How states use advertising to stifle independent journalism

Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy in central Europe that is situated in the Carpathian Basin. Before the year 2010, when the Socialist government was in power, state advertising spending was relatively equitable across the various media organisations, and there wasn’t any news outlet that operated wholly based on income derived from government expenditure. However, after 2010 – and particularly over the past few years – this has appreciably changed.

Under the Fidesz government led by the hard-right populist Viktor Orban, state advertising was immediately diverted to companies owned by investors with close ties to those in power and revenues shifted to enterprises associated with the governing parties, notwithstanding their low circulation and readership among Hungarians.

The state finances politically connected media companies and helps the favoured outlets to thrive at the expense of their independent counterparts. These preferred media companies exhibit unquestioning loyalty: Their editorial policy has to subserve the interest of the ruling party as a prerequisite to preserve the most important revenue source.

The politically motivated distribution of state advertising since 2010 has led to a distortion in the media market not only because it upset what may be termed as an equilibrium but also led to an astronomical rise in the amount of funds channelled into the media by the government.

The joint impact of these two developments – the swelling amount of spending on state advertising and its lopsided allocation – distorts competition and diminishes media pluralism, hence robbing Hungarians the fundamental right to information and, inevitably, devitalising democracy.

Divergent opinion

As exemplified in the Hungarian case, state advertising is a powerful tool of political favouritism as well as an instrument of market distortion, censorship and building an uncritical media empire aligned with the government.

This practice can be viewed as part of a broader set of instruments deployed by governments around the world to extinguish divergent opinion and arm-twist independent media into according them favourable coverage.

An Open Society Foundations study carried out in September 2017, titled 'Control the money, control the media: How government uses funding to keep media in line,' found that in 31 out of 55 countries worldwide, governments used state funding to manipulate media. It detailed trends in how governments use funding to control media by avoiding to finance independent journalism, but choosing instead to fund media outlets that further government agenda and the interests of its allies and supporters, either political groups or businesses.

State Department of Broadcasting and Telecommunications Principal Secretary Edward Kisiang’ani on March 8 directed all government agencies, independent commissions and public universities to exclusively air their TV and radio advertisements through the state-owned broadcaster KBC.

This comes hard on the heels of another move to limit advertisements on print media to another state-owned MyGov publication, which is being printed and distributed by one newspaper. The PS’s explanation that the decision was informed by the need to cut back on wasteful spending doesn’t wash as the real motive is to use state spending on advertising as a bait to unduly influence the editorial conduct of independent media houses.  

The freedom and independence of all types of media are guaranteed by Article 34 of the Constitution. Article 33 and 35 further enshrine freedom of expression and access to information respectively.

Moreover, the East African Community treaty (1999), Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Union’s Declaration of Principles on Human Rights in Africa (2002), all ratified by Kenya, strongly advocate for media freedom.

Solutions-based, policy-oriented advocacy is needed especially in these dire and tough times for independent journalism in our country.

For the government to ensure impartial spending and bolster growth of a robust press, there is need for a mechanism which will make publicly available the data about all government funding going into media and journalism. For this mechanism to be effective, it should constitute monitoring functions to ensure detailed accounts of spending are made public.

Taxpayer contributions

Secondly, the debates and the decision-making process about the amount of funding earmarked for journalism and media should be opened up. Representative organisations, including industry and professional bodies, academic units, and civil society should have access to these debates as well as power to influence decisions.

Thirdly, as state spending exclusively emanates from taxpayer contributions, the government should involve the journalistic community and civil society, in a reasonable and meaningful manner, in revising or developing media policies and supporting programmes for journalism.

Fourth, the government should be amenable to revisiting policies and rules about state spending in the media. New regulations, guaranteeing transparency and equitable spending of public money in the media should be formulated and implemented to the latter.

Finally, the media industry must continue highlighting the importance of media freedom and aggressively push back any attempts to undermine their independence and encroach on their freedoms.

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