Freedom House’s latest annual report on freedom of the press worldwide was released on April 28. The assessment of the Hungarian situation was so devastating that the best excuse the Hungarian government media could come up with was that Freedom House is under the thumb of George Soros. So, what do we expect?
Those who are familiar with Hungarian media affairs had predicted way ahead of the publication of the report that Hungary’s standing had suffered to such an extent that its listing as a country with a “free” press might be jeopardized. Pál Dániel Rényi of 444.hu described 2016 as the “darkest year of the free press in Hungary.” This unusually sharp turn of events began with the March 2015 rift between Viktor Orbán and his old friend Lajos Simicska, which resulted in an editorial shift at Simicska’s holdings: Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, Class FM, Metropo, and Lánchíd Rádió. The government spent the rest of the year trying to strangle Simicska’s media and simultaneously set about to create a new government media empire practically from scratch. By now, the pro-government media presence is larger than ever before. Almost all of the regional papers are in government-friendly hands, and even such formerly respectable organs as Origo and Figyelő are now part of the Fidesz stable. The venerable Népszabadság ceased publication. “Public” radio and television now broadcast brazen government propaganda.
The Hungarian government’s expansion of its own media resources at the expense of independent media was of great concern to the compilers of Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press, 2017.” Hungary figures large in this latest assessment. It is one of the countries that saw the biggest declines in press freedom in 2016. Mind you, Poland and Turkey did even worse, but Hungary found itself in the company of Tajikistan, Congo, South Sudan, Maldives, Bolivia, and Serbia. Hungary is also mentioned under the rubric “Milestones of Decline” together with Venezuela, Turkey, and Poland. Although Hungary’s media freedom has been steadily losing ground since 2010, not until 2016 was Hungary considered to be a country with an “only partly free” press.
In the ranking of 199 countries, Hungary is 84th, along with Montenegro. It tied with Greece for being the worst in the European Union with a total score of 44. (The lower the score, the freer the press.) Even Bulgaria (42) and Romania (38) have better scores than Hungary. While the freest presses in Europe can be found in Norway (with a total score of 8), the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland, Hungary is near the bottom of the heap. It outranks only Turkey (76), Macedonia (64), Bosnia and Herzegovina (51), Albania (51), Serbia (49), and Kosovo (48). Even if geographically speaking Hungary is considered to be part of Central Europe, culturally it shows a close affinity to countries of the Balkans.
So far the Orbán government has been silent on the report, unlike a month ago when the whole cabinet “repudiated the charges” that the state of democracy in Hungary had deteriorated. The charges, they said, were bogus because the organization is financed by George Soros. The office of the government spokesman at that time claimed that the Hungarian press is perfectly free because all political opinions can be found in the Hungarian media. “In Hungary freedom of speech is undiminished and Hungarian democracy is powerful, blossoming and alive.” Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary group, was especially offended by Romania’s being ahead of Hungary on that list. He came up with the following “joke.” Two Romanian politicians are having a conversation. One of them says to the other: “Did you hear that we have improved our corruption score by five points?” The other answers: “Yes, I’ve heard. It wasn’t cheap.”
As for Freedom House being financed by George Soros, it should be noted that toward the more than $2 million annual budget of the organization, Open Society Foundations contributed just a little over $5,000 last year.
But it seems that facts don’t matter–even though today we learned from Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó that “now is the time that facts will be more important than opinions” in the European Union. Which brings me to Pesti Srácok‘s interview with the head of the Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament, András Gyürk. Here are a few of Gyürk’s “facts.” (Keep in mind that he was the first signatory to the mea culpa letter the Fidesz MEPs sent to their colleagues in the European People’s Party.) We learn from Gyürk that it wasn’t the Hungarian government that began the attack on Central European University but it was the “Soros network” that picked this particular time to attack the Hungarian government. The reason for the timing is the “fact” that “forces supporting illegal immigration want to force their will on the whole of the European Union this summer.” He doesn’t divulge who these forces are, but from the rest of the interview one gets the impression that Gyürk suspects that “the secret negotiations” between Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros have something to do with this nefarious plot to import masses of “illegal immigrants into Europe.” Gyürk creates a conspiracy theory out of nothing. Pitted against these evil characters is Viktor Orbán, the savior of Europe, who must be eliminated because he stands in the way of the enemies of the continent. And while he is at it, Gyürk charges the Soros network with fomenting anti-government protests in Hungary just like it did in Ukraine and Macedonia. These are all lies.
But as I just learned this morning listening to four journalists talking about the habitual lying of Fidesz politicians, the concept of falsehood doesn’t really exist in Fidesz mental maps. Gábor Bencsik, brother of the notorious András Bencsik of Magyar Demokrata, was one of the journalists present. One of the participants pointed out that Viktor Orbán for the first time ever admitted during the plenary session of the European Parliament that the dreaded migrants didn’t want to stay in Hungary. With this he implicitly acknowledged that he lied when he plastered the whole country with posters about migrants taking away Hungarian jobs. At this point Bencsik said: “You keep talking about lying. What nitpicking.” The Fidesz team has built a communication network based on lies, a fact that is becoming increasingly evident to the politicians of the European Union.
Today Péter Szijjártó read the riot act to Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner of European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations and deputy chairman of the Austrian People’s party, because he dared to criticize Viktor Orbán’s “Stop Brussels!” campaign. “We expect respect for Hungarians,” he demanded. But I’m afraid it is difficult to respect habitual liars and cheats, and unfortunately the Orbán government is rife with such people.