Self-censorship at MTI

Although I've written quite a bit on the new Hungarian media law, I didn't touch on the part that deals with a peculiar new way of delivering news in the public, state-financed media. MTI, the official Hungarian news agency, will not only gather news but also edit the news and distribute it to Magyar Televízió (MTV), Duna Televízió, a station that serves the Hungarian disaspora, and Magyar Rádió (MR). Everything will be centralized. The same news can be heard on all three public media. Only the anchors will be different.

People who know something about editing news consider this arrangement unworkable because editing the news for radio and television requires entirely different skills. Even the new head of MTI admitted that the task will not be easy. Well, that's their problem. I'm much more worried about what kind of news MTI will deliver. The new president made it clear to the staff that MTI "must be loyal to the government." This is a concept that is unimaginable in democratic countries and bears a suspicious resemblance to the good old days of the dictatorship.

The staff at MTI is rapidly adjusting to the new requirements. Only two days ago Hírszerző, an online newspaper, noticed that MTI's reporting of foreign news leaves something to be desired. The journalists at Hírszerző discovered that MTI changed the tone of a statement of a German Christian Democratic politician to sound much more favorable to the Hungarian government than the German original was. According to the MTI version, Manfred Grund found it "a total impossibility" that anyone should question Hungary's loyalty to Europe. Grund, they continued, emphasized that the negative opinions of Hungary's media law reflect "superficial attitudes formed along party lines." According to MTI, Grund considers it "especially absurd that anyone can question the rotating presidency of Hungary." In the original, as it turns out, Grund simply said that "it is inappropriate" to talk about depriving Hungary of the presidency. Moreover, he added that "a free and not always pleasant reporting is part of democracy," which MTI didn't mention. Grund didn't talk about either a "total impossibility" or "superficial attitudes formed along party lines." MTI added these phrases to make a CDU politician's support of the Orbán government look stronger than it actually was.

Then a couple days ago I found that MTI had falsified the contents of an article "EU presses Hungary on media law" that appeared in the Financial Times on December 24, 2010. The article informs the readers that Neelie Kroes, one of the European Commission's vice-presidents, wrote a letter to Hungary's deputy prime minister. I will use red for the Financial Times's original text and blue for the corresponding Hungarian text.

Financial Times: The European Union official in charge of overseeing media freedoms has asked the Hungarian government to defend its controversial new press law, ratcheting up a potentially fraught EU investigation into the measure.

MTI: Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Union who is responsible for media, inquired about the media law passed this week in parliament.

Financial Times: Neelie Kroes, one of the European Commission’s vice-presidents, wrote to Hungary’s deputy prime minister, Tibor Navracsics, on Thursday asking him to send the text of the law to her so that she can determine whether it complies with EU law governing media freedom.

MTI: From the article entitled "EU presses Hungary on media law" one can learn that the Dutch commissioner in her letter to Tibor Navracsics among other things asked to send the text of the bill to her in order to determine whether it complies with the Union's regulations governing the freedom of the press.

Financial Times: Her letter comes less than two weeks before Hungary is scheduled to take over the EU's six-month rotating presidency, which gives Ms Kroes’ inquiry added political tension. Ms Kroes will be joining her fellow members of the 27-person European Commission for its first meeting in Budapest in the first week in January. Mr Navracsics also serves as justice minister in the centre-right government of prime minister Viktor Orban. The law was passed by Hungary’s parliament, overwhelmingly controlled by Mr Orban’s Fidesz party, earlier this week.

MTI: Completely left out from the report.

Financial TimesAccording to people who have seen the letter, it raises questions about the independence of the powerful new media regulator set up by Mr Orban’s government, which will have nominees of Fidesz in all five seats.

The media council has the right to investigate, judge and fine publishers and broadcasters which it deems to have hurt “human dignity” or “caused offence” to nationalities, churches or minorities.

According to people who have seen the letter, Ms Kroes details EU protections regarding press freedoms, adding she has heard concerns that the “act risks jeopardising these rights”. It also says Ms Kroes has received complaints that the language governing the new media council “does not seem to guarantee its independence”.

MTI: The article quotes people who are familiar with the contents of the letter. According to them Kroes recites the guarantees of the Union concerning media freedom and mentions worries that reached her that there might be the risk that these guarantees might be endangered.

Financial Times : In addition, the letter questions whether the new law’s provisions violate EU directives barring countries from regulating broadcasts from other member states. According to an official involved in the EU inquiry, the Hungarian law appears to put new restrictions on broadcasts coming into Hungary from abroad.

The law has already received harsh international criticism. Earlier in the week, the top media official at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a statement in which she said the law violated “media freedom standards” and that it “endangers editorial independence and media pluralism”.

