Tag Archives: media

Censured journalists: The case of Lili Bayer

On September 5 the notorious 888.hu, one of the many government news sites, published a list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros. These “foreign propagandists” for the most part are Hungarian nationals who work for various foreign-language media outlets. Some of them earlier worked for left-of-center Hungarian papers, like Népszabadság, Népszava, and Magyar Narancs but now write for the likes of Bloomberg, Reuters, and Deutsche Welle. According to 888.hu, “the international media’s accredited reporters in Budapest also look upon Uncle Georgie as their sugar daddy,” and therefore they ought to be censured.

Seven journalists and a photo journalist were included in this infamous list, among them Lili Bayer, a freelance writer whose articles regularly appear in The Budapest Beacon and the European edition of Politico. Bayer is an American national with Hungarian roots and an advanced degree from Oxford University. She writes from Budapest, although she makes frequent trips to the neighboring countries as well.

888.hu first took note of Lili Bayer in March of this year after her article, “Hungarian law targets Soros, foreign-backed NGOs,” appeared in Politico. 888.hu claimed that she is “ill-informed [and] a news fabricator.” It is unfortunate that she often writes about Hungary, they said, because she has proved many times that she doesn’t have even a basic knowledge of Hungarian politics. She merely transmits “misleading opinions.”

That was the first attack on Lili Bayer but not the last. On March 24 she was again the subject of an article. Here she was described as someone who, “besides poisoning the readers of Politico,” now “hustles Gábor Vona on the largest American Jewish portal.” The reference was to an interview Bayer did with Vona on “the conversion” of Jobbik. But the reason that 888.hu denounced “Soros’s court journalist” this time was her investigative work on Sebastian Gorka’s Hungarian past. 888.hu falsely accused her of not knowing the difference between the Horthy-established Vitézi Rend and Nazism. “The lesson, don’t ever believe anything from a liberal Sorosist.”

The next occasion for an attack came in May when Politico asked Lili Bayer to interview Zoltán Kovács, the Orbán government’s spokesman who specifically deals with the foreign media. In “Orbán’s (big) mouth” Bayer said that “if Orbán’s critics, in Brussels and beyond, often seem unable to put a glove on him, it is thanks in large part to Kovács’s mastery of the political spin. He’s won respect, grudging from his detractors, as an effective and tireless mouthpiece of his boss.” The picture that emerges from this article, I think, is fair. But obviously, Zoltán Kovács was not thrilled because, from that point on, he joined the attacks against Lili Bayer.

After the appearance of this Politico article, it was again 888.hu that led the way with a piece titled “Lili Bayer: The (big) mouth of Soros.” This time, the 888.hu journalist couldn’t come up with a single valid criticism of the article. He quoted a short passage describing Kovács’s way of handling questions: “The crackdown against watchdog NGOs? A fight for transparency. The legislation seemingly targeting the Central European University, an institution funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire and Orbán adversary George Soros? Simply an initiative to ensure equality among universities. The detention of asylum seekers during their application process? A generous offer of shelter and food.” This time the complaint was that Lili Bayer “forgets to suggest an alternative.” Why a journalist describing the manner in which a government spokesman handles questions should offer “alternatives” is beyond me.

The next day István Lovas in his blog wrote a short comment on the interview with the title “Lily [sic] Bayer’s big mug.” He complained that Politico bothered to spend that much time on a government spokesman and accused Bayer of blaming Kovács for doing his job. “One of Lili Bayer’s accusations against Zoltán Kovács is that he faithfully interprets Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s position.”

On the September 5th 888.hu “black list” Bayer is described as someone with Hungarian roots who is a contributor to the European edition of Politico. She was one of the first people to accuse Viktor Orbán of anti-Semitism after Orbán raised his voice against the subversive activities of George Soros. In addition, she published articles in the leading newspaper of the American Jewry, The Forward, in which “interestingly” she conducted an interview with Gábor Vona.

