American-Hungarian relations: Freedom House and the Helsinki Commission

The Hungarian government received criticism not only from the U.S. State Department last week. At almost the same time other American organizations decided that the Hungarian situation was ripe for criticism. At the end of November Paula Schriefer, vice president for global programs of Freedom House, paid a visit to Hungary. Her experiences there prompted her to write an article entitled “Press Freedom a Loser in Viktor Orbán’s Winner-Take-All Hungary.”

Schriefer, after discussions with dozens of journalists, media officials, regulatory authorities, and government representatives, “validated the serious concerns expressed by international press freedom experts” since the media law was passed last December. She didn’t like “the government’s arrogance in responding to widespread international criticism.”  Rather than engaging in honest discussion of the issues, “the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has spent countless hours and reams of paper justifying every questionable aspect of the law by searching out and documenting similar examples in other European countries.” Journalists she talked to claim that they are already engaging in self-censorship to avoid legal penalties or punitive actions. Schriefer also extended her criticism to the new constitution and the laws that limit the authority of the constitutional court.

Two days later MTI fairly accurately summarized the content of Paula Schriefer’s article. It took Gábor Borókai, editor-in-chief of Heti Válasz, five solid days before he noticed the critical article coming from Freedom House in Washington. It is unlikely that Borókai actually read the original article or, if he did, he has scant regard for truthfulness and accuracy. Even his choice of words is telling. When he calls Paula Schriefer “aligazgató” he is using a word almost never heard in Hungarian. Schriefer’s proper title is “alelnök.”

Although Schriefer tells us that she spoke to different groups of people, including government officials, Borókai claims that “Paula Schriefer published information she received from journalists not in favor of this government and these people without exception told her that they are suffering under the constraints of self-censorship.”

By the second paragraph Paula Schriefer becomes an “official blogger of Freedom House” who simply doesn’t tell the truth. By the fourth paragraph she is an “official interrogator [kérdezőbiztos] from abroad” who is being misled by Hungarian journalists who speak English and who furtively managed to get acquainted with her. In any case, how does she dare pass judgment on the state of the Hungarian media when she doesn’t speak Hungarian? “She should be more careful picking her sources. She would sleep better back in the United States.” And then members of the Hungarian government, Fidesz politicians, and pro-government journalists are surprised that foreign observers have such a low opinion of the Orbán government and its official supporters.

Just as Borókai was telling Paula Schriefer off and practically calling her a liar, a few things happened in the Hungarian media that prove that Schriefer’s informers were not terribly far off the mark. A few journalists who in the last year worked for the official news agency but were recently fired decided to speak out. Now they can talk openly about the government-controlled media authority that is responsible for supplying news to the public media. Here is a short video in which the journalists tell about their own experiences of interference from above. Even a journalist who was reporting mainly on foreign affairs and therefore felt that he was pretty safe found that his editors demanded the inclusion of critical remarks about foreign politicians who said something less than complimentary about Viktor Orbán.

In addition, it came to light that there are some people who are barred from public view. The case of Zoltán Lomnici, former chief Justice of the Supreme Court, received wide attention when Index discovered that his face was covered up as he was standing talking to somebody during an interview with László Tőkés, one of the deputy speakers of the European Parliament from Romania.

 

The original shot

And the doctored up one that was aired both on MTV and on DunaTV

A pretty bad job, I must say. But this is not the first time that falsified material reaches the viewers of MTV. In April 2011 a young reporter, Dániel Papp, falsified a story on Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Budapest visit to attend a conference organized by the European Green Party. It was a huge scandal but nothing happened to Papp. Or rather it did: he was promoted to be responsible for all the news provided by the new media authority. As it turned out, Papp was involved earlier with Jobbik and the party’s chief-of-staff. Such a past seems to be a plus for Fidesz media leaders.

And finally here is Balázs Nagy Navarro’s English-language explanation of why he is going on a hunger strike. Nagy Navarro is one of the trade union leaders representing journalists and all other technical staff providing television news:

On December 2, the same day Paula Schriefer’s article appeared on the website of Freedom House, there was a Hearing on Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region (Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe). Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, was not present but he sent his speech for the occasion. In it he quoted Péter Feldmájer, president of the Hungarian Jewish community, who warned that “Today is a very dark time for modern Hungary… It is a very dangerous direction not just for Hungarian Jews, but for Hungarian democracy.”

