were released while there were 18 released in 1996. This constituted 5% of total film attendance in 1996 compared to 2.7% in 1995 (Reichenberger, 1997). Similarly, the number of Hungarian films seen by audiences at home in 1996, was three times the number of 1995. That number jumped from 249,000 viewers in 1995, to 700,000 viewers in 1996 (Reichenberger, 1997).

The majority of films produced in Hungary in 1996 were financed by the Motion Picture Association of Hungary and the National Cultural Fund. The largest distributor of Hungarian films is Budapest Film which distributed 12 Hungarian films in 1996. Other companies include: BBSA- Toldi Esteje (two); Flamex (one); the Monday Studio Foundation (one); Mokep (two); and M.I.T. (one) (Reichenberger, 1997).

Freedom of Expression

The annual Freedom House surveys on freedom of expression in Hungary reflect some improvements in the situation. In 1997, the survey showed marginal improvement for the country within its category, that of the partly free countries. In terms of the impact of laws and practice on press freedom, Hungary's broadcast media was given 3 points on a 15-point scale (where 15 points means all the media are in government hands), while the same number was 2 for print. As for the political influence on media content, broadcast was given 9 points and print 6 points. The economic influence by either the government or private entrepreneurs on media content brought 2 points for broadcast and 9 for print media. Fortunately, there were no recorded incidents of violation of press freedom, i.e. no arrests, murders, or suspensions resulting from what became public via the media. Hungary scored 31 points, just above the 30-point threshold for free press, which indicates that this country is close, but not without problems. The report was met by cautious disagreement as Hungarian journalists argued the implications of the categorization. The story, however, failed to make front page headlines.


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Csapo-Sweet is assistant professor of Communication and a fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of Missouri--St. Louis. Kaposi is program coordinator at the Center for Independent Journalism, Roma Press Center, Budapest, Hungary.

Last updated August 1, 2001. All information found in this site is ©2001, the International Communication Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.