Márton Békés: Media sovereignty at risk

The author of this guest post is the Director of the XXI. Century Institute.

The opening piece of the XXI. Century Institute's “TREND” series of analyses focuses on foreign-funded media. The research reveals that more than half of the written material of the nine media products surveyed on average across the board had a negative view of the government's work, and that on average between 25 and 100 percent of their funding comes from abroad each year. Among the top donors are the George Soros-led and -owned Open Society Foundations, U.S. government agencies, international foundation networks and global corporate players. All this raises the question of whether the funding comes with a political mandate. Research shows that it does.

Media sovereignty

The public opinion of a country is part of the cultural resources of a people and its constituent state. The importance of this is felt more than ever in the early 2020s as we enter an era of threats: first the coronavirus epidemic, then the Russian-Ukrainian war and the misguided sanctions policy and its economic consequences. In such an environment, sober public opinion is the key to providing authority, social strength and security. Otherwise, amid shattered confidence, a loss of credibility and general uncertainty, panic contributes to the loss of stability. This, in short, is what’s at stake with media sovereignty.

Precisely due to the above, the flow of information through a country's mass media infrastructure (print press, radio, television), especially its expanding electronic-digital segment (websites, social media, online forums), cannot be indifferent, whether socially, politically, culturally, or economically. All this cannot be separated from the ownership and the donors who provide the funds for its operation. This raises the question of sovereignty, namely whether the funds from abroad are mere financial support or whether they are also political mandates in the interests of the country or international organization doing it.

In the operation of media products conducting business in Hungary, which are partly or wholly financed from abroad or owned by foreigners and are invariably critical of the government, the intention to serve the stability of the Hungarian state and build public trust is hardly evident. It is therefore worth examining the origin of the sources that make it possible to maintain and operate them, as this will also shed light on the purpose of their funding. Foreign-funded media, by virtue of their information and dissemination activities, are highly susceptible to indirect influence, which is an exercise that violates sovereignty.

Foreign sources and donors

The XXI. Century Institute concluded that of the government-critical media products operating and registered in Hungary, based solely on open sources, online content providers (444, Partizán, Telex), foreign-owned or financed media (Szabad Európa, RTL) and those that see themselves as fact-checkers (Átlátszó, Direkt36, K-Monitor, Lakmusz) all receive foreign funding, with an aggregate annual average of between 25 and 100 percent. These mostly come directly or indirectly from donors of the following types, illustrated with examples.

Donors include state foreign ministries and embassies (United States, Netherlands), foreign party foundations such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation of the German Green Party, and government agencies (National Endowment for Democracy, United States Agency for Global Media). Some foundations, the Fritt Ord Foundations, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Soros-owned Open Society Foundations, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and finally the Sigrid Rausching Trust, have provided substantial funding to opposition media in Hungary. Foreign donors include both non-profit foundations and grant managers (Civitates, Foundation for Democracy and Pluralism, Network of European Foundations, Norwegian Civil Support Fund) and the corporate sector (Bertelsmann, Creditexpress, Google). European Union bodies and tenders also play a strong role on the funding side, as do NGOs that also work in the media (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Visegrad Fund, Zinc Network). Finally, we must take stock of domestic spending by foreign media and their publishers (AFP, Economia, Helsingin Sanomat, Internews). All this shows that foreign-funded media are backed by either states or non-governmental, non-profit and economic actors.

A pending issue for the future is the overt expansion of direct U.S. media influence through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a government agency seeking to develop press freedom and media independence in Central and Eastern Europe, as it was revealed by the agency's head, Samantha Power, during a recent visit to Budapest.

Critical level of anti-government media

Our research has clearly concluded that foreign-funded content producers have reached a critical level in the Hungarian media landscape, and therefore the structure of foreign structural funding raises the question of the violation of domestic interests. This is especially the case, as the media products examined in the analysis are consciously engaged in activist journalism since they do not merely convey opinions critical of the government but present themselves as actors of political opposition.

In summary, media outlets with 54 percent of explicitly anti-government messages in terms of content receive between 25 and 100 percent of their funding from abroad on average per year.

Read the original blog post in Hungarian here.