Senator Cardin mentioned a few items he found worrisome. (1) President Pál Schmitt quoted from convicted war criminal Albert Wass in his August 2010 inaugural address. (2) The Budapest City Council cut by one third the funds it provided for the annual Holocaust memorial event “March for Life” after Jobbik objected to the event. (3) The new constitution adopted in April disavows Hungarian responsibility for war-time atrocities committed after March 19, 1944 (the date of the German occupation) without regard for Hungarian complicity in the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews. (4) Some Hungarian officials have asserted that the 1920 Treaty of Trianon was worse than the Holocaust, thereby trivializing the genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity of World War II.

MTI reported on this hearing’s Hungarian aspects on December 8 and a number of mostly liberal publications picked up the news. Neither the pro-government press and electronic media nor any government official commented on Cardin’s latest criticism of the Hungarian government.

So, life is tough for Viktor Orbán nowadays. In spite of protestations to the contrary it seeems that the cat is out of the bag: the Hungarian media under government control is being manipulated. There is proof by now. Not just some English-speaking unpatriotic journalists who tell all sorts of lies to foreign “official interrogators.” As for Senator Cardin’s criticism about Jobbik’s influence I will spend another day detailing how Fidesz is fulfilling all the demands Jobbik put forth in its election campaign in early 2010. If I were Gábor Vona I wouldn’t complain.

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Paul
Guest

Éva, that video is in Hungarian. When it ends (after nearly 24 minutes!) you get a selection of videos to choose from, and one of them is the English one.
Is he going to sit outside the MTV studios for the duration of his hunger strke? He’s going to get bloody cold, as well as hungry if he is.

Wondercat
Guest

Remarkable. The objections from extra-Hungarian agencies seem well warranted.

prospector
Guest
Éva, do you not find it just a little bit funny that someone wants to comment on the state of Hungarian media without you know, being able to read a single article? Isn’t that just a little bit or extremely arrogant? I mean being ignorant about a topic is one thing, but being proud of it? Are you surprised that zero weight is given to such uninformed opinions? Asking a few people “hey I am unable to read about X, because I don’t speak the language, can you tell me what YOU think about X” is not really how you form your own opinion. It’s just aggregating the opinion of others. The other thing that I don’t understand is you. You speak Hungarian and speak a great amount of time reviewing Hungarian left wing and liberal media. So you KNOW for a fact that if anything has changed is that the attacks against Orban and Fidesz are more fierce and more intensive than ever before in Hungarian history. You know this for a fact so why pretend that the media law had any effect? Let’s be honest between each other. You know it and I know it that rather than… Read more »
prospector
Guest

“speak a great amount”
properly I wanted to write
“spend a great amount”
in the previous post.

prospector
Guest

“László Tőkés, one of the deputy speakers of the European Parliament from Romania.”
Tőkés actually has full Hungarian citizenship.
In Hungarian there is even a term for this sort of thing it is called “románozás”, I can’t really translate it but I think Éva can understand it in Hungarian as well.
Was this really necessary, Éva?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “that video is in Hungarian. When it ends (after nearly 24 minutes!) you get a selection of videos to choose from, and one of them is the English one.”
Sorry, sorry! That is what happens when one is in a hurry. It is fixed.

An
Guest

@Prospector: Maybe the “attacks” intensified because the freedom of press is in danger in Hungary?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Prospector: “do you not find it just a little bit funny that someone wants to comment on the state of Hungarian media without you know, being able to read a single article?”
Not really. She isn’t writing about the quality of the articles but about how the journalists feel about the media law. In what way it makes them worried.
Also, she talked to all sorts of people and at the end she made up her mind.
I, for example, couldn’t write this blog without knowing Hungarian, but I report on political events that happen in Hungary. That’s a different thing.

