It was on September 16 that the Hungarian police, with the active help of members of TEK, the so-called anti-terrorist force created by Viktor Orbán to serve as his and his regime’s bodyguards, brutally attacked a group of refugees. The asylum seekers had been led to believe that the Hungarian authorities had decided after all to open one of the gates on the freshly closed border between Serbia and Hungary. Given the large number of reporters and cameramen on the scene, many videos and descriptions of the “battle” exist. Although nowadays an event that took place more than two weeks ago no longer holds much interest, this story doesn’t want to die.
One reason for the survival of the story in the media is that it was not only asylum seekers who were beaten by members of TEK but also journalists and cameramen who were on the spot. Altogether eight reporters were beaten by the Hungarian special forces, three of whom were also arrested and held at police headquarters in nearby Szeged. These people made sure that their story would be told and retold. Hardly a day has passed without a report in the Hungarian media on the incident.
One of the witnesses (and victims) was Warren Richardson, an Australian freelance photographer, who summed up TEK’s role in the event as “a dress rehearsal.” As he put it, “the TEK boys wanted to find out how successfully they can handle an antagonistic crowd.”
This interpretation assumes premeditation. Descriptions of events to date strongly suggest that TEK did indeed receive instructions from above to create a situation that would necessitate aggressive police action. TEK is subordinated to Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, a former high-ranking police officer of questionable reputation who has a permanent place in every Orbán government, which suggests a special relationship between him and the prime minister. Given the nature of governance under Viktor Orbán, if instructions to attack came from above, it had to be from the prime minister himself.
But why would Viktor Orbán want to provoke such an incident, which has been injurious to his government’s reputation? The standard explanation is his desire to prove to Hungarians, already suspicious of the motives of the migrants, that these people are indeed a dangerous and violent lot who ought to be feared. It is true that a few hours earlier some young men threw rocks at the policemen guarding the border and broke through the fence, but the riot police handled the situation easily with teargas and water cannons. No one could dispute the right of the Hungarian police to defend themselves against bodily harm, and if a few hours later the “TEK boys” hadn’t decided to attack peaceful asylum seekers, nobody would have complained.
The government normally justifies TEK’s attack on the crowd by describing it as an answer to the rowdies in the crowd who were throwing rocks at the police. But that gives a false account of the events. The rock throwing took place at around 2:30 in the afternoon, and the TEK attack occurred after 5:30. Moreover, the two incidents took place at a considerable distance from each other.
Why did the asylum seekers think they could legally cross into Hungary? The police phalanx retreated about 30-35 meters from the fence and opened the gate to allow a sick little girl and her family to cross into Hungary. At this point the crowd, thinking that the Hungarian authorities had officially opened the gate and that they were allowed to proceed, began chanting: “Thank you, thank you, Hungary!” It was at that point that members of TEK, who had arrived on the scene shortly before, began their attack.
Yesterday Atlatszo.hu published a description of the events at the border by two reporters, the aforementioned Australian Warren Richardson and Tímea Beck, the photo reporter for the Slovak Dennik N internet news site. Richardson was badly beaten by a TEK man, who, according to him, smiled as he kicked Richardson four or five times in the head. Finally, he was arrested and taken to police headquarters. Although he was kept there for twelve hours, eventually the authorities let him go without fingerprinting him or even making a report. He knew his rights, which frustrated his interrogators, who for a good twelve hours madly tried to come up with some piece of legislation that would fit Richardson’s “crime.” Eventually they simply gave up.
Tímea Beck from Slovakia is certain that “the members of TEK received orders from above.” She also describes the situation as entirely peaceful. Most of the people who were attacked by TEK were women and children. When the TEK force arrived everybody started running, including Beck who received the first blow on her back and later two more on her shoulder. At this point she thought that if she speaks Hungarian and explains that she is a journalist perhaps she could make headway with the TEK people, but she was told “to shut up because [she] has no right to speak.” One of the TEK people handcuffed her, threw her on the ground, and took her along with Warren Richardson and the Polish reporter Jacek Tacik to police headquarters in Szeged, where they accused her of illegally crossing the border. Tacik, as the picture below shows, suffered a fairly serious head injury. He was originally accused of attacking a policeman, but eventually all charges were dropped.
These three journalists were not the only ones who were hurt. According to the latest count, eight journalists were beaten by members of TEK during the encounter, including the entire camera crew of the Serbian public television station. They also claimed that the Hungarians purposely broke their equipment. The police denied that they manhandled any journalists, which might be correct, strictly speaking, if we assume that the assault came from TEK and not the regular police.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) immediately denounced the attack on and arrest of journalists by the Hungarian authorities. So did the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which found the manhandling of journalists who are reporting on an event of worldwide interest unacceptable. Nina Orgnianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, announced that “the Hungarian government must make a clear and unequivocal statement that it will not tolerate such behavior.” I’m afraid she can wait for that statement.
At the moment the Hungarian government is in desperate search of a bona fide terrorist among the refugees. They arrested a few suspects, but apparently proving their guilt has been difficult. I don’t know whether they have given up on the idea or whether they have decided to continue their investigation. Finding a terrorist would be a real coup for Orbán’s propaganda machine.