Obviously, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, anti-Semitism is a sensitive topic. I don’t want to speculate on the reasons for this, although I could offer some plausible explanations. In any case, on September 28 the following exchange took place on Twitter. Lili Bayer wrote: “On September 26, 1920 the Hungarian parliament voted in its first anti-Jewish measures. September 2017: state-funded anti-Semitic campaign.” Zoltán Kovács, who is very active on Twitter, answered with a South Park cartoon: “Drugs are bad M’Kaaay?” which was not left unanswered: “I’m really lost for words now. The spokesman of the government of Hungary publicly accused me of being on drugs because I tweet on politics.”

888.hu, again on hand, this time called Lili Bayer “the number one American journalist of Soros” who dared to talk about the 1920 numerus clausus, but “luckily Zoltán Kovács put the agitprop blessed with modest historical knowledge in her place.” This was followed by a vigorous denial of any anti-Semitism connected to the anti-Soros campaign. Support for 888.hu’s argument in favor of the government’s position came from an article by David Ha’ivri that appeared in the Israeli Jewish Press. It claimed that anti-Soros activity has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

One would assume that after this exchange a responsible government official would have the good sense to stop this unseemly exercise. But no, both Kovács and his staff seem to be fixated on everything Lili Bayer writes and are intent on keeping the “debate” going. For example, back in August someone from the prime minister’s office accused her of writing about Hungarian politics without knowing a word of Hungarian. She posted a video to her Facebook page in which she proved otherwise. Apparently, an apology followed. But obviously, that was an aberration.

On September 28, the very same day that Kovács responded to her on Twitter, Kovács spent a considerable amount of time Bayer-bashing in an interview with Egon Rónai of Egyenes beszéd. He used the South Park cartoon, he explained, because Lili Bayer is affected by “the drug of calling certain people Nazis and anti-Semites.” He said that “we don’t consider her a journalist but a political activist.” She is coming “from the same universe as George Soros,” which naturally is a cardinal sin for the Hungarian government. Kovács admitted that he had already complained about her to the editor-in-chief of Politico “sometime at the beginning of the year.”

During the conversation it became clear that Lili Bayer is not the only journalist who has crossed Kovács. On the very same day two other journalists had to be “disciplined.” A German and a Brit. They had to be straightened out because, who knows, maybe Kovács will refuse to work with them in the future. The government has already declined to give interviews to certain domestic media outlets or doesn’t allow them to be present at key government functions. Now it seems that Kovács is contemplating extending the ban to certain foreign papers as well. At least this is what his threat of not working with Lili Bayer implies.

September 30, 2017

The next victims of Orbán’s hate campaign will be the journalists

Hungarian commentators know from past experience that one ought to pay close attention to every word Viktor Orbán utters because his future plans are normally embedded in his speeches way ahead of time. Sometimes these references are too subtle to notice easily; more often, they are dropped in a phrase or two which those who listen to his speeches, especially the soporific ones, are likely to miss.

With the exception of the hired hands of the government media, all other commentators at home and abroad found that Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő-Băile Tușnad was on the dull side, containing practically nothing new. He refrained from announcing any controversial idea that would be greeted with consternation in political circles in the European Union. There was, however, something in that speech that upset Hungarian journalists to no end. Amidst the seemingly endless braggadocio there was one sentence that strongly indicated that, after the attacks on the NGOs and George Soros, the next victims will be journalists critical of the Orbán government, especially investigative journalists who have been unearthing the corruption endemic in Fidesz and government circles.

Orbán made no secret of the fact that, between now and the election sometime in April 2018, Fidesz’s “adversaries will not be the opposition parties at home.” In the forthcoming election campaign “first and foremost [they] will have to hold their own against external forces; against the bureaucrats of Brussels; the Soros mafia network and its media.” That last sentence sent chills down the spines of journalists working for media outlets considered to be unfriendly to the Orbán government.

