Hungary: Where Editors Tell Journalists to Ignore the Facts in Front of Their Eyes | Hungary
Last month, on Hungary’s national holiday, Viktor Orbán accused the opposition of seeking to drag the country into Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The Hungarian prime minister’s highly questionable claim was the centerpiece of a 30-minute speech to supporters that aired on state broadcaster M1 nine times in 24 hours. For Orbán, it was perfect cover as he seeks a fourth consecutive term in the country’s most contested election in years on April 3. The main opposition leader, Péter Márki-Zay, also appeared on state television: he got five minutes.
Orbán’s patriotic message was amplified by gushing tributes in pro-government media. “Anyone who has seen or heard Orbán’s annual appraisal speech has seen a successful head of government at the height of his power…in which levity and humor were as present as the deep and very complex fabric thoughts of a statesman,” said pro-government website PestiSrácok. On TV2, one of the main commercial channels, an evening news presenter said: “I will support Viktor Orbán on April 3.”
By contrast, coverage of this week’s press conference by Márki-Zay was hard to find at a Habsburg estate believed to belong to the prime minister’s father, Gyözö Orbán. Márki-Záy hammered home one of his main themes: corruption. Pro-government news sites, such as Origo and Magyar Nemzet, did not mention the speech, nor did Hungary’s main news agency, MTI. The last reference discovered by the agency to the Hatvanpuszta estate, which would have been the subject of a sumptuous renovation, dates back more than 20 years.
Welcome to the media in Hungary, where NGOs are blacklisted, critical articles are scrapped and editors order journalists to disregard the facts before their eyes. “We have come to a situation where our position is now much worse than it was in the 1980s, when Hungary was a communist country,” said a person with decades of media experience. Hungarian state, recalling the time when the central European country was described as “the happiest barracks” in the Eastern bloc, for its relative freedom.
“The situation then in terms of censorship and state interference in public service journalism is a far cry from the situation now,” the person told the Guardian.
People familiar with MTI, a news source for other media, say there is a blacklist of organizations that cannot be reported on, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any attempt to write about their reports “is trash work,” a second source said. And while there is no ban on reporting the opposition, ‘coverage is deeply skewed in the sense that the coverage given to pro-government parties and politicians is disproportionately wider and more extensive,’ one person said. . “I would go so far as to say the split is nine to one in favor of the government.”
Although these comments refer to the news agency, the rules would be the same across the whole of Hungary’s public service broadcaster, MTVA, which houses the state-owned television, radio and news agency. .
An MTI editor reportedly told reporters that international news agencies, such as Reuters and Associated Press, could not be trusted and should only be used for basic facts, not in the broader context of their items. Another MTVA editor, Balázs Bende, told staff after Joe Biden’s victory not to nominate him as president-elect of the United States. “I’ve starred him AGAIN that he’s not president-elect, and he hasn’t won until there’s an official result,” Bende wrote in an internal letter, including a copy was seen by the Guardian. “And I don’t care whether everyone agrees with that or not.” In another email sent more than a week after Biden’s victory was confirmed, Bende quoted Donald Trump to his team: “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA.”
Instructions are not always necessary. Editors are toeing the government line, an approach that worked until Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing the traditionally pro-Kremlin Orbán government to condemn the war and side with the EU on sanctions. The script had changed, but no one seemed to have told the state news agency, which described the invasion as a ‘Russian military operation’ – echoing Kremlin wording – for the first five days of the war.
M1’s pro-Russia attitude reflected the editors’ personal agenda and confusion over how to frame the war, rather than any government order, according to three sources close to state television. Another person familiar with MTVA said she did not believe the pro-Russian stance was intentional, but reflected the exodus of professional journalists at the top. “It’s not political, it’s not professional. The whole thing has been so messed up that there are no clear professional criteria.
Pro-government media and many Facebook cronies attacked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, especially after he told Orbán to choose a side in Russia’s war against his country. Hungarian journalists darkly joke that Zelenskiy is the new Soros, a reference to Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, who has been the primary target of an anti-Semitic smear campaign by the Hungarian government and its supporters.
Magyar Nemzet published an article indicating that Márki-Zay’s staff had contacted Zelenskiy. The Ukrainian embassy in Budapest accused the newspaper of “anti-Ukrainian alarmism”.
Earlier this week, a complaint was filed with the European Commission alleging that Russian war propaganda was “continuously disseminated” by Hungarian state media. The complaint from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Political Capital Institute accuses Hungarian authorities of failing to impose sanctions on public service media “when they present disinformation as the truth”.
The war may be recent, but the erosion of Hungary’s independent media has continued since Orbán was re-elected in 2010. His victory was quickly followed by a media law that asserted government control over the main media regulator. Later, independent newspapers and websites went bankrupt or were taken over by pro-government buyers, pressured, in part, by state advertisements heavily skewed towards pro-government media.
Meanwhile, the small Hungarian independent media group has seen its journalists targeted by Pegasus spyware. In 2021, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights concluded: “The combined effects of a politically controlled media regulatory authority and distorting state intervention in the media market have eroded media pluralism and freedom of expression in Hungary.
As Hungary plummeted in the international press freedom rankings, EU authorities were accused of standing idly by. More than a decade after the country dismantled its independent media regulator, the European Commission has promised a media freedom law to protect independence and pluralism in the EU.
For the Hungarian opposition, slightly behind in the polls, it is too late to level the playing field. Hungarian media regulars expect no change if the current government remains in power: “The light we saw at the end of the tunnel in the late 1980s is now behind us.”
Responding to the report’s main points, a government spokesperson said Hungary recognizes and protects the freedom and diversity of the press. Media legislation, the statement said, prevents the emergence of information monopolies and guarantees pluralism.
“The government is not an authority that directs public service media. If you look at the Hungarian press, if you look at Hungarian radio and television, if you look at social networks, you will see that there are very many different opinions, a very wide range, very different from the media of Western societies. In total, about 50% of Hungarian media are Christian Democrats, traditionalists and conservatives, while the remaining 50% are progressives, liberals, leftists and This is what we call pluralist media,” the spokesperson said. .
MTVA did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations, including those regarding the staff members named in this report.