Member

What is “”románozás”? Mentioning that somebody is Romanian? I grew up in Hungary and never heard it. Is it derogatory? According to the Wikipedia Tokes is a Romanian politician of Hungarian ethnicity. What am I missing?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

I don’t see what your problem is Prospector. László Tőkés was elected to the European Parliament by voters who live in Romania and who are Romanian citizens. At the time of his election he held Romanian citizenship only. It is true that a few months ago he also took up Hungarian citizenship, but it doesn’t have any relevance. And this holds in the past as well as in the future. Because even if at the next EU election he is reelected he will not be reelected by people who live in Hungary but people who live in Romania.

Member
prospector: “a little bit funny that someone wants to comment on the state of Hungarian media without you know, being able to read a single article” A judge does not hands down the sentence because he has a video footage of the crime o because he has seen the crime being committed. A judge bases the sentence after hearing from reliable witnesses. By the way, it never stopped Orban to comment on the USA without being able to speak proper English. It did not stop Matolcsy to come up with “great economical plans” for Hungarians even though he is clearly under-qualified. The head of the Media Authority in her previous occupation published a porn magazine. prospector: ” if anything has changed is that the attacks against Orban and Fidesz are more fierce and more intensive than ever before in Hungarian history. Exactly. People started to speak up, but look what happened, they are loosing their jobs. THe True Media for True Hungarians are the alternative media governed by a porn magazine publisher, and executed by bad Adobe Photoshop work on MTI. Nobody stops you to only tune into that, if that is what you want, but it is crime to… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Is this a new troll, or is ‘JB’ up to his old trick again – go silent for a while, then appear under a new moniker, trying to sound ‘reasonable’?
We shall see. If it is ‘JB’ he won’t be able to keep up the ‘reasonable’ mask for long. Expect accusations of lying, and general abuse in a few days days time!

Paul
Guest

For the ultimate in doctored images, see this:
http://szarvas.tumblr.com/post/13845960098
More of the same at:
http://szarvas.tumblr.com/

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “Expect accusations of lying, and general abuse in a few days days time!”
But why should they behave differently when members of the government and the pro-government journalists use the same language. Enough to read Boróki’s piece on Paula Schriefer.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

I want to call attention to the latest column of Nobel-Prize winning Paul Krugman in The New York Times. The title is “Depression and Democracy.” It is about Orbán’s Hungary.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/opinion/krugman-depression-and-democracy.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

Member

Eva: “I want to call attention to the latest column of Nobel-Prize winning Paul Krugman in The New York Times.”
But he does not speak Hungarian, and I think maybe he is Jewish, and he probably never had a gipsy living next door. Did he speak to reliable politicians, like Kover and Matolcsy? Has he even read the real articles from the head of the Hungarian Media Authority, Porno Pannka as we friendly Hungarians call her (real name Annamaria Szalai)? Pannka has a credible past and in depth knowledge (literally) about all, and it can be all checked in her own publication, her own sex magazine, that qualified her for this job. I bet the writer read Playboy before, so what is the big deal? Nobel-Prize? So what? That is an elitist circle. In Hungary we give out prizes for anyone, if they hate the communists, the leftists , or committed some crime. That is democracy.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Some1: “Eva: “I want to call attention to the latest column of Nobel-Prize winning Paul Krugman in The New York Times.” But he does not speak Hungarian, and I think maybe he is Jewish”
Of course, of course. How does he dare! That is the kind of answer from Orbán’s government and the Fidesz media.

Paul
Guest

The real problem for Orbán re the NYT piece is that it doesn’t use intemperate language or exaggeration. If you strip away the (thin) layer of what could be seen as value judgements, underneath are hard, verifiable facts.
Krugman isn’t writing anti-Orbán/Hungary invective, he is simply reporting the situation Orbán has created. The completely OTT reaction from Budapest tells us all we need to know about the accuracy of this summary.

Paul
Guest

“But why should they behave differently when members of the government and the pro-government journalists use the same language.”
It’s worse than that, Éva. I happened to comment the other day on how bad Orbán’s spoken English is and my wife immediately responded by saying the Gyurcsány’s is far worse (“he can’t even speak Hungarian properly”).
So I had a look on the internet to see if I could find any speeches or interviews with Gy in English. When I found one and played it, my wife happened to be in the kitchen, and, hearing the Hungarian accent, asked who it was. “Gyurcsán”, I replied, but before I could say any more, she said “he’s lying – he lies with every word he says!”
What chance is there of understanding when an educated woman who has spend a quarter of her life abroad still reacts instinctively like this?

