A couple of days ago I happened upon a blog by Péter S. Föld called "Most&Itt" (Now & Here). Föld is a liberal newspaperman who himself admits that he writes very subjective pieces on politics. He is certainly no friend of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, but in this particular article entitled "Sajtó mortale" (Press mortale) I was mostly interested in a personal story he told.
Föld was an editor of a paper called Kurír between 1991 and 1998. Kurír was a popular tabloid financed by the state-owned Postabank, along with Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Narancs. Kurír, according to Föld, was profitable for a number of years but in the last two years of its existence it accumulated some debt.
Kurír had a satirical section, "Elefánt." Föld was in charge. What happened after the Orbán government was formed in the summer of 1998 might be of some interest to those who are concerned about the state of the media in case Fidesz wins the elections this year.
Some of the editors were of the opinion that it might be a good idea to move a little closer to the new government in order to be on a more secure footing. They tried to convince Föld to change the profile of Elefánt but he refused. On September 30 a meeting was held to discuss Elefánt's attitude toward the government. Föld didn't budge. After the rather noisy meeting broke up at noon Föld went home to have a nap. An hour later he received a telephone call: Kurír is no more. Föld rushed to the office and saw a representative of Postabank leaving the scene. He learned later that Orbán had been very dissatisfied with Kurír for some time but that particular morning he read something in the paper that apparently incensed him. Because Postabank and by extension Kurír was owned by the state, the prime minister immediately acted on the ground that the paper was not profitable. Magyar Nemzet with a debt load three times the size of Kurír's was left alone. As for Magyar Narancs, also a liberal weekly, Fidesz managed to take away its name. After all, narancs was a Fidesz trademark. During the Orbán period Magyar Narancs appeared as Mancs.
And what a coincidence it is that a very similar topic was discussed by Zsófia Miháncsik in her column "Voltak, lesznek" (They were, they will be). She recalls the events of the day eight years ago, that is in the last few months of the Orbán government. This time the topic was the "Kontroll Csoport" (Control Group). Magyar Nemzet reported that a group of journalism students analyzed 385 articles that appeared in various foreign papers about Hungary. The group's conclusion was that one-third of the articles under scrutiny were written by thirteen foreign correspondents who negatively influenced the world's opinion of Viktor Orbán. The paper named names.
The foreign papers didn't take the report lying down. Even Matthias Rüb, a reporter for the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, suspected that there might be some connection between the journalism students' Control Group and the government. He recalled that in Parliament Viktor Orbán himself noted that he had asked for a list of names of politicians, intellectuals, and publicists who "pointed out shortcomings of Hungarian democracy" on the pages of foreign newspapers. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was not the only one that saw a connection between the group's activities and Orbán's blacklist. Gazeta Wyborcza, the Polish liberal daily, was very explicit. It claimed that the article in Magyar Nemzet was part and parcel of Fidesz's election campaign.
But that wasn't all. The Hungarian International Press Association (HIPA), the organization of foreign journalists working in Hungary, wrote a letter to the foreign minister, János Martonyi, complaining about the Control Group's activities. Martonyi wasn't sympathetic. He wrote back saying that the "ministry is not competent to redress the complaint of the reporters, but it promises to assist them in the future just as in the past." However, Viktor Orbán attended a breakfast meeting with the representatives of HIPA. As it turned out, the invitation had been extended two months earlier but Orbán because of his tight schedule couldn't meet with them then. The problem was barely touched on at the meeting. Orbán simply announced that "the media is free and the government doesn't get involved in cases like this."
In the end the double talk so pervasive in Fidesz circles prevailed. Gábor Borókai, the government spokesman, admitted that the analysis published by the Control Group was unfortunate and that it did harm to Hungary's image. However, a few days later Zoltán Pokorni, then chairman of Fidesz, defended the Control Group and repeated the charge that certain foreign reporters are not giving an objective picture of the country.