Freedom House’s verdict on the freedom of the press and the case of the Hungarian news agency

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.”

MTI

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.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Member

I hope someone from the MTI reads this. It is real news: Why the Orban government got 2/3 of the votes? Because they lied to the Hungarian people about tax issues, and because Orban said and promised everything to win. With Orban’s words “do not listen to what I say [to get elected]”. These are actually facts! (so I guess it will not be picked up as newsworthy by MTI)

Paul
Guest
We were in Hungary for a few weeks recently, after an absence of seven months – our longest time away from Hungary in eleven years. So I was looking forward (albeit with some trepidation) to finding out how things really were there, and how things had changed – especially outside of Budapest. My initial impression was quite a shock. After having been away for so long, and being daily immersed in news and discussion about how bad things were getting in Hungary, I discovered that very little seemed to have changed. Very few shops had closed (compared to the average UK High Street and mall, Hungary seems hardly to have been touched), no one we knew had lost their job, and people seemed to be just as well (or badly) off as they had been last summer. Some people had been able to convert their mortgages, some hadn’t – neither seemed to be that bothered about the situation. In short, the Hungary I know seems to have been virtually untouched by the ups and down of the last year or so. It’s a very different place to the one you would imagine from reading HS and other non-Fidesz blogs and… Read more »
The Hungarian Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Comedian

It’s not MTI’s job to fabricate the news really, that’s the governments job.
Thanks Eva for the article and Paul for the reply here.

petofi
Guest

@ Paul
What your describing is the result of subjugation, and the ‘positive’ results of
Machiavellian politics–the people have been beaten down, and are fearful. If big M would be around…he’d pat Victor on the head and say, “Well done, little Victor, well done!”

The Hungarian Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Comedian

@petofi
Wouldn’t it be apathy to some degree? People just can’t be bothered?

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest

Paul those I know have no time for politics they are just too busy trying to survive and feed their children etc.

Bowen
Guest

@ Paul: I think your observations are spot on. Especially about how the news pounces on ‘bad news’ from the West, to show that things aren’t going well there. ‘Look! They have riots in the UK!’ Romanian state news did exactly the same in the 1980s.
You’ll also notice quite a lot of ‘news’ from China sneaked into the main hourly news bulletins on radio stations. “Large mushroom found in Chinese countryside!’ was one bizarre recent example.
I would also add that people do remain strongly affiliated to the Fidesz camp, and will simply avoid talking to you if they sense you regard the current government with anything other than loyalty, like it’s some football team.
Or they will avoid talking about politics completely. One acquaintance of mine asked his friends not to send him any Schmitt jokes by email or Facebook, because he was worried certain people in his workplace would notice them.

Eva Balogh
Guest

A footnote to Paul’s description of today’s Hungary: http://atv.hu/cikk/20120504_ki_lett_az_uj_allamfo
Most people who were shown four pictures and asked to pick the new president couldn’t do it. One woman didn’t even know who the four well known politicians were. Some got mixed up between Szájer, Kövér, and Áder. It is pitiful.

petofi
Guest

@ The Hungarian Comedian
“Apathy”
Call it what you will: the people have been robbed of the will to resist. Since the government is ‘lawless’–that is, they do what they want; change the laws to suit them regardless of tradition–the ordinary citizen has no recourse. There is no useful means of opposition; and there are no useful, effective allies. For the present, there is only melancholy and powerlessness. However, given a bad enough situation, this might explode and then watch out..

An
Guest

@”Or they will avoid talking about politics completely. One acquaintance of mine asked his friends not to send him any Schmitt jokes by email or Facebook, because he was worried certain people in his workplace would notice them.”
So seems like that those who are not ignorant, are fearful… I don’t remember ever having to be concerned about what kind of jokes I receive about politicians from friends while I lived in Hungary. Well, that was a while ago.
There can be a lot things thing behind silence… agreement with how things are going, indifference, ignorance, apathy, fear, or hidden antagonism or hostility. I am absolutely sure that while a lot of it is indifference and ignorance, quite a bit is apathy, fear, and hidden antagonism.
The thing is, that when a society starts to operate like this, where open disapproval is not safe to express, you never know what’s in store, what most people actually think.
One day, dissatisfaction is just going to hit OV, seemingly coming out of the blue.

joseph simon
Guest

Again Off the topic, for Some 1.
I was flying with the Polish Airline, and the Poles are also delighted with the Chinese. In their English language papers, a great deal of optimism is evident for the Chinese ‘opening’.

Bowen
Guest

@ joseph simon
What do you mean ‘the Poles are delighted’? All of them? Or just those benefiting from the deals made?
Weetabix, a decades-old British breakfast cereal, famous for being the first food many babies get spoonfed, has just been bought out by a Chinese company. Of course, those directly profiting by the takeover are delighted, or feel fit to express this in their PR. But the average customer? Probably not ‘delighted’. In fact, vaguely troubled, as evident in the comments on the news article below.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/may/03/chinese-food-firm-wolfs-down-weetabix?INTCMP=SRCH

1qaz
Guest

Has anybody read Animal Farm recently?
Doesn’t it provide the matrix for understanding better and putting into perspective what is happening?