Magyar Nemzet actually received information from Fidesz circles that this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán has expressed his strong disapproval of the activities of some journalists. Insiders reported that he often talked about the “liberal media” and its unwarranted bias and enmity toward the government, resulting in unfair reporting. The paper learned from several sources that this year’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad was the beginning of a new anti-media campaign. Thus far Fidesz’s targets have been media outlets owned by Lajos Simicska, but now they are apparently planning to go against individual journalists. The informants intimated that investigative journalists concentrating on economic matters will be in his cross hairs. A new enemy is needed after Brussels and George Soros, and the media is an obvious next choice. Especially since Donald Trump’s anti-media campaign has had its influence in Hungary, where the expression “fake news” is spreading in the English original.

Orbán has a point. The opposition in its current state is no threat to him whatsoever. If the chaos that exists on the political left isn’t resolved over the next nine months, Fidesz, especially with the assistance of Romanian-Hungarian voters, will be able to win the election easily and most likely will have the coveted two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats. By now the only threat comes from high-profile NGOs, who insist on legality and diligently pursue government wrongdoings. They keep going to the European Court of Justice or to the European Court of Human Rights, and more often than not they win against the Orbán government. It’s no wonder that Orbán wants to get rid of them. Investigative journalists are also “enemies” as far as Fidesz is concerned. They have been working hard to discover the sources of the newly acquired riches of the Orbán family and to unearth the criminal activities of the oligarchs who are actively supported by the prime minister. If these NGOs and journalists would just disappear, life would be a great deal easier for Orbán and friends.

But Hungary is still not like Russia or Turkey where journalists are killed or jailed. Orbán most likely will choose a different tack. The suspicion in Hungarian journalistic circles is that the plan is to undermine the reputation of the most active investigative journalists. The government will try to find some dirt and, if there is nothing juicy enough, they will create stories from half-truths. As for character assassination, we know that Orbán is a master of the craft. It is enough to think of how effectively he managed to create a monster out of Ferenc Gyurcsány simply because he believed him to be his only effective political foe in the country. In comparison to that, the task of finishing off some journalists’ careers will be child’s play.

The journalists who either work for the handful of media outlets owned by non-Fidesz businessmen or those who have been supported by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation are worried. They wanted to know more about the targets of the new campaign from Szilárd Németh, deputy to Chairman Viktor Orbán, who gave a press conference on the subject. Németh immediately got into an argument with the journalists who were present. He accused Gergely Nyilas of Index of not being a journalist but an emissary of Lajos Simicska, the owner of the internet site. According to Németh, Nyilas is simply performing the task assigned to him, which is attacking Simicska’s enemy Viktor Orbán. Another journalist representing the Simicska-owned HírTV didn’t fare better. He was accused of reciting his questions, which were actually written for him by someone else. Németh most likely again had Lajos Simicska in mind.

The journalists naturally wanted to know which media outlets are the latest targets of the government, but Németh refused to name them, claiming that both he and the journalists know full well which ones the government has in mind. However, in the course of the conversation he talked about “criminal organizations” that will have to be dealt with by the prosecutor’s office.

In addition to Szilárd Németh, the almost forgotten Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary of education, also spoke about the ill-willed, irresponsible journalists. While claiming that Hungary’s reputation in Brussels is improving, “certain journalistic organizations falsely accuse Hungary on many accounts.” She also seems certain that these journalists are following a prescribed script.

We can expect a heightened assault on journalists as well as NGOs. In fact, Orbán promised that much when answering a man in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad who demanded harsher treatment of NGOs. It sounds ominous.

July 26, 2017

Gábor Szabó: The Media in Hungary – The Example of Environmental Journalism

As always, Hungarian Spectrum welcomes democratic voices from and about Hungary. Today Gábor Szabó, a well-known Hungarian environmental journalist, summarizes the experiences he gathered during his 37 years of work in this field. While the article describes the changes in the situation of environmental journalism, it reflects very well the tragic deterioration of the conditions for free media in all fields in Hungary. Gábor Szabó wrote this article at the request of the Hungarian NGO Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport).

♦ ♦ ♦

Under the old (Socialist) regime, between 1948 and 1990, the official standpoint was that the development of the economy and raising of living standards comes first, and “when we can afford” (in Communism?) we will protect the environment (in spite of the fact that environmental pollution had a detrimental effect on the quality of life). Facts about environmental pollution had to be hidden from the public. Hence environmental journalism was the least desired by the authorities, and articles about health damaging pollution cases practically did not exist until the 1980s.

