On November 9 a highly unusual announcement appeared on the website of the U.S. State Department. The Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announced a “funding opportunity” for the support of “objective media in Hungary.” DRL supports “those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.” DRL is normally not involved with European countries, especially those that are members of the European Union and are supposedly developed countries with the necessary set of democratic institutions.
DRL’s goal in this case is to support media outlets operating outside the capital of Hungary “to produce fact-based reporting and increase their audience and economic sustainability…. The program should improve the quality of local traditional and online media and increase the public’s access to reliable and unbiased information. Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms.”
This was such stunning news that even the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade was unable to respond. The grant of 200 million forints or $700,000 means that the United States no longer considers Hungary a democratic country where the free flow of information can be taken for granted. Earlier, when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David J. Kostelancik delivered a tough speech at the headquarters of the National Association of Hungarian Journalists, both Tamás Menczer, foreign ministry spokesman, and Levente Magyar, its undersecretary, were outraged and complained about interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. But when 444.hu, the internet news site that discovered the item on the website of the State Department, asked the foreign ministry for its reaction, it got the following brief answer: “Unusual step; we are studying its aim and goal; for the time being we have no comment.”
The fact that the grant specifically targets the countryside means that the Americans are well informed on the state of the Hungarian media. While the print editions of the two independent countrywide daily newspapers, Népszava and Magyar Nemzet, reach very few people, the regional local papers are quite popular. People want to know what’s happening in their towns. But all 19 regional papers were gobbled up recently by Lőrinc Mészáros and Andy Vajna, the alter-egos of Viktor Orbán. The sections of these local papers that deal with national and foreign news are written centrally and distributed to all 19 local papers. State television, which can be seen without a cable hookup, broadcasts unadulterated propaganda. TV2, the other television station that can be seen everywhere in the country, was acquired lately by Andy Vajna. Thus, people living in the countryside have access only to a one-sided and highly distorted view of reality. The 200 million forints, of course, will not alter that situation substantially, but it is a warning to the Orbán government that it went far too far in creating practically a one-party state with an omnipresent propaganda machine.
Népszava called attention in its front-page article to the fact that “it is unparalleled in diplomatic practice for the United States to support independent media in a European country which is considered to be developed.” It also reminded the readers that as early as 2012 Mark Palmer, former ambassador to Hungary, Charles Gati, professor of political science, and Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, wrote an article in The Washington Post in which they called attention to the problem and suggested the revival of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian language radio station.
The so-called diplomats of Viktor Orbán’s ministry of foreign affairs might be too stunned to say anything, but at least two pro-government papers have an opinion on the matter. According to Magyar Idők, by giving this fairly modest grant “the United States is building a client media in the countryside.” The paper is certain that not just one group of journalists will be the beneficiaries. The United States will give grants to “minimally four or five organizations,” which might cost the U.S. about 2 million dollars. The paper sarcastically adds that for the United States this amount of money is insignificant, just as it wouldn’t be big money for China or Russia if they wanted to give money to the United States or Germany “for the support of ‘more’ objective information, leading to democratic reforms. But what would Donald Trump or Angela Merkel say to that?”
Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő, in an article titled “The temporary American chargé is planning to create an anti-media,” goes into a complicated explanation for the reasons for this grant. The real aim is “not raising the quality of Hungarian journalism; the real goal is a change of government.” The article admits that the money will be distributed only after the national election, but what the Americans want to achieve with this move is to influence the results of the 2019 municipal elections. They gave up on the “democrats of the capital,” whom they are leaving to George Soros’s generosity, and are concentrating instead on the countryside, which is bright orange (i.e., solidly Fidesz) now. The article is full of complaints about “these temporary chargés” who are still hanging around. “Who is this Kostelancik?” He was foreign policy adviser to the Helsinki Commission, and “we are only too familiar with the Helsinki Commission.” He worked in Moscow as an adviser to the ambassador, and “we know from spy movies that these are always disagreeable fellows.” But when the ambassador appointed by Donald Trump comes, “he will get rid of Mr. Kostelancik.”
As is evident from the Figyelő article, Hungarian right-wing journalists, and to some extent even the politicians, hope that the lack of improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations is due to the fact that the old-timers are still hanging around. Donald Trump didn’t have time yet to get rid of them. But, as Népszava rightly points out, giving this grant to the independent media of a so-called democratic country is no trifling matter. It may even have been cleared by the White House.
The Hungarian right-wing media has a friend in the United States, Daniel McAdams, executive director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, who wrote an article after the announcement of the grant titled “Manipulation: The US State Department’s New Program to Take on Hungarian Media.” Only recently the U.S. Justice Department demanded that the Russian-backed RT America network register as a foreign propaganda entity or face arrest. And now DRL is launching a program to “massively interfere in NATO-partner Hungary’s internal media.” Hungary is “a full democracy where the will of the people is regularly expressed at the ballot box and there the media competes freely in the marketplace of ideas.” This intervention must feel “like a stab in the back to Orbán and his government” because while “Brussels saw Trump as a gauche loudmouth, Orbán openly admired the soon-to-be-president’s position on immigration.” In this article McAdams comes to the same conclusion as the journalist of Figyelő when he asks: “What would you do if China sent in a few million dollars to prop up US publications who agreed to push the Beijing line?” He warns: “Hands off Hungary!”
I think one should explain to Daniel McAdams that he is comparing apples to oranges. Russia Today is a Russian state-financed television network broadcasting Russian propaganda all over the world. DRL’s modest grant is designed to open a small door to those who are exposed exclusively to government propaganda. The amount of money the Orbán government spends on “communication” is staggering, and talking about competition “in the marketplace of free ideas” is a brazen lie when 19 regional papers are effectively in the hands of one man, the prime minister of the country.