Factcheck Hungarian style

The first time I encountered factcheck.org was during the 2002 campaign when listening to the early morning news on NPR (National Public Radio). The segment, an analysis of Republican and Democratic campaign speeches, pointed out the not entirely truthful claims about the state of American education. I wished at that time that there would be something similar in Hungary where untrue "facts" are repeated ad nauseam without anyone correcting them.

As a faithful viewer of ATV's "Egyenes beszéd" (Straight Talk with Olga Kálmán) I was astonished to hear two interviews on consecutive days (September 21 and 22). The first was with György Gémesi, mayor of Gödöllő and chairman of the Association of Hungarian Local Governments (Magyar Önkormányzatok Szövetsége or MÖSZ). The topic was the decrease in subsidies to the cities and towns from Budapest, not exactly welcome news to the mayors. We heard the usual complaints: no one told them anything, they were not given enough time to study the proposals, they are incapable of running their cities and towns on less money. The interview then turned to the recent meeting at which the two sides–the association and the government–were supposed to iron out their differences. Olga Kálmán wanted to know what was accomplished. The answer: absolutely nothing. There was no opportunity to reconcile their differences. So how did they spend their time? "We didn't negotiate, we chit-chatted a bit." Gémesi further elaborated on the actual agenda and claimed total failure.

The next day István Jauernik, the undersecretary in the ministry dealing with the affairs of local governments, was Kálmán's guest. He represented the government in the negotiations. He thought that the meeting had some positive results. "It was a meaningful exchange of viewpoints." It lasted two and a half hours during which time they managed to clear up some misunderstandings. At the very end Kálmán mentioned that Gémesi had been her guest the day before and that he had a very different opinion about the whole encounter. To which Jauernik said that Gémesi wasn't even present. You should have seen Olga Kálmán's face. She could only mutter: "This is new to me."

If a Hungarian politician is capable of pretending that he was present at a meeting when he wasn't and takes a very strong position on its outcome, one can imagine the level of political discourse in Hungary. It very rarely happens that the two sides appear on the same show, and the few times they do the conversation usually turns into a shouting match. The listener can't even understand their arguments because the politicians don't allow each other to finish a sentence. But, as I said, such encounters are rare because one side or the other refuses to engage in a direct confrontation. Thus, the burden is on the reporter to catch the half truths or outright lies the politician utters. Even if the reporter is well informed, that is a daunting task because not all facts and figures can be at his/her fingertips and one cannot be prepared for all eventualities. One never knows what surprising new "fact" a politician can come up with.

Seven years after I first heard of factcheck.org something similar is now being done in Hungary. Given the state of Hungarian politics it is not surprising that the fact-checker is a journalist of liberal persuasion who is keeping an eye only on right-wing politicians and right-wing papers. His name is György Bolgár, and I've mentioned him and his call-in show frequently in this blog. Bolgár is a walking encyclopaedia. It very rarely happens that he doesn't remember something, and the few times he doesn't he promises to check it out. The next day, like clockwork, there is the answer.

It has been bothering Bolgár for a long time that politicians, especially the politicians of Fidesz, handle truth in a cavalier fashion. And most likely people on the liberal side also urged him to tap into his vast factual knowledge and his penchant for fact checking. On June 15 of this year he launched a column entitled "Hogy mi van?" ("What one can hear!"; this is the best translation I can come up with. Suggestions are welcome!) in 168 Óra. The subject of his first piece was Gábor Vona, who claimed that since 1947 no grassroots movement ever managed to become a serious party represented in parliament. Bolgár pointed out that Fidesz was a grassroots movement that got into parliament easily after very little preparation in 1990. A week later (June 29) Bolgár contradicted Viktor Orbán who claimed that there are forty electoral districts where in the last twenty years the MSZP candidate has always won. In 1990, Bolgár reminded his readers, MSZP won in only one district! On July 8, Bolgár talked about Gabriella Vukovich, a demographer and former deputy director of the Hungarian Statistical Office under Viktor Orbán, who in Magyar Hírlap of all places claimed that Hungary's population decrease is the highest in the whole world. The fact is that in three other countries in the European Union the situation is worse. On August 24, Bolgár noticed that Károly Konrát, Fidesz MP and former undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior in the Orbán government, claimed that between 1998 and 2002 there were no neo-Nazi demonstrations in Hungary. It is not true. On February 13, 1999, the Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front) organized a demonstration attended by 1,500 people, including many neo-Nazis from other countries. In military formation, accompanied by the beat of drums, they moved into the old Castle District. Under police protection. On September 6, Bolgár argued a bit with Péter Szijjártó who claimed that the Hungarian situation is so bad that people live better in Romania than in Hungary. New documents prove, according to Szijjártó, that if a Hungarian works one hour he makes less than a Romanian in Bucharest. It turned out that this comparison between Romania and Hungary was done during the few short weeks when the Hungarian forint had weakened considerably. 

I was the one who called György Bolgár's attention to a false statement by Zsolt Németh, Fidesz's foreign policy expert, about the Slovak-Hungarian statement signed at Szécsény by Robert Fico and Gordon Bajnai. According to Németh, the English version (the original, subsequently translated into Hungarian and Slovak) is different from the Hungarian one and from what Bajnai claimed. It says, according to Németh, that the Slovaks will abide by recommendations of The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe only when it comes to the implementation of the Slovak language law. The fact is that there is absolutely no difference between the English and the Hungarian text. Both say the same thing: the two countries will abide by all the recommendations, about the law itself as well as its implementation.

Admittedly, this is far cry from factcheck.org which watches all political statements, not just those of one side. But it is still better than nothing. I do hope that sooner or later a group of enterprising fact checkers will get together and get to work. There is plenty to do. Perhaps more than in the United States.

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Odin's lost eye

I fear that Mr Bolgár is a small voice crying in the ‘wilderness’, but I fear that very few will even hear him let alone listen and heed. Hungarian political figures of the far-right (Fidesz) and the far-far right (Jobbik) are not interested in the truth, they only want people to believe what they are told by them and to react accordingly. Unfortunately the leaders of these two groups believe their own propaganda so to argue with them on the basis of the truth is futile. The Hungarians as a whole seldom listen to anything but ‘sound bytes’ (as do many other peoples) so in the main the idea of ‘Factcheck’ is I fear a total waste of time. Its objectives of cross checking statement vv statement will soon be drowned in the roar of the rant from the ‘deep’ right.