Then, as the Socialist era began to collapse, it turned out that there were too many skeletons in the closet. As the limits for press got looser, more and more hidden facts came to daylight. Still, revealing a pollution case was automatically an anti-government action, not because the author was a revolutionary or an anti-communist but because it was the officials who let state-owned enterprises compromise people’s health. What else could show more evidently the inhumanity of the system? (In which it was declared that the most important value was the health of the working class.)

So it was quite natural that those practicing environmental journalism – beginning to flourish by the end of the 1980s – closely cooperated with civil society organisations (which until 1990 were informal groups, as they could not be registered officially). The latter gradually gained ground by the end of the Socialist era. Bad ambient air quality in the inner districts of Budapest brought thousands to demonstrate, the planned joint Hungarian-Czechoslovakian giga-investment of regulating the natural flow of the Danube river by an enormous dam led tens of thousands to the streets. Rising environmental awareness gave ammunition for the opposition. In other words: environmental issues were in focus when the old era collapsed.

After the collapse of the one-party system new environmental bodies were set up, new programs started and the NGOs gained numerous legal opportunities to have a say in legislation and control in their closer and often even their wider environment. Journalists had relatively good opportunities to report on environmental issues. Even so it took 5 years, till a new Environmental Law (Act 53 of 1995) was adopted by the Parliament. Meanwhile a relatively powerful ministry of environment was set up; powerful, among others, thanks to the competent environmental inspectorates. In contrast to the situation in the old times, now it was already possible to obtain relevant data, and quite often with the active assistance of the environmental authorities! Instead of “fighting” against them, a spirit of cooperation prevailed. It was a golden age for environmental journalism.

Just one example of the openness of those times: with the help of the Central Environmental Inspectorate in 1995, I was able to publish data about the ten companies emitting the largest quantity of air pollutants, the ten companies emitting the largest quantity of water pollutants, as well as the ten biggest hazardous waste producers, i.e. an unprecedented list of polluters.

Shortly after this action the head of the Inspectorate reaped the reward for his openness (not only to my request) – he had to leave his office. This was a clear sign, that almost immediately after the genie was let out of the bottle, a creeping regression started. The above-mentioned Law on Environment originally set practically no limits to the citizens’ right to know environmental facts. Moreover, the group of stakeholders was defined broad enough to let local residents, NGOs to take an active part in the process of granting environmental permits. No doubt, huge investments could be delayed this way even by a tiny group of grassroots environmentalists, but on the other side no polluting activity could easily be rammed down the throat of a local community.

The regression came, when the text of the Law was changed. Originally it said (§ 12): “Everyone has the right to know environmental facts and data, in particular the state of the environment, the degree of environmental pollution, the environmental protection activities and the effects of the state of environment on human health.” After 2005 it said the following (same para): “Everyone has the right to know the environmental information specified in separate legislation as public interest data.” (My translation. G. Sz.) Short sentence, but with two restrictions on open access to environmental data:

1) The “separate legislation” at present is Act 112 of 2011 (earlier it was Act 63 of 1992). This law gave rise to highly bureaucratic processes, and so obtaining the desired data can take months. (The questioner has to submit a form to the Information Authority, unlike in the original 1992 version, where the petition went directly to the environmental – or health – authorities.)

2) Since 2011 the questioner has to pay for the data and the authorities often use this possibility as a weapon against citizens and NGOs, grossly overcharging them. Some court cases started to clear the way for gaining back the citizens’ right to know public information, but the battle is far from being over.

Furthermore, according government decree 305/2005 certain types of information are to be published on official websites, including for example the decisions of environmental inspectorates, and the Central Inspectorate (which is the second instance as well). Government decree 311/2005 makes it compulsory to publish various environmental data. But practically no essential information is published, or, if any, it is not possible to search in the database, let alone to search archive files.