Ms Kroes’ action, however, could have more serious repercussions. The EU has already opened a so-called “infringement action” against Hungary for its failure to live up to the EU’s media regulations, and Ms Kroes could take the case to the European Court of Justice to force Budapest’s hand.

In recent days, senior Fidesz politicians have made some unusually conciliatory noises, without indicating they would back down. The party’s leader in parliament said earlier this week that he was open to amending the law if the new media council implemented it incorrectly. Hungary has showed no signs of relenting in a separate dispute with the ECB over its central bank's independence.

MTI: The letter is asking questions concerning the independence of the new media control authority. In addition, the letter doubts that the provision that would regulate media originating from other member countries complies with union rules.

The Financial Times reminds its readers that the media law received severe international criticism. It also quotes the person responsible for media in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

I don't think that one has to add anything to this. A comparison of the two texts speaks for itself.

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To an outsider, it seems that the government’s rank incompetence and inability to connect with or comprehend the modern media world of 2010 is breathtaking.
Firstly, to attempt to pass such a law just over a week before taking the EU’s Presidency was a spectacular own goal- if they had waited 6 months ther no one in Brussels and probably the wider international media would have cared less.
Secondly, as you highlight here, the assumption that in 2010, multilingual people in Hungary haven’t got access to foreign media at source is unbelievably stupid- when their main Propaganda Man (Comical Pete as I refer to him) publicly *interpets* what a foreign leader or journalist meant, you can bet your bottom dollar that within ten minutes we’ll get the real evidence translated online contradicting and making him look the fool he is.
I actually think it’s this so apparent incompetence or lack of “savoir faire” as the Financial Times (I think)described it which is the biggest danger facing Hungary- an economic collapse and bankrupcy could be done and dusted before these morons would even have noticed anything was wrong.

Someone loaned me the book mentioned below. The author extends her thanks to Ms. Balogh for her help. It is almost a balanced writing. Quote from Chapters site: “Ghosts of Europe: Journeys through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future by Anna Porter Douglas & McIntyre | August 23, 2010 | Hardcover One of the country’s most distinguished writers and publishers returns to her roots to explore the consequences of democracy in the former Habsburg lands. In 1989 the Berlin Wall was dismantled. Communism gave way to democracy. Since that time the former borderlands of the long defunct Hapsburg Empire and the more recently dispersed Soviet Empire have been trying to invent their own versions of democracy and market-driven economics. But these experiments have led to a widening gap between rich and poor. The worldwide economic crisis has severely tested Central Europe’s determination to live peaceably, and there are many disquieting signs of old hatreds and racial tensions returning. Author Anna Porter travels through the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to speak with leading intellectuals, politicians, former dissidents and the champions of aggrieved memories. She interviews great figures of the revolution (Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, George Konrád) and its… Read more »
Odin's Lost Eye
Mr O’Neill I am very sarcastic about Fidesz and its leader Orban Viktor whom I call the ‘Mighty One’. I do not read and speak little Hungarian. Some years ago my late wife, step daughter and I watched the ‘Mighty One’s’ speech at the Astoria in Budapest. My step daughter was entranced by it. My wife was worried, until I said to her “He is a demagogue and he has hate and wants revenge for some imagined wrong”. My wife who totally agreed with me told my step daughter my opinion of the man, adding that I did not know what he said. We did not see my step daughter again for several weeks. That is the hold he has over some people. After his electoral debacle, at the end of his first term as P.M, O.V. blamed ‘the people’ for his loss of power. He BLAMED the people!!! It was sometime after that I think that he made up his mind to revert to the only model of government he knew. This would be a Centralised type of administration, where the Party controls everything and he controls the Party). NEVER again would he trust His future to the ‘People’.… Read more »

Odin’s Lost Eye: This man does not expect to be ever voted out of office again. And he already made sure that he can’t. He’ll fix the few missing links on the fly. This is why I said somewhere else that any new and democratic government of Hungary will come about only through bloodshed. And that is indeed tragic.


@ oneill: It is a good thing that someone notices the incompetence of this government. But this is actually not the point. Self-censorship of MTI is not incompetence, it is the intended end of open and independent communication on the part of the government. This Prime Minister set out to replace democracy by a Belarus-style autocracy. Basically he completed his programme except for the new constitution that will come next April. Then everything will be written in stone and no longer changeable by any imaginable democratic process. In essence, the whole situations is by far more hopeless than you like to think.


If you make protest and change impossible via democracy, you are effectively engineering a situation where the only way to change things is through violence.
OV is recreating a society those older than 40 will remember only too well. But he does not (yet) have the military and police power the communists had to restrain the people.
Unless the opposition can unite before things go too far, I too fear the result of OV’s insatiable thirst for power and revenge will be a broken country and blood on the streets.
My only hope is, based on experience so far, that they don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ll actually manage to cock things up on such a scale that OV’s dreams won’t get realised.

