NEW YORK - Independent media is a vital function in a democracy. Through independent news, people can access information, make informed political choices, and hold leaders to account when something goes wrong, according to Human Rights Watch.

That’s why it’s never a good sign when a government starts attacking media freedom. For years, Hungary has been on our radar for this very reason.

For more than a decade, the government of Viktor Orbán has repeatedly undermined the ability of media to produce fair, impartial, and balanced news coverage for its citizens. This has had a devastating effect on Hungarians’ ability to hold its government to account for abuses.

The first step in Orban’s playbook was to politized and pack the media regulator with ruling party loyalists. Next the country’s public service broadcaster was turned into a mouthpiece of the government, ensuring all staff followed the government’s narrative, and sacking those who resisted – a move Orbán’s ruling party Fidesz made as early as 2010.

Through the establishment of a government-led foundation, the ruling party now controls almost 500 pro- Orbán private media outlets. Such concentration of private media outlets undermines genuine media pluralism, distorts the media market, and makes it harder for people to access independent information.

Hungary’s government has also been relentless in creating a hostile space for independent media. Adding to the forced closure or takeover of a number of important independent outlets, it made sure the work of journalists was increasingly difficult, preventing access to official information and sources. Independent journalists’ questions are often ignored, another big obstacle to effective reporting.

That’s not it: Orban made sure journalists who still try to report critically on the government operate in a climate of fear and intimidation. Many told HRW they had been targeted with the Pegasus spyware and regularly face smear campaigns.

All this makes it almost impossible for anyone to report critically on the government’s actions and policies in Hungary.

This increased control over the media market is part of a broader assault on rule of law in Hungary. This includes efforts to undermine judicial independence and state capture of public institutions – the very attacks that make the media’s monitoring role even more essential.

We’re not the only ones raising such concerns: the EU has already frozen funds to Hungary, pressuring the government to address a long list of rules of law concerns, including on judicial independence or the fight against corruption.

There are other very concrete, urgent steps EU institutions should take to respond to these attacks against the media, in this context of Hungary’s broader dismantling of the rule of law – they’re all outlined in our new report. The systematic undermining of media freedom is a breach of the EU’s core values. Stopping it should be a priority.