The above mentioned changes made it year after year harder and harder for journalists to obtain hard facts on environmental issues. The toughest period came after 2010, when the right-conservative government introduced the so called Regime of National Cooperation. As almost all government declarations, this formulation means the opposite in everyday practice: new laws and institutional systems are suddenly introduced, and “sold” to the public as a general wish, without consulting the interested and affected parties. The first radical change came in 2010, when the ruling parties changed the system of ministries and the Ministry of Environment deceased. Its tasks were taken over by the Ministry for Rural Affairs, wherein a State Secretariat for Environmental Affairs was set up, with limited power.

The second big change occurred in 2015, when even the environmental inspectorates disappeared. The ten – till 2012 twelve – watershed-based inspectorates merged into the 19 county offices of the government, becoming a department of them each. The consequence for journalists is that inquiries are to be submitted to the county office, and all direct contacts with the environmental authorities had been cut. It is hard to get rid of the feeling, that an essential reason for this organisational change was just that: the farther the press is from the sources of information, the better. When I tried to make a strictly background interview with my old contact person working now in a county office, she said: “Do me the favour, please, erase my handy number from your list and never again call me on this phone. Ask rather the press officer or my boss.” That I did for a while, but no press officer at any government body gave ever a usable answer. Concerning the bosses, they have also lost their right to direct contact with journalists. (An apparent sign of this is the everyday routine formula of the press: “till our deadline we couldn’t get the answer from the responsible persons”.)

Another method of depriving the power of environmental regulations was invented 11 years after the Law on Environment was adopted, and the related new law, symbolically enough, had the same numbering. Act 53 of 2006 made it possible to introduce thousands of exceptions to the general rules. The so-called priority investments (“investments of outstanding importance for the national economy”) get the needed permits from the authorities more smoothly, quickly, no niggling is allowed. To pave the way for these “absolutely important” investments, permits at the first instance are to be granted in extra short time, the competent authority is assigned by the government, and the right of stakeholders is limited. A bright example of this practice is the permit for cutting out 286 trees around the Parliament in 2012. There was no way to appeal against it, the fourth day of the permit saw the execution of the ruling. Four months later the ombudsman declared his serious concerns about granting the permit. This had no legal consequence, and today the square at the Parliament is a stone desert, one of the hottest climate-islands of Budapest as a conspicuous example of environmental legislation in practice.

At present practically any investment can be declared priority investment: a kosher plastic greenhouse, a meat factory, enlargement of a police station, a test track for cars, the investments to commemorate a famous Hungarian poet in the municipality of Nagykőrös, several processing plants, various sport centres, development of a horse breeding farm, development of various industrial zones, building a new campus of the Sports University, building a new high school, refurbishment of the State Opera, building a new wing at the Buda Castle, upgrading several stadiums, building of new stadiums, erecting a fence at the Hungarian-Serbian borderline (thus killing out almost all of the highly endangered endemic mole-rat, Spalax sp.), setting up a Museum at an unused railway station, permitting new devices to combat hail at rural districts, a real estate development in South Buda at the Danube bank (the area belongs to a friend of the Prime Minister) – to mention just a few of the 2 cases in 2006, 1 in 2007, 5 in 2008, 4 in 2009, 4 in 2010, 8 in 2011, 13 in 2012, 30 in 2013, 32 in 2014, 44 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 in 2017 (till May 2). Thus, granting the status of priority investment is already not an exception, rather the rule itself.

It is also not rare that a law on a priority investment annuls important provisions of other laws. For example, the government (actually, rather the Prime Minister) decided to relocate several museums to the City Park (Városliget), a popular green area of Budapest, destroying a large part of this popular green area of Budapest. (The relocation became “necessary” because the Prime Minister wants to move his office to the Castle Hill, 70 meters above the Parliament.) To pave the way for eating up the green area, the Parliament adopted a law which says: concerning this priority investment the regulations on spatial planning in Budapest are void.

As a result of declaring so many investments “priority investment”, the environmental and other authorities generally decline to answer in essence to the questions and comments of journalists, stating that it is the law which requires them to implement the investment at all and in the way prescribed.

