How much can we trust the new politicized Hungarian News Agency (MTI)?

The brief answer is: not at all. I called attention in the past to the fact that MTI’s “summaries” of foreign newspaper reports on Hungary are often slanted. Sometimes important comments are simply left out if the editors feel that the message is not favorable to the Hungarian government. For background, the readers might want to read my “Filtering the news in Hungary?

The Orbán government has always paid special attention to public broadcasting as an important political tool. The Hungarian public television station’s news reporting was never very good, but by now its news programs are so slanted that even traditional viewers are abandoning the channel.

MTI, the official Hungarian news agency, has also been taken over. The new chairman of the corporation is Csaba Belénessy whose last job was at Lánchíd Rádió, a decidedly right-wing radio station. It seems to me that the Orbán government is drawing almost exclusively on journalists and reporters who have been working for HírTV, Echo TV, and right-wing radio stations in the last few years. MTI not only became a party organ but also has a total grip on news. MTI will edit the news for all public television and radio stations. Only the anchors will be different. So MTI, which always played an important role in the Hungarian media, will be even more pivotal in formulating Hungarian public opinion while serving the Orbán government.

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from a fellow academic. He was outraged because in his opinion Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, had sold Hungarian democracy down the drain. According to an English-language MTI report, which he attached, the American ambassador was satisfied that Hungary’s new constitution would provide a good basic law which guarantees the rule of law, human rights, and freedom of opinion and press. The report on her speech was entitled: “Hungary’s new constitution will enshrine key rights.” These words were allegedly spoken on March 11, 2011, at Central European University.

I must say I was taken aback. When the whole of Europe is up in arms because of the new Hungarian constitution here is the U.S. ambassador to Hungary praising the document. I was all set to write a critical article about the ambassador when I received another e-mail in which someone called my attention to the fact that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s speech is available in its entirety on YouTube. She listened to it and in fact the ambassador didn’t say anything about her satisfaction with Hungary’s new constitution. She didn’t state that the constitution would provide a good basic law which would guarantee the rule of law.

Of course, I was curious enough to do a little research. First I compared the MTI English translation I received with the original Hungarian MTI report and found some key differences. For instance, while the English version was entitled “Hungary’s new constitution will enshrine key rights” the Hungarian simply said: “According to the American ambassador a constitution is strong only when it does not exclude anybody.”

Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s speech lasted about half an hour (2,745 words) and very little of it dealt with Hungary. In the speech itself there was one sentence that might be taken to have something to do with the alleged virtues of the Hungarian constitution, but the words were uttered in an entirely different context. It went like this: “We may not always agree with Europe on every issue, but I challenge you to find any closer allies or natural partners. We share the same values and have a similar world view. We believe in openness, transparency and the rule of law. We believe in the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly and the freedom to choose and practice one’s own religion.” When it came specifically to Hungary, the ambassador said: “It was unfortunate that the start of the [EU] Presidency was somewhat clouded by the debate surrounding the media law since Hungary has put forth a number of priorities that the United States views as extremely important and that we would like to see advanced during the Hungarian leadership.”

The more interesting part of her appearance at Central European University was the question and answer period, about half an hour long. It was here that the question of the constitution came up. She did state that the election last year was free and fair. “That fact mustn’t be lost.” Such a landslide victory rarely happens and what is happening in Hungary is “new territory” for everybody. One hundred and seventy laws, some very controversial, were passed. The pace of change is staggering. She heard that maybe even the name of the country will be changed, and from her expression one could tell that this breakneck speed was not exactly to her liking.

As for the framers of the constitution, the Hungarian version of the MTI report completely distorts the ambassador’s words: “The American ambassador is convinced that fully qualified people are writing the constitution and the country will have a good constitution.” This is not what  Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis said. She stated simply that “we believe that there are capable people in Hungary who can put together a good constitution,” but she didn’t say that the ones who are actually writing it are those capable people.

MTI also failed to report that the American ambassador called attention to the importance of a constitution that “envelopes the whole people.” Surely anyone April 21was paying attention to the manner in which the new Hungarian constitution came into being must know full well that it doesn’t reflect the worldview of all Hungarians.

She did mention her work with Foreign Minister János Martonyi in appreciative terms and went on and on about “the great reforms of Gordon Bajnai that brought significant changes.” From her words it was apparent that she had a very high opinion of the former prime minister. I guess I don’t have to point out that the Hungarian and English MTI versions of the speech didn’t contain any reference to Gordon Bajnai and his “great reforms.”

So, be very careful when you read an MTI report either in Hungarian or in English. If one took the time, I’ll bet one could find innumerable instances of falsification or omissions that change the whole tone of their news reports.

April 21, 2011