Paul
Guest

Completely OT – but could a Hungarian speaker give me the gist of what’s going on in this video please?
http://www.pestiside.hu/20111208/government-encourages-hungarian-youth-to-stay-home-vomit-in-our-own-doorways/
According to pestiside.hu it’s a government film intended to persuade youngsters to stay in Hungary. But, as you can see from the title of the link, it includes a very strange scene!
I’m OK for the first half – girl meets boy, they do all the usual romantic things, etc – but what happens after that? And exactly how does the scene picked out by pesticide fit in with the intended message?!

Ron
Guest

Paul: I feel sorry for you and the Fidesz camp you are in.
However, you may want to ask them what needs to happen before they become anti-Orban.

Ron
Guest

Paul: I’m OK for the first half – girl meets boy, they do all the usual romantic things, etc – but what happens after that? And exactly how does the scene picked out by pesticide fit in with the intended message?!
I do not believe the message is that important. It seems they need to pay-off some cronies, and this is the way to do this.
Like paying for subscriptions to have the Magyar Hirlap and other government newspapers at schools and universities.
Paying for advertisement only to be published in the aforementioned newspapers. Etc. Etc.

Wondercat
Guest

Ma’am, may I repeat a request for in-text links? You made it possible for us easily to gain access to Ms Schriefer’s article; but you supplied no link to that by Borókai Gábor in HETI VALASZ. Of course you have fairly and accurately translated Borókai’s text; that is not at issue. But you might facilitate comparisons of his Hungarian and your English, side by side, by “footnoting” the sources on which you draw. Thank you for considering this approach.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Here’s Borokai’s article.http://hetivalasz.hu/jegyzet/az-informatorok-43800/
Mind you, I don’t think that it is so terribly difficult to find it if one knows Hungarian.
You have to understand that I write an article every day and I have only a limited amount of time.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

And one more thing. If someone doesn’t know Hungarian then it doesn’t really matter.

Member

@Kitty Search for “Borókai Gábor” on hetivalasz.hu ! Wala! First article ..

Kirsten
Guest

Prospector, I was thinking about this too, that there are still critical media and perhaps the criticism has even increased. Whether this is at odds with the claims that freedom of the press is in danger. I think the point is not that any criticism is immediately punished or that nothing critical can be published, so that there is really no free press anymore. But critical media and journalists are harassed. News from the public media are biased; some journalists or politicians are denied space in publicly owned media. It may not be more difficult to get critical articles published in private and small media but these private media not only have to struggle to survive financially but also have to correct the publicly distributed biased news. It may not be ‘dictatorship’ but it cannot be called ‘level playing field’ for the several approaches and opinions either.

Wondercat
Guest

Thank you.
As you’ve picked up, I know only some Hungarian; but with your help I trust that I shall come to know more.

Gabriella
Guest
“So you KNOW for a fact that if anything has changed is that the attacks against Orban and Fidesz are more fierce and more intensive than ever before in Hungarian history. You know this for a fact so why pretend that the media law had any effect? Let’s be honest between each other. You know it and I know it that rather than the attacks getting silenced they got a lot stronger.” wait a second prospector: The main problem is, that there is less and less of Nepszava and Nepszabadsag in the little grocery stores, especially in smaller towns, that are Fidesz oriented. In fact I had to ask the management to put away one for me every day, because by 9, usually they were out of Nepszava. When I asked why, I was told they are not receiving the usual number of copies, and they cannot do too much about it. The number of copies the store gets went way down. I didn’t even bother in the other little store, that is Fidesz affiliated some way, at least fama est, and true enough, there were very few times that I would catch any copies there. Is this a coincident,… Read more »
Member

@Gabriella “because by 9, usually they were out of Nepszava”
This is wilde! Who is distributing those papers?? We’re talking lost revenue here …

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