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Europe’s authoritarian populists are trying to maintain the illusion of a free press

Authoritarian populists tolerate opposition media – as long as they only exist at the margins

Hungary’s isolated prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/Getty Images

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.

Love your enemies

It may seem counter-intuitive but the way media is set up in some authoritarian countries depends, to an extent, on having some sort of opposition media.

You might expect authoritarian populist governments to be more like the old totalitarian regimes which pulled out all the stops to silence any dissenting voices. This was the strategy of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin.

But allowing opposition voices to coexist next to dominant media organisations makes it harder for international press freedom bodies such as Reporters Without Borders or watchdogs such as Amnesty International to criticise a regime for a lack of pluralism.

It’s also convenient for an authoritarian regime to set up an “us versus them” situation, where “they” can be vilified and ridiculed by regime-friendly media.

In Hungary, for instance – in a wider strategy to discredit independent media news – pro-government media outlets have launched smear campaigns against independent media outlets funded by international grants. They are labelled “dollar media”, accused of serving foreign interests.

This system of what is known as “competitive authoritarianism” maintains a semblance of democracy through electoral and market competition, despite the fact that in reality, these are heavily rigged.

Authoritarian populists do not seek to completely exclude dissenting or opposition actors, to the contrary, they rely on their existence, which allows them to be scapegoated and vilified. But in a regime where the power is heavily manipulated to be in favour of the voices that speak the regime’s message, opposition viewpoints are effectively drowned out.

Populist leaders often complain about a “leftist” or “liberal” media bias. This allows them to set up internal enemies as a target for their supporters.

For example, at a press conference in 2019 – from which he had excluded most media outlets that didn’t back his government – Orbán complained that the majority of media outlets were “left-liberal”, adding: “As soon as I get up, I know that today I will also be working against the wind.”

Given the dominance of those news outlets that toe his party line, this is risible. But of course Hungary now has few strong enough dissenting voices for opposition ideas to be heard. So authoritarian populists have every interest in maintaining some level of pluralism – as long as it does not threaten the government’s dominance of the public discourse.

What this means for democracy and those who defend it is that people should be wary of jumping too quickly to conclusions about media pluralism based on measures of media ownership concentration alone.

Depending on the structure of the media ownership network, a populist authoritarian government does not need to concentrate media ownership in the hands of just one state-aligned media group. It’s okay to allow dissident voices to shout in the margins – because, as leaders like Orbán and Erdoğan know only too well – very few people are listening.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fanni Toth, Postdoctoral Research Associate on POPBACK project , Loughborough University; Gerhard Schnyder, Professor of International Management & Political Economy, Loughborough University, and Marlene Radl, PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, Universität Wien

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