available languages: english October 3, 2016

As PM Orbán and his allies seize on the 98% no vote in yesterday’s refugee referendum, and others mock his failure to reach the minimum turnout required by a wide margin, the real question no one is asking is how such an undemocratic poll can take place in an EU member state?

To start with, the Hungarian Government spent millions holding a referendum on a biased question with unclear implications. Reportedly, it then spent at least €16m of taxpayers’ money campaigning for its own position, while publicly funded TV news focused on one side of the debate – the government’s.

Our new research reveals that state-owned TV channel M1 failed in its duty as a public broadcaster to provide balanced coverage during the referendum campaign. Of the country’s five main TV stations, M1 exhibited by far the greatest pro-government and anti-refugee bias. It also allotted considerably more airtime to the issue and much greater prominence, with 86% of evening news bulletins leading with refugees and the referendum.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also found that the second most pro-government channel was TV2, a station acquired earlier this year by an oligarch with close ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The level of attention and tone of coverage makes M1 appear an extension of the ruling party’s campaign, rather than an independent state broadcaster. The monitoring results are not totally unexpected, given that during the 2014 elections, the OSCE found 84% of M1’s coverage of the Opposition was negative, compared to just 5% for the ruling Fidesz party.

More biased than Brexit

The much-criticised Brexit vote at least maintained a number of basic democratic principles, as outlined in the Council of Europe’s code of good practice on referendums. The UK has the right to withdraw from the EU, so the in-out question had clear legal grounding. In the case of Hungary, the question is on how EU laws are made: something that is determined by EU treaties, not the unilateral decisions of individual countries.

The confusion became obvious when the Supreme Court approved the referendum based on the understanding that it related to the EU Council’s refugee relocation scheme, while the Ministry of Justice claimed it was about possible future EU decisions. Neither would have been legitimate cause under the constitution, which does not permit referendums on international obligations.

The Council of Europe’s code of good practice also makes clear that authorities should maintain a neutral attitude in terms of public funding. In Hungary, the Government funded the entire ‘no’ campaign. The code also indicates that neutrality should be shown in media coverage, in particular in news broadcasts of public TV stations. The BBC was much criticised for interpreting this too formalistically during Brexit, affording equal space to both camps irrespective of the quality of their arguments, and failing to challenge or fact check campaign statements.

The result of six years of messing with the laws

Since its election in 2010, the Fidesz party’s sweeping changes to various laws and the constitution have been highly controversial; scrutinizing bodies, such as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have voiced concerns about a deterioration of democracy in Hungary.

One of the main bones of contention between the Hungarian Government and the Council of Europe has been very strict reporting standards introduced by the Hungarian parliament for all TV stations, including private ones. Ironically, it appears that the public broadcaster has the biggest problem with balanced reporting.

To many, such legal debates seemed abstract. Now they certainly feel very real. There are ongoing and grave concerns about the ability of regulatory bodies to ensure the independence of public broadcasters – our latest media monitoring data expose exactly how ineffectual they are.

The EU must act now to defend democracy

The EU has done little to reign in the dismantling of democratic checks and balances in Hungary. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, experts in diagnosing authoritarian machinations in legal small print, first raised concerns in 2010. The EU had little appetite for a fight with Budapest. Brussels may know everything about trade, but it doesn’t train its minds on how to uphold democracy.

The Commission only enacted its soft ‘rule of law’ mechanism in the case of Poland when the ruling party’s attack on the Constitutional Court became so blatant it could no longer be ignored. Hungary has travelled much further down the road towards an illiberal, undemocratic state. The time for the EU to step in is now.