Odin's Lost Eye
The problems that ‘the Mighty One’ (O.V) will cause for Hungary and for Europe are legion! The only thing which might help will be the economic collapse of Hungary, but this will cost Europe dear because of the losses of their investments. As we see the problems for Hungary are just beginning, they could not start earlier because in Europe you cannot anticipate an offence. You have to wait until one is committed. Now that may have happened and it will take not only ‘legal opinion’ but rulings from the European Court, at which the Hungarian Government has the right to be represented to prove the offence. I can see O.V. lining up another ‘Enemy of Hungary’ to add the IMF and the ECB for the people to hate (i.e. the European Court). Recently my TV service provider has withdrawn the multilingual services from those satellite services which provide it. Some channels are transmitted with Hungarian, Czech, and English sound channels, but the software switches have been removed. The boxes can now only receive the Hungarian language versions and the down link feeds can be deleted by new versions of software up loaded from ‘base’. But there is more to… Read more »

@Minusio: “This Prime Minister set out to replace democracy by a Belarus-style autocracy”
I am still uncertain whether he can achieve that. For such an autocracy you need a lot of followers in the decisive positions who do not question what is being dictated from above (Pal Schmitts everywhere – that still seems unimaginable to me but you are certainly better informed). Any internal debate among Hungarians about alternatives to the Fidesz system has to be supressed (the media law makes that a bit more likely but it does not apply to printed matter such as books or does it?; there could also be difficulties in restricting the access to media that appear in foreign countries). Hungarians are free to leave the country and to return; Ferenc Gyurcsany and others are still free men. The EU will not be entirely inactive (which was my worry before), so for me (but I am afraid I wrote that already) the big unknown is why loyalty to OV’s network is so high (“self”-censorship at MTI) and why the opponents are unable to find common ground. On paper Hungary is still far from an autocracy though it may feel like one.


@Paul and Minusio: Perhaps I simply do not know Hungarian reality so well, but on the one hand I read that people long for the quite and peaceful Kadar years and therefore they support Orban, and on the other hand you suggest bloodshed because Orban wants revenge…

Joe Simon

oneill ‘if they waited 6 months no one in Brussels would have cared less …’
I think it is opportune that this media law is out in the open. As Presdent of the EU, Orbán will receive many questions addressed to him regarding the purpose of this new law. So let him explain to the international community what his government want. I would like to hear his explanations before an international forum.

Kirsten: I doubt that Orbán will resort to repressive violence any time soon. I only said, he made it virtually impossible to get rid of him without violence. If you don’t believe me wait for the provisions of the new constitution or until 2014 when you expect the next ‘democratic’ elections to be held and then there aren’t any. The way to finally remove him may take several forms. It may be an assassin (who would make Orbán a martyr, and that would be the worst solution) or an uprising which may then trigger some attempts at bloody repression. Whatever scenario one wishes to follow, one has to begin with the assumption that this man doesn’t plan to ever relinquish power. And yes, Kirsten, there are Pál Schmitts practically everywhere. From the day he lost the election in 2002 (in ignominy and corruption) he had eight years to create dependecies all over the country. Now (almost) everybody in Fidesz owes him one. Another feature of dictatorships: However bad the cast, it remains the same during the entire performance (unless someone dies). Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar – always the same cliques around them – until the bitter end. Only Stalin in… Read more »

Minusio:”Another feature of dictatorships: However bad the cast, it remains the same during the entire performance (unless someone dies). Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar – always the same cliques around them – until the bitter end. Only Stalin in his paranoia deviated a little… ”
Let’s not forget the massacre of the SA by Hitler.
I have to say that I am less pessimistic about the future. Hungary is part of a civilized EU. Its welfare depends on its exports and imports, not like Germany or the USSR used to be (not that their leaders cared too much about the welfare of the general population). Also, I believe that sooner or later the intellectual class will stop supporting them. All these factors together should be sufficient for a bloodless regime change, through elections.
Unless the regime “develops” into the North Korean model…

Odin's Lost Eye
GDF may I make a little correction On the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ some 200 to 300 Senior members of the ‘Sturm Abteilung’ (SA), who were on their way to Weisse or at the Hanselbauer Hotel, were arrested by the Schutz Staffeinel (who were accompanying Hitler). Most of them were shot. Exactly how many it is unclear. Ernst Roehm was arrested and replaced by Victor Lutze as head of the S.A. Hitler wanted to spare his old friend but was persuaded by Goering and Himmler to ‘liquidate’ Roehm. Which officers of the SS did. Hitler’s reasons for the liquidations were that some of his powerful supporters had been complaining about Roehm for some time. The generals were afraid that the SA, a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Roehm would become its overall leader. Others, the industrialists, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm’s socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.… Read more »

