Local media is not only the past, but also the future – Nyugat.hu's speech at the Council of Europe

Our newspaper had the honour to be invited to Strasbourg.

On 10 June, the Council of Europe's Committee on Current Affairs held an all-day meeting in the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg.

One of the main items on the agenda was a discussion on the state of the local press in Europe. Nyugat.hu was also invited to the meeting.

Our newspaper was represented by our colleague Antal Józing, who reported to the committee on the Hungarian media situation and also introduced Nyugat.hu.

After the event, our we summarized the speech „A helyi média nemcsak a múlt, hanem a jövő is” – Az Európa Tanácsban szólalt fel kollégánk June 11. 11:16 , but since many people asked for the full version afterwards, we are now publishing the full English transcript of it.


The speech

Ladies and Gentlemen! First of all, I am very happy to be here at the Council of Europe, it is a great honor for me and for the Hungarian regional news site Nyugat.hu.

My name is Antal Józing, I come from Szombathely, a town in Western Hungary, and I have been a journalist, a local journalist for several decades. I have to confess, the invitation was not for me, but for Gyöngyi Roznár, the editor-in-chief and founder of the news site, who has been carrying this site on her back for two decades. But I speak a bit better English. So I am here. This is also part of the local journalism.

Nyugat.hu is the largest independent regional news site in Hungary. It was launched 22 years ago, founded and published by a civil association. Over the years, we have not only built a massive audience, but we have also become the number one source of news for people living in our region, regardless of political camps. We now have 50-80 thousand unique visitors a day, and our Facebook followers recently exceeded 100 thousand. We also produce podcasts and videos, and our content is often picked up by the national press.

Just as important, we are in direct contact with our readers. This is the beauty and specialty of local journalism. If we write something bad about a local politician, the next day we sit across from him at a press conference, or a local institute leader whose suspected corruption we wrote about, we stand in line at the supermarket checkout together. These are nice moments.

Every day, our readers bombard us with phone calls, letters, messages, stopping us in the street, sometimes running into our newsroom in person, without knocking, super excited, bringing us topics to write about or asking for help. More than once we can help them.

And we are happy about all of that, we feel that our work has real meaning. We have a significant role in local public life and democracy, that we are part of the community, that we can control local decision-makers who may be a little afraid of us.

Our readership has particularly increased during the coronavirus outbreak, or before the Hungarian general elections, this April. People came to our website for reliable information on local events, because these are the issues they face personally every day and have real experience of. Fake news or beating the bushes don't work here, in the regional press you have to fight for credibility on a daily basis. It takes a huge amount of extra work, time, energy, but we managed to meet expectations and recently set more readership records.

So our story sounds like a success story, we could open a bottle of champagne, celebrating ourselves. But we don't do that. We don't feel comfortable. To put it very mildly.

The Committee
Józing Antal

Nyugat.hu has always operated on a digital platform. We had to learn to live with social media, and we did. The shrinking of the print press does not affect us.

But we are under pressure from the state, which makes it harder to work year after year, month after month. Imagine a room where the oxygen is being slowly but constantly sucked out. At first, the people hardly notice anything. At first their mood changes, then they feel more tired, then they gasp for air. And finally, they suffocate.

We are currently in the “gasping for air” phase. I'll try to give you a brief and simplified account of what has happened, what is happening in Hungary.

The Hungarian government has gradually transformed the Hungarian media landscape in recent years. The ruling party has taken over the public media, effectively turning state radio and television stations and the state news agency into government propaganda institutes. They also built up a private media empire with a lot of public money, and this empire was organized under an umbrella foundation called KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation). About 500 media outlets belong to it, its leaders are linked to the ruling party. And speaking of local journalism, we have to point out that all the local print daily papers have been placed here, without exception.

Virtually all advertising money from the state and state-owned companies flows into this circle. Private companies can, theoretically, advertise in the independent and opposition press, but many of them do not want conflicts with the government and prefer not to do so. Independent media are not only cut off from central advertising, but also from public tenders. So we have to operate in an increasingly difficult financial environment.

There is freedom of the press in the sense that, contrary to popular belief in the West, we can write anything. Independent journalists are targeted by government propaganda on a regular basis, but we are not in physical danger. Imagine a football pitch that is very tilted. There are constant abusive shouts from the spectators, the opposition goal is at the top of a hill so we constantly have to score uphill. It's not impossible to score, it's not forbidden, it's just terribly difficult and grossly unfair.

In addition to financial difficulties, we also have to deal with other kinds of difficulties, such as being cut off from information. Many public institutions, ministries, simply ignore our questions, do not respond, do not send us the information, data or documents we request. But if we make mistakes, as we lack information, we can easily find ourselves in court.

The European Union recognized our problems as well. European Commission published a report last year on the rule of law situation in Hungary.

The document addresses four problematic issues, one of which is the media situation. The Commission has also expressed concerns about the above-mentioned issues, highlighting in particular that the Hungarian Media Authority and Media Council, which are responsible for ensuring fairness and the rule of law, are highly questionable, in terms of political independence.

I really hate to complain, but the deteriorating media situation in Hungary is particularly problematic outside Budapest. Budapest is in the centre of attention, it is easier to get information and funding, to ask for and receive help. In the countryside, we work in isolation, it is slowly becoming impossible to find journalists, and at the same time we feel forgotten. Meanwhile the local media is a very important bastion, a real frontline for democracy, freedom of expression. We not only have an informative role, but we also actively shape public life. Don’t forget: 1,7 million people live in Budapest, 8 million outside the capital.

In Hungary, elections are always decided in the countryside. This is what happened a month ago, when 8 million people had virtually no access to real local information, so they made their decisions with virtually no knowledge of the facts, exposed to manipulation and propaganda. It is not a question of which party they voted for, but of the fact that these people did not make their decision in full knowledge of the facts.

We have never backed a single political party, but it should be noted that Szombathely, where our site is located, is one of the few Hungarian cities with an opposition leadership. Not because we supported them, but because we gave local citizens a real choice. Information is power. And the lack of it, too.

We don't want the room to be completely deprived of oxygen, we don't want to suffocate, and we are doing our best. Because we love what we do, because we love the community we write for, and we love and believe in classic journalism.

We try to escape by running forward. In 2020, under our mentorship, another regional news site Enyugat.hu was launched in the neighboring county, and in two years it has become a well-known and authoritative source.

In the meantime, we created and run the Szabadhirek.hu (freenews) website. Here, we bring together the independent regional news sites that are still alive and do not have a Budapest centre. The network currently has 12 members and we are confident that together we are stronger.

We believe that local media is not only the past, but also the future. Europe is unimaginable without local media and we are optimistic. We have no other choice.

Thank you for you attention.

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