To pave the way for investors, other rules have been significantly eased by other methods as well. In contrast to the earlier regulations, today getting a permit for erecting a building is in most cases just the applicant’s and the respective authority’s business, neighbours in most cases have lost their right to be handled as clients according to the Government decree 482/2016 (replacing decree 155/2016). One usually even doesn’t need a permit, there is just an obligation to officially report the planned construction activity in advance.

Protection of the built national heritage disappeared since the annihilation of the Heritage Protection Authority in 2012. Its tasks were partly taken over by an office, but this office also deceased in 2016. There is no existing heritage protection authority. Concerning natural heritage the situation is similar. National Parks have no administrative rights in this respect, and the county offices lack professional knowledge. These changes serve nothing else than creating a favorable legal environment for various investments considered useful by the government or by those, who stand close to the government. This also makes it practically impossible for a journalist to get any information from state sources on the investment concerned.

As a consequence of all these changes, not much space was left for environmental journalists. The harder it was to get information on environmental issues, the less transparent the environmental administration was, the more diminished the group of environmental journalists. The Society of Environmental Journalists, established in 1997, ceased to exist. Press organs changed their policies as well: environmental issues have appeared more and more rarely in the mainstream media. As a logical consequence, at present there are not more than half a dozen of journalists who still possess the professional skills of environmental journalism.

July 3, 2017

 

Boycotting the media is counterproductive

Until now it was only certain high-level Fidesz party and government officials who refused to give interviews to certain left-of-center newspapers, radio, and television stations. Then, two years ago, after the breakup of the long-lasting and financially fruitful friendship between Viktor Orbán and his old friend-turned-oligarch Lajos Simicska, the boycott was extended to Simicska’s newspaper, television, and radio outlets as well. Simicska’s media holdings include a weekly, Heti Válasz, which initially refused the follow the road his daily, Magyar Nemzet, chose. It remained surprisingly loyal to Viktor Orbán. One reason for this loyalty might have been the person of the weekly’s editor-in-chief, Gábor Borókai, who, after all, was the spokesman for the first Orbán government. Unlike the others since 2010, he served throughout the entire 1998-2002 period. Moreover, it is likely that the two men already knew each other while they were law students. In 2013 Viktor Orbán made sure that Borókai received a high decoration (Magyar Érdemrend tisztikeresztje).

Lately, however, even Borókai has become quite critical of the government. In November 2016 he warned that all the lying and misinformation disseminated by the government will lead to its downfall if Fidesz politicians don’t wake up. Last month Borókai wrote a critical editorial about the government’s handling of the Central European University case and even complained about the state of democracy and freedom in Hungary. The old friendship between Orbán and Borókai was coming to an end.

András Lánczi, Orbán’s favorite philosopher and president of Corvinus University, had written regularly in Heti Válasz for ten years, but when Borókai’s weekly published an interview with Ron Werber, who devised the strategy that assured MSZP’s victory in 2002, he decided to make a clean break with the publication. As he told 888.hu, he had indicated to Borókai earlier that he didn’t approve of “the new direction,” but that interview was the last straw.

Meanwhile, the output of government-paid journalists is of such low quality that serious journalists no longer consider them colleagues. Indeed, most of the young people who staff internet propaganda tabloids like 888.hu and ripost.hu don’t deserve to be called reporters, journalists, or media workers. Even so, I’m not convinced that MSZP’s decision to boycott Echo TV, M1, TV2, Origo, Pestisrácok.hu, 888.hu, Magyar Idők, Lokál, Ripost, and Magyar Hírlap is a good idea. The party’s rationale, according to party spokesman István Nyakó, is that these publications distort the opposition politicians’ answers to their questions. Moreover, these media outlets describe a nonexistent world. “We are not going to assist them in creating manipulated material.” Nyakó told the reporter of Echo TV who happened to be at the press conference that he doesn’t consider him a journalist but a paid spokesman of Fidesz. This may all be true, but I’m not sure how these politicians’ boycott will change the editorial policies of the client media of Fidesz.