GDF: Roehm was never part of Hitler’s government. I guess Orbán has already “purged” his party sufficiently during the past eight years. And Jobbik and the Guard don’t belong to Fidesz. What I wanted to say: As authoritarian governments don’t have to worry about opinion polls and elections, the competence of its ministers takes second place to their loyalty to the Duce. So it doesn’t really matter what silly things these ministers say or how muddy their minds are. They will stay on. Whereas in a democracy as I know it, a minister who puts his foot in his mouth doesn’t have much of a shelf-life.
I am myself quite sanguine and not at all a pessimist. But I think one should call a spade a spade when one sees one. For a tragic case of wishful thinking I recommend Max Frisch’s “Biedermann und die Brandstifter” (“Firebugs”, 1953).


@Minusio: I agree with you that if the constitution will be changed so that changes therein will be practically impossible, an “unconstitutional way” cannot be avoided to get rid of Fidesz and this constitution. But we are not yet there, and it is neither yet decided that these “unconstitutional means” must necessarily include a lot of violence. The problem to me is not that the entire legal system would have already been changed Fidesz-style (no “Enabling Act” was passed, but I generally dislike the comparison of Hungary 2010 with Germany 1933, it mystifies the current situation). On paper the situation is still not that bad (Hungary is still member of the EU and European law is superior to national law).
The problem is the Pal Schmitts everywhere who do what OV says (apparently) without being forced and an opposition in ruins. If enough people used their (still) constitutional rights, it would not look as desperate as it does. I fully understand that you are worried (I think that most readers of this blog are), but instead of comparing the situation today with Germany in 1933 it may be more useful to search for the still existing legal means to contain OV…

Matt L

I’ll invoke Godwin’s law. I think that OV and FIDESZ are more likely to land flat on their faces, (like Meciar in slovakia) than establish a successful one party monopoly.
Like Joe Simon, I look forward to seeing OV questioned regularly and repeatedly about the new media law. It will certainly put the spotlight on Hungary for the wrong reasons. The whole affair is quite interesting. It suggests that OV and FIDESZ have become more tone deaf and less media savvy during their years in opposition. Unfortunately, MSZP and the rest of the opposition are even more inept media-wise.
Happy New Year! BUÉK!


It really is no surprise and no coincidence that this ‘self censorship’ has just begun, as it was only last week that the bill to dismiss state employees without having to give a reason was passed in parliament, which will no doubt help reduce the number of ‘Pal Schmitts’ needed to tow the Fidesz line.

Eva S. Balogh

Kormos; “Someone loaned me the book mentioned below. The author extends her thanks to Ms. Balogh for her help.
It is almost a balanced writing.”
You forgot to quote the whole passage: “I am grateful to Eva S. Balogh, whose blog Hungarian Spectrum is essential reading for someone interested in what goes on in Hungary.”
Well, there is something wrong here. According to Kormos it is an almost balanced piece of writing. But then how can it be that Ms Porter has a good opinion of this blog?

Kirsten, OV can (and will) do what he likes. If something he plans breaks the law, he will simply change the law. If anyone expresses opposition to his plans, they will be silenced. And by the time of the next election, he will have an ‘Election Council’ in place to vet all candidates. And, of course, no one who is suspected of having committed a crime or who was once a member of the Communist party, or a fellow traveler, will be approived as a candidate. If this strikes you as extreme, just consider three points: 1) If he wanted to do this, no one can stop him, 2) He can sell it to the wider world as ‘cleaning up’ Hungarian elections, and 3) – the killer – most Hungarians will enthusiastically endorse this. Of course, not ALL Hungarians support OV, in fact a great many will come to actively oppose him. But what will they be able to do about it? Taking to the streets will be their only option. And for how long do you think OV will tolerate that? The trouble that Gy got the blame for will look like a picnic compared to what OV’s newly… Read more »

@Ms. Balogh
By the time I wrote that particular sentence, I did not have the book handy. I gave it back to the owner. I am sorry for the omission, it was not done purposely. If I totally disliked your blog, I would never click on the URL. What I hope for is that some FIDESZ folk reads it too, and learns from it. Your blog is educational, thus useful regardless whether I like every comments or editorials or not.
As a summary, I (the FIDESZ troll) recommend this book for reading, specifically for those, who did not personally experience the post war history of Eastern-Center Europe and/or Hungary.
Actually Anne Applebaum’s article is not that negative.
It should be compulsory for the EU to monitor some new piece of legislation in the Union, preferably prior to codifying, making sure it adheres to EU standards.
Naturally, I welcome an official, party independent inquiry of the new media law, if the EU decides to hold one.