In some cases the censorship is subtle. In other cases not at all. Both kinds involve the state-owned wire service, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI). As things stand in Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy, MTI is the sole supplier of news to the state television and radio stations. Moreover, since MTI has no competition and its service is entirely free, all Hungarian media rely on items offered by the politically controlled news agency. Even the media critical of the government. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that one must be very careful of information that comes from MTI.
Lately there were at least two instances in which MTI played games with the photos that accompanied their news items. Both involved trips the prime minister took to two Hungarian cities: Nyíregyháza in Szabolcs County and Szombathely in Vas County, ten kilometers from the Austrian border. Orbán visited these places as part of his “Modern Cities” project which is, very simply put, a set of irresponsible promises made to these larger regional centers with respect to future government spending. He usually promises a stadium and a Olympic-sized swimming pool in addition to some new roads or the renovation of certain historic buildings.
News outlets that use photos provided by MTI can be mightily misled by its photographers and cameramen, who are eager to oblige and/or fearful of losing their jobs. As it is, MTI functions with a skeleton staff whose members are not sure whether they will have a job the following day if they use a “wrong” adjective in their reports.
If Orbán’s trips to Nyíregyháza and Szombathely are any indication, not so many people are interested in seeing the great man as was once the case, and in spite of local promotion of his visit only a couple dozen people showed up to greet him. The challenge for MTI’s photo reporters, in this case Zsolt Czeglédi and György Varga, was to take shots of Orbán and his few admirers that looked as if he were addressing a huge crowd. In the case of the Nyíregyháza trip, most likely nobody would have noticed that anything was distorted if the local online news site, Szabolcs Online, hadn’t published a picture of its own. And there was quite a difference between the two. The first is the most often used MTI photo by Zsolt Czeglédi and the second is the one that Szabolcs Online published.
Just to show what a difficult job Zsolt Czeglédi faced, here is the first picture again, along with three other photos of the same event, all trying to give the impression that the crowd was much larger than it actually was.
This was bad enough, but what came after that does not fall into the category of “subtle censorship.” It was outright censorship. The eagle-eyed local Fidesz crew at city hall must have noticed “the error” of Szabolcs Online. Within a short time the picture was removed from the site, though not before Kettős mérce, a left-wing blog, managed to download it.
The same thing happened a few days ago in Szombathely. But here, in addition to MTI’s photo by György Varga, a reporter from 168 Óra was also present, who took a picture of his own. Here are the two pictures for your amusement.
This time, unlike in Nyíregyháza, in addition to MTI’s brief news item, we have a gushing report by Károly Pálfi of Origo, which gives the impression of a very busy square right in front of city hall where “there is a lot of hustle and bustle” and “where youngsters are hanging out in clusters.” The reporter finds only Orbán fans, but these passersby were obviously not curious enough to stay to meet him personally.
MTI practices a more serious form of censorship when it comes to sensitive issues concerning the Orbán family or some dirt discovered on government and Fidesz officials. The latest such case is the business practices of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. Earlier I wrote about István Tiborcz’s rapid enrichment after marrying Orbán’s eldest daughter, Ráhel. The first post had the title “How do European Union funds end up in the hands of the Orbán family?” and the second was titled “The end of an Orbán family business?” The Hungarian media was full of stories about how Tiborcz’s business venture blossomed. Soon enough, however, Brussels took notice since Tiborcz’s business activities were financed almost entirely from EU funds. OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud office, started to look into Tiborcz’s business, which Tiborcz sold as soon as the Hungarian government got wind of the probe. A good English-language article appeared only a couple days ago with the title “How Brussels took on the son-in-law of Hungary’s Prime Minister.”
The dubious business activities of István Tiborcz is a topic that MTI is forbidden to report on. The very fact that Tiborcz’s firm is under investigation by OLAF is taboo. So, when MSZP wanted to publish a communiqué, which is one of the services MTI offers to political, cultural, and civic organizations, the party was denied space. They wanted to publish their reaction to the OLAF investigation. The alleged reason was that István Tiborcz is not a “public figure.” Zoltán Lukács, one of the deputy chairmen of MSZP, was outraged. After all, OLAF is investigating a firm for possible misappropriation of EU funds. How can Tiborcz not be a public figure?
The communiqué was eventually published by 168 Óra. Lukács announced that he finds “MTI’s course of action censorship” pure and simple. As Magyar Narancs said in one of its headlines: “Yes, there is freedom of the press–when I allow it.”