The besieged media

Viktor Orbán doesn’t like the media, especially not reporters who could possibly ask difficult questions from him. There are reporters with whom he refuses to exchange a single word. Among these is György Bolgár, whose call-in show in Debrecen was disrupted by a handful of very noisy demonstrators, as I wrote about earlier. Occasionally, Orbán feels that he is safe and accepts an invitation for an interview. Not long ago he was asked by György Baló, a seasoned reporter at the public television station, to have a chat with him on his program called Az Este [Evening]. Baló’s wife, Krisztina Morvai, is a so-called legal expert who has been assiduously collecting evidence that–contrary to the facts–it was not the mob that attacked the police during the riots last fall but the police who ran down the peaceful demonstrators. To Orbán’s great surprise, Baló asked a few questions that were not to Orbán’s liking. At one point he even tried to argue with him. Too bad that you couldn’t have seen the ensuing few moments. Orbán was offended. He became huffy. His face showed a boyish hurt and, in a saddened voice, he called Baló antagonistic. Baló immediately apologized profusely. That exchange said a lot about the the Fidesz’s relation to the media in general.

A few months ago, the party decided to boycott a much watched political program, Napkelte [Sunrise]. (A few days ago I mentioned this program in connection with Hungarian agriculture.) The Fidesz’s leadership decided that the program was "not balanced." I usually watch this program every day and find it quite balanced. In fact, if there is imbalance it is in the favor of the right because while the liberal journalists ask sharp questions from the socialist-liberal politicians, those who sympathize with the right rarely challenge the opposition politicians. In any case, the dissatisfaction of Orbán with this program (because he is the one who decides everything in the party) must have been great. The party spokesman announced that no Fidesz politician would appear on this very popular morning show until they fired two of their best reporters.

At first, I just laughed. What’s the use of that? The Fidesz deprives itself of a platform, an important platform. The Napkelte is watched by almost half a million people. However, one must not underestimate Orbán’s cunning. As it turns out, the law makes it mandatory for the media supported from the budget to be "politically balanced." If the opposition parties’ representatives do not appear, the whole show can be scrapped. The leadership of Napkelte tries to invite a lot of MDF (a moderate right of center party) politicians, but considering that the MDF has only eleven parliamentary members the picking is slim. There is only one former Fidesz politician (now a political scientist of allegedly independent views) who is willing to appear and he does at least once a week, when he gives his analysis without being interrupted or questioned by the reporter. As it turns out, the producers of Napkelte are worried that if they do otherwise, he is going to walk out on them. As he already threatened.

Lately it became known that hundreds of complaints have arrived at Napkelte with identical texts, identical typos, identical grammatical errors. Thus, someone centrally organizes these attacks. And these are just letters addressed to Napkelte. There are scores of complaints sent to an official body that is supposed to watch over the public media’s "impartiality." About a week ago, this body fined Napkelte half a million forints (about $2,500) because the reporter expressed his own views while interviewing the above mentioned Krisztina Morvai. Morvai had written a letter to the editor a few days earlier in which she made some clearly antisemitic remarks. She went on and on about "us" and "them." She was invited by Napkelte to discuss this letter. The question was clear: What did she mean when she said that "we have only one country," while "they have more than one"? When she tried to waffle, the reporter expressed his own opinion. According to this official watchdog of the public media, a reporter cannot express his own point of view, cannot argue with the person he is interviewing.

I mentioned earlier that I felt that Napkelte’s reporters were becoming less and less "balanced" themselves. They take it upon themselves to represent the opposition party’s views. It turns out that my impression was correct. The producer of the program freely admits that this is how they try to save the program. So, after all, Orbán knows what he is doing.