On May 1 MTI reported the less than welcome news that Freedom House’s 2012 report on the freedom of the press degraded Hungary to the “partially free” category. Hungary received 36 negative points (legal environment 12; political environment 13; economic environment 11). In earlier years the scores were pretty steady. Between 2007 and 2010 Hungary received 21-23 points that still put her fairly comfortably into the “free” category. But then came the Orbán government and with it a steep rise in negative points. Between 2010 and 2011 Hungary added 7 points to her score and between 2011 and 2012 another 6 points. That latest rise resulted in the “partially free” designation.
Because the Freedom House report on Hungary is available on the Internet it is not necessary to list all the grievances of the organization. Unfortunately, the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the Hungarian media law and the international pressure that until now has managed to achieve mighty little. The Hungarian government made a few changes, but the essence of the law that greatly restricted the free flow of information is still in place.
Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of communications, immediately issued a sharply worded statement. According to him the report of Freedom House is “unfounded and biased.” He took a swipe at the United States when he emphasized that Freedom House is “an organization reflecting American interests.” The report, like that of last year, “is nothing else but a self-fulfilling hypocritical prophecy.” It fits the consistent anti-Hungarian campaign of the last months and reflects the double standards used by the country’s foreign critics. Freedom House was using examples from “the hysterical and hypocritical campaign” but without any proof. “We all expect objectivity and justice but the bias [demonstrated by Freedom House] is appalling.” According to him “millions of Hungarians look upon these statements as insults.” For good measure Kovács complained that during the socialist-liberal governments when police had to cordon off public places on national holidays, Freedom House stated that “Hungarian democracy was one of the best in the region and its press was free.” As you can see, Kovács is not a man who minces words.
Here I would like to say something about MTI, the official Hungarian news agency also mentioned in Freedom House’s report. Let me quote from the report: “In 2011, the Hungarian National News Agency (MTI) became the official source for all public media news content. In February, the head of the MTI said that all news programs broadcast by public service television and radio stations would be produced and edited by MTI staff within the year. Government-funded MTI publishes nearly all of its news and photos online for free, and offers media service providers the ability to download and republish them. Paid-subscription news and smaller media outlets with limited resources cannot compete with MTI, and the incentive to practice “copy-and-paste journalism” is high. Most state and state-dependent advertisers chose not to do business with independent media and many private companies followed suit. The accuracy and objectivity of MTI reporting has come under substantial criticism since the Orbán government came to power in 2010.”
Sinking deeper and deeper
I would like to offer a recent example of how MTI has become a mouthpiece and a tool of the Hungarian government. This story belies the indignant words of Zoltán Kovács and shows that MTI is ready to play a sinister role in Fidesz’s political games. No wonder that the Hungarian public is totally disillusioned.
A few days ago I summarized one of the scandals of the Orbán administration about passing on large tracts of agricultural land to friends and supporters. Opposition politicians had been calling attention to the dirty business surrounding the leasing program of state lands for some time, but what really hurt the Orbán government was that one of their own, József Ángyán, undersecretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, spilled the beans. Ángyán, who seemed to have taken Fidesz’s promise of a land lease program for local farmers seriously, resigned in disgust. Since then at every possible opportunity he tells his side of the story. The latest was an interview in Figyelőnet and before that a long article published on a blog. It seems that the Orbán government felt that something had to be done.
They swung into action with the help of MTI. On May 2 at 1O:36 a.m. on a brand new blog (napraforgoblog.blog.hu) an article appeared with the title “Whose hireling is József Ángyán?” We have no idea who is behind “napraforgo966,” but whoever he or she is claims in the article that Ángyán left the ministry not because of his concern for the poor farmers but because the minister fired “two of his left-over chums from the old communist team.” Further, the anonymous blogger states that Ángyán is the agent of a man who has ties to a former SZDSZ undersecretary in the ministry.
Then, behold, only six hours later (4:31 p.m.) MTI just happened upon this brand new blog and reported on it. Csaba Belénessy, the CEO of MTI, didn’t find it necessary to check the accuracy of the anonymous source. MTI went ahead and quoted extensively from it. Surely, who can believe that MTI found this blog on its own and that the news service decided to report on the blogger’s very first post. It’s hard not to suspect that the idea of planting the article on this newly created blog and having MTI report on it was hatched by the Hungarian government.
Since then Gergely Karácsony (LMP) wrote a letter to Belénessy because one of the people mentioned by “napraforgo966” was Rebeka Szabó, an LMP member of parliament. Karácsony denied a couple of the accusations that “napraforgo966” levelled against Szabó. Karácsony rightly pointed out that MTI’s job doesn’t include “creating news from a blog post, especially if the blog doesn’t even exist.” Since then Belénessy wrote a three-sentence answer in which the only thing he could come up with was that MTI thought that the post had “news value.”
Eventually Ángyán himself spoke and denied all the accusations levelled against him by “napraforgo966.” He further expressed his disgust that “MTI, a news agency financed by public funds, within a few hours reports on a blog that doesn’t even officially exist and thereby creates national news without checking the veracity of the blog.” Ángyán also demanded an investigation of the affair.
That’s where we stand now. One must agree with Gergely Karácsony that this latest scandal created by MTI was a very clumsy way of trying to discredit someone who got under the skin of the Orbán government. Surely, it would have been easier to place an article in Magyar Hírlap, for example. Creating a phony blog with an improbable story and having MTI report on it is a truly primitive way of handling a problem. But from this story, I hope, it is clear not just to us but to Freedom House as well that they are dealing with a group of people who are ready to do practically anything. Those journalists who were willing to cooperate with the new Media Authority are at the beck and call of their masters.