BUDAPEST (Reuters) - On June 21, 2011 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made a first appearance in what would become a regular slot on MR1 radio's news show.
The appearance in itself was nothing extraordinary, but the manner in which it came about and the way it was conducted point to a relationship between Hungary's government and its state-financed media that the European Union has censured as too close, a charge Hungary denies.
Several employees at MR1 say they were putting together the next morning's news program when, to their surprise, they heard an on-air announcement that Orban would be their guest. They tore up the schedule and rewrote it to accommodate the prime minister.
They did not know it at the time, but a new relationship was unfolding between the government and the media, which under EU law must be independent of political influence.
According to the accounts of dozens of media insiders interviewed by Reuters, Orban's Fidesz party has extended its influence across the state-financed media. Current and former journalists say Orban's press chief determines what issues will be raised in interviews with the prime minister. They say executives have created a culture that discourages tough questioning and employees who dissent are moved aside.
Hungary's government denies exerting pressure on the media and says it meets EU standards on media freedom.
In response to questions from Reuters, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes said she considered it "a shame", however, that Hungary had not fully implemented EU recommendations to ensure media independence. Hungary, for instance, rejected an EU recommendation to change the way it appointed members of a new media watchdog to ensure the body was free from political interference.
"The respect of media freedom and pluralism as common values of democratic societies is especially critical before elections that are to take place soon in Hungary," Kroes said.
Hungary votes in a parliamentary election on April 6. Opinion polls point to a win for Orban's party.
Reuters has found no evidence that Orban has personally stifled media scrutiny of his government. Interviews with former and current state media employees suggest it is those around the prime minister who have sought to shape how the government is portrayed, aided by a culture of self-censorship in the media and a regulatory framework that has eroded media independence.
In his June 21 radio interview, Orban spoke about a cut in public debt, financed in part by a nationalization of private pension fund assets that had alarmed markets and investors. The interview took an unusual course - at no point did the show's anchor challenge the prime minister's answers or pose any questions about the risks arising from the nationalization, a transcript posted on Orban's website shows.
At the end of the interview, after Orban had evaluated Hungary's six-month presidency of the European Union, which was about to end, the anchor rejoined: "It may then be joyful for every Hungarian that his country's prestige is growing in the world?"
"We just gave (Orban) air time to speak his mind," the show's production manager at the time, Fruzsina Molnar, told Reuters in an interview for this article. Molnar no longer works at the station.
Requests for an interview with the show's anchor were referred to a spokeswoman, who did not reply to detailed questions from Reuters. Top executives at the station also declined to answer questions.
Soon after the June 21 appearance, Orban's press team requested that the radio interview become a regular event, several people familiar with the matter said. Orban now appears on the show every other Friday.
Orban's appearances have settled into a routine, according to journalists who have worked on the MR1 news show. All topics to be covered are agreed in advance, and the prime minister is never surprised with tough questions, they say.
Press chief Bertalan Havasi usually proposes a list of subjects in an email on Wednesday, the sources said. In the next 24 hours, he hashes out with the editors what subjects to cover on Friday and what to skip.
Havasi, in reply to questions from Reuters, said his office has always acted in accordance with the press freedom clauses in the constitution. The constitution guarantees media freedom while the media law, which deals with the practical details, says authorities must not interfere with the media.
Responding to Reuters questions about the government's interaction with state-financed radio, government spokesman Ferenc Kumin said: "Public media is independent of the government."
"When the Prime Minister gives interviews, to which media outlets is always a matter of individual consideration. Placing the interview, setting its subject and its questions are up to the media organizations conducting the interview," Kumin said.
Reuters also sent questions to senior executives at the organization that groups together Hungary's state-financed media, MTVA. They declined to comment. An MTVA spokeswoman said there was no link between the government and the editing process at MTVA media outlets.
The deference with which state media treat Orban is not without precedent. Ferenc Gyurcsany, the Socialist prime minister from 2004 until 2009, also gave regular radio interviews in which he fielded gentle questions. Gyurcsany told Reuters it was customary for program makers to give his aides advance notice of the topics that would be covered. But Gyurcsany added: "It would never come to my mind to dictate what to be asked or to put pressure in any way on public media and on how they prepare for these interviews."
What makes Orban's government different, say campaigners for press freedom, is that Orban's Fidesz party has used its majority in parliament to push through rules that weaken state financed media as an independent institution in a way that has not happened before. The campaigners say that Orban's government has put in place a system that stifles the ability of journalists to hold his government to account.
Soon after Orban's Fidesz party came to power in 2010, the Fidesz-dominated parliament adopted new media legislation. Changes included a requirement that all media register with the state and that their output should be "balanced", of "relevance to the citizens of Hungary" and "respect human dignity". It also weakened protection of journalists' sources. Penalties for breaking the rules included fines, suspension, or being shut down.
Enforcing these new rules was a new watchdog, the Media Council. Its composition is decided by parliament. Because Orban's Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in parliament, the council is made up exclusively of Fidesz appointees.
In another change, all state media and news production was bundled together in one organization - MTVA - whose leader is the leader of the Media Council.
According to critics of the legislation, including the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the cumulative effect of these changes was to jeopardize media freedom.
In effect, they said, appointees of the ruling party had been granted power over the media to enforce a set of rules that were framed so vaguely that they could be interpreted however the appointees saw fit.
Hungary's parliament subsequently amended some parts of the legislation, including on the protection of journalists' sources, but critics say fundamental problems remain. Chief among them, they say, is the risk of political bias in the Media Council because appointments to the council are made by a parliament that can be dominated by one party.
The OSCE's media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, told Reuters there was still "cause for great concern. That's what I still think. If left unchanged (the media laws package) could seriously restrict media pluralism in the long term."
In July 2013 the European Parliament adopted a resolution saying it was concerned that Hungary's public service broadcasting was controlled by a centralized system that took decisions without public scrutiny. Hungary's government called the resolution an "unfair political judgment".
As Hungary's media laws changed after Orban became prime minister in 2010, there was also a clear-out of staff in state media. Many senior executives and hundreds of staffers were removed, union representatives said. Several of those who lost their jobs say they believe they were fired because they had been critical of Orban's Fidesz party. They said they were told by station managers that their jobs were being cut as part of a reorganization. Contacted by Reuters, MTVA did not comment.
Bela Varadi was an anchor on a state television news show. He was the first member of Hungary's Roma minority to hold such a job, which he called a dream come true. He said he quit because he was appalled at the new regime.
When he anchored the show, he said he would write his own script and save it on a shared computer system at the station. He said that on many occasions, when he opened his script again as the show went on air, he found it had been edited to make it more government-friendly.
"Edited and approved versions of the news items were changed as well," said Varadi, who now lives in Britain. "Sometimes we only found out when we printed the script and set out to do the voiceovers."
An MTVA spokeswoman did not reply to questions about Varadi's allegations and about the circumstances of his leaving the station.
Until December 2010, Attila Mong anchored state radio's morning show, the same program where Orban is now a regular guest. When parliament passed the media law, Mong protested with a one-minute silence on air. He was reprimanded and removed from duty indefinitely. His contract expired the following year.
"Political pressure was always a fact of life in public media," said Mong, now an investigative reporter with the non-profit news site www.atlatszo.hu. "But there were always pockets of professionalism, islands of freedom. That is what changed now. There is no island. One party controls the system now."
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; editing by Christian Lowe and Janet McBride)