How Europe’s authoritarian populists maintain the illusion of a free press

Authoritarian leaders might be good at damaging democracy, but unless they are pure dictators they often still need to worry about winning elections. In the last few years, Europe has seen the rise of a number of authoritarian populists who rely on winning mass support among ordinary people – as opposed to just rigging the vote.

In some cases they win with the help of successful or popular policies. In Hungary, for example – despite some suggestion of vote rigging in April 2022’s election – to a considerable extent Viktor Orbán’s victory can be attributed to voter support for his government’s popular economic and social programme.

Yet right-wing populist authoritarians also win elections even if their record in power is less positive. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has presided over record inflation of more than 50% and a youth unemployment rate of close to 20% and yet he won 52% of the votes in the election of May 2023.

It’s similar in many countries presided over by authoritarian populists. And a key reason they can cling on to power is often their careful influence over the news media, which allows them to shape political debate while maintaining the image of a free and democratic press.

Why media ownership matters

On paper, a look at news media ownership changes over the past two decades in populist-controlled countries such as Hungary and Turkey suggests a reassuring picture in which some opposition outlets may have disappeared, but others continue to publish in competition with government-affiliated outlets.

Yet a closer look reveals an interesting structural feature of media ownership networks in authoritarian populist countries. Our latest research in Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Slovenia – all of which have had governments with authoritarian populist tendencies at some point over the past two decades – shows that the structure of media ownership networks is enabling government-affiliated news outlets to dominate the public news discourse.

For instance, in Hungary, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (Kesma) is a huge right-wing media conglomerate that controls more than 500 national and local media outlets. Kesma was established in 2018, when most pro-government private media owners transferred their ownership rights to the foundation, which is headed by a board of trustees full of Orbán loyalists closely associated to the ruling party.

There are still opposition media voices in Hungary – especially in the online space. But in reality, public funding and the bulk of advertising flows to pro-government media outlets. This puts independent media in a precarious position financially. State broadcasters and Hungary’s main press agency are also heavily controlled and focus squarely on a pro-government agenda.

Indeed, a fact-finding mission to Hungary in December 2019 by several journalism organisations found that Kesma has become a crucial tool for the government’s “content coordination throughout the pro-government media empire”.

Similarly, in Turkey, the Dogan Media group – owner of some of Turkey’s largest news outlets including the widely read newspapers Hürriyet and Milliyet and the largest tabloid Posta as well as the TV channel CNN Turk – was piece by piece sold to the Demirören Group. The Demirören family are close allies of Erdoğan and the ruling AKP.


For the full article visit the Conversation.

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