LwiiH
Guest

OT… quote from Gyurcsány. “I will sue them out of their wealth because they don’t have enough money that could pay for my honesty.”
Took a while to stop laughing….

Member

@jose simon
Have you ever tried to judge anything only based on your *own* moral compass? I mean not looking at other countries, like the US or now Poland.
What is your *own* opinion on this? Is that OK to tie your country to a hard core communist party led oppressive regime?
Just a little push … you know, it’s fairly common in other countries that people form their *own* opinion.

LwiiH
Guest

@mutt… what, think for myself!!! Dude, thats way to hard… much easier to have someone thing for me

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest

Last night someone won big time on the one armed bandit. So people talked a little more freely, particularly some English speaking students.
Professor you wrote ** “Most people who were shown four pictures and asked to pick the new president couldn’t do it. One woman didn’t even know who the four well known politicians were. Some got mixed up between Szájer, Kövér, and Áder. It is pitiful.” *.
I raised this point with them and two engineers who service lifts etc. Their opinion was that whoever did what in Budapest or wherever was none of our/their business. They just did not care anymore.
They were of the general opinion that it was now safer to have no opinion on anything at all. All they wanted to do was to live and that was it and all about it.
OT please can someone explain “THE FELCSUTIAN” to me.

Kirsten
Guest

Odin: THE FELCSUTIAN is a “compromise” term for Viktor Orban as he apparently comes from Felcsut and because he is particularly passionate about the advancement of football in that area.
Odin: “They just did not care anymore.” “it was now safer to have no opinion on anything at all”
Petöfi: “However, given a bad enough situation, this might explode and then watch out..”
It would be good if this explosion could be “productive” eventually. Being “disillusioned” (above all: about the EU) is a useless attitude. I still believe that what is needed the most is a more broadly distributed political knowledge. That is unlikely to come from villages or rural areas (with all respect to Felcsut and the like). So of course it will be the cities and there some (currently) small groups that will supply the main manpower and knowledge on how the Fourth Republic will look like. People should know that their apathy currently makes the task more difficult as it allows Fidesz to go on with their “revolution”.

Guest

Well, the young ones in my wife’s family also are working hard to make a living – but they also follow the political situation closely …
Of course the internet is always watched:
Index.hu seems to be still ok, and then there’s reddit and for international news CNN, Al Jazeera etc.
So it seems all is not lost – maybe times have to get even worse for a kind of rebellion …

cheshire cat
Guest

Paul, thank you for sharing your recent experiences in Hungary. Our family is also Hunglish, but we don’t go back that frequently.
When you say
“Even the people I know who are (were) interested in politics and, just a year ago, had strong views on what was going on, now seem to have lost interest. […] only discussing what was going on briefly and with none of the passion and heat of previous years.” –
it sounds familiar. Have you left Hungary for good now, may I ask?
I’m Hungarian and left quite a few years ago (certainly before the elections in 2002 when all the hysteria started), but my experience was exactly the same back then. Most people suddenly became very cautious and were quite reserved if I brought up anything about the two countries. Exactly the same people who used to be so passionate and honest. So it might also have to do something with your “status”, sadly.
As for now, it seems that it’s often some of the Fidesz supporters who are getting a bit quieter.
And I have just read that Lazar considers it their victory that so many people have “stepped back” from politics.

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest

The general run of the Hungarian people who even bother to stop and think know that they have given up the right to rule themselves. The chattering classes are in the main lined up with their new ‘super leader’. The rest of the people may well care at their loss but can and will never do anything about it.
My worries are now what the Viktator is going to do next. At the moment he is looking for finance to make himself and his friends richer. I am wondering who he is going to make Hungary’s enemies and what form of response he will develop. At the moment he is using political methods.
My fear is that it will become military but one with a large clandestine element.
The Hungarians lead by the old ones know that they must keep quiet and allow whatever is going to happen to happen.

Paul
Guest
Cheshire Cat – we are an Anglo-Hungarian family, although predominantly Hungarian. We have homes in both countries and initially aimed to spend as near equal time in each as we could manage. But once our daughter was of UK school age, we had to decide which country we would live in most of the time. Originally, the choice was obvious because she would have been expected to start school at 4 in England, and we much preferred the Hungarian approach. At the time, I also had quite a positive view of Hungarian senior schooling. But when it came to the time to decide, we were forced by circumstances to start our daughter in school in the UK. Before she was 5 (the legal age of compulsory school in England), we tried her in our local ovoda in Debrecen for a term. But by then she had had two terms in school and was far in advance of her Hungarian contemporaries and thought ovoda was a “baby’s school”. However, we still weren’t sure which country to choose. But by then (summer 2010), Fidesz were in power and it was becoming obvious what this would mean for Hungary (and us). So the… Read more »
wpDiscuz