About two months ago I read a fascinating article published by Political Capital, a political science think tank, on Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation that circulate worldwide. On the whole the Russian effort is not very successful because few reputable conservative or liberal newspapers are willing to spread its propaganda. Not so the Hungarian pro-government newspapers, which often take Russian “news stories” at face value.
I have written several times about the Hungarian public’s gullibility when it comes to these theories. But it is one thing for an uneducated Aunt Mary or Uncle Joe to believe fanciful fabrications and quite another for pro-government newspapers to help spread the disinformation originating in Russia. In May of this year an English-language study titled Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine, edited by Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz, was published. One chapter, written by András Rácz, was devoted to Hungary. Naturally, the author concentrates on Hungarian reporting on Ukraine, but it is also a good source on the overall reporting practices of the official news agency, MTI, as well as publications like Index, Origo, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. Since the study is in English and available online, there is no need to say much about it here, except that because MTI often relies on Russian sources, the news Hungarians receive on Ukraine goes through a kind of Russian filter. Since the Hungarian media is centralized and the Orbán government usually takes a pro-Russian position when it comes to foreign affairs, it should come as no surprise that papers that are in essence mouthpieces of the government will often regurgitate the pro-Russian attitudes of the politicians.
Political Capital studied five pieces of disinformation circulated by the Kremlin. The first was in connection with the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, which Vladimir Putin described as a far-right provocation. It was spread far and wide that the CIA organized the “Ukrainian putsch” in order to remove Putin from his position. The pro-government Hungarian media followed suit. From the very beginning Kossuth Rádió called the revolutionaries “terrorists.” One political scientist in the pay of the Hungarian government claimed that it was Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, who dictated the names of the new Ukrainian cabinet to the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev. In Magyar Hírlap a right-wing economist took it for granted that the United States was behind the revolt.
The situation was the same when it came to the death of 298 people on the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down, as it turned out later, by Russian or Russian-supported forces in July 2014. The Russians came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to divert attention away from their own responsibility for the disaster. At that time Zsolt Bayer claimed that “even a child of average intelligence can figure out in three minutes that Putin is the one in this equation who had the least interest in the downing of the Malaysian plane.” One of the Orbán government’s so-called security experts, Georg Spöttle, claimed that “there was something on the plane” before it crashed. He based this supposition on a theory put forth by a pro-Russian internet site: that Dutch security forces had planted a bomb on the aircraft.
The pro-government Hungarian media also accepted Russian disinformation in connection with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, circulated to deflect any suspicion of Putin’s complicity in the murder. The Russians offered several theories. One claimed that radical Islamists were behind the murder. The head of the Russian investigation committee was looking for extreme right-wing elements. Interfax talked about opposition business circles being behind Nemtsov’s death. The Hungarian right-wing media got the message. Gyula T. Máté, son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of the Hungarian Communist Party, explained why Putin couldn’t possibly be involved in the murder and pointed instead to Ukraine. Zsolt Bayer embellished this story by adding that Nemtsov’s Ukrainian girlfriend had had an abortion and introducing a jealous lover.
The Hungarian pro-government media also picked up a story from the Kremlin-funded Sputnik, according to which two of the suspects of the terrorist attacks in Brussels were actually Belarussian citizens. Behind this bit of disinformation was a Russian-Belarusian spat over Belarus’s too friendly attitude toward the West at the time. Nonetheless, the official MTVA hirado.hu decided to run this bogus story, which was picked up from a historian who read about the brothers in Syrian and Tunisian internet sources. Magyar Idők also devoted a short article to the story, which in this case came straight from Pravda.ru.
Finally, there was the Russian attempt to blame the United States and George Soros for WikiLeaks’ release of the Panama Papers, which was considered to be a personal attack on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president himself in a question/answer marathon blamed the United States for the release of the Panama Papers, saying that “they will keep doing this anyway, and the nearer the elections, the more such stories will be planted.” The pro-government Hungarian media jumped on the bandwagon. Quoting Dmitriy Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, Magyar Idők reported that American officials had apologized to Vladimir Putin for the release of the papers even before they were actually made available online.
These are just a few examples of Russian disinformation being spread by the Hungarian pro-government media. I’m sure that I could come up with many more if I spent a few days combing through the appropriate sources. The lesson? The Hungarian government has closely allied itself to Putin’s Russia. Orbán and his friends use a number of formerly pro-Soviet/pro-Russian journalists who studied in the Soviet Union or whose fathers spent years in Russia. They are fluent in the language and follow the Russian media closely. People of pro-Russian sentiment can be found on the left too, but after Orbán changed from being an avid Russian antagonist to an enthusiastic pro-Russian these left-wingers moved over to the Orbán camp. Thus, Gyula Thürmer, the arch-communist, by 2014 was supporting Fidesz, and his son, Gyula T. Máté, has a regular column in Magyar Hírlap. Strange things can happen in Orbán’s Hungary.