MSZP’s decision to boycott Fidesz media is most likely the result of an encounter László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership and mayor of Szeged, had with the staff of a weekly program on Echo TV called “Informátor.” According to Botka, the Echo TV people arrived unannounced, cameras in hand, wanting to have an interview with him. Botka already had a scheduled conference, but the Echo TV staff refused to budge, and they even wanted to enter Botka’s room by force. Or at least this is what Botka claims. Apparently, at that point Botka called the police. Of course, Echo TV’s story of the encounter sounds very different from Botka’s version. In any case, Botka seems to be convinced that “the government falsification factory is trying to provoke him.” In his opinion, the journalists who work for government outlets are simple provocateurs. He knows that the goal was not to conduct an interview but to create a scandal. I fully agree with Botka, but then why did he fall for the provocation? Because by calling the police on them Botka managed to fulfill the goal of Echo TV. It might have been better to give them a short dignified interview. If their sole objective was to create a scandal, they would have traveled 300 some kilometers for nothing.

Mutual boycotting will lead nowhere, although I sympathize with those who find the output of the government propaganda close to unreadable and disgusting. Moreover, I can’t believe that such obvious propaganda, rivaling the output of the Rákosi regime, can possibly be effective from the point of view of the government. Just as eight solid years of communist propaganda between 1948 and 1956 failed to convince people that they lived in a socialist paradise, Fidesz propaganda will not achieve its aims either. In fact, it might turn people off.

In a similar vein, the latest “national consultation” seems to be a flop. Of the 8.5 million people who received questionnaires, only 1.3 million have returned them thus far. Kósa is already “asking the government” to extend the deadline from May 20 to May 31 because the post office was late in delivering some of them. Of course, the post office story is bogus. The real explanation is the stupid questions posed and the even stupider answers provided.

It’s time for Viktor Orbán to rethink his communication strategy. His massive pro-government media network may not be the panacea he anticipated.

May 16, 2017

Physical force used against Hungarian journalists

We have seen signs of nervousness and even some fear in Fidesz circles despite all the polls that show the party leading with a comfortable margin. Fidesz politicians should be superbly self-confident, but instead they increasingly act like besieged soldiers in a fortress. Perhaps the clearest expression of that feeling came from Viktor Orbán himself when, during a recent visit in Győr, he asked the 50 or so admiring elderly ladies to root for him because he “at times is encircled and has the feeling some people want him to perish” (időnként be van kerítve, és úgy érzi, el akarják veszejteni). Enemies inside and outside the country have been making every effort to put an end to the splendid experiment that has made Hungary the most successful country in Europe and if possible to remove him and his party from power. I believe that it is this fear that has been making Fidesz politicians increasingly belligerent in the last couple of years.

Of course, these so-called enemies are largely creatures of their own making, but the fear may not be totally unfounded. At the moment the Orbán regime is the victim of its own mistaken policies. Although the regime, under internal and external pressure, is acting aggressively, this doesn’t mean that its actions are based on self-assurance. On the contrary, aggressiveness is often the manifestation of desperation and insecurity.

Verbal aggressiveness against foreign and domestic adversaries has always been the hallmark of Fidesz discourse, but lately it has often been accompanied by physical force. In the last few months the victims of Fidesz frustration were journalists, who more often than not happened to be women.

Let me start with the non-violent case of Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for the by now defunct Népszabadság. In December 2016 Halmai, working as a freelancer with a valid press pass, was told to leave Orbán’s press conference in Brussels. Halmai meekly followed instructions and left the press conference. After her departure one of the journalists asked Orbán about George Soros, to which he received the following answer: “A man of proper upbringing doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring to Katalin Halmai.

This vicious remark was something new and unexpected, but by now I think we can say with some certainty that it was not an off-the-cuff quip but an indication that members of the critical press are viewed as agents of foreign powers and thus are to be eliminated one way or the other. Fidesz Deputy Chairman Szilárd Németh, in his primitive brutality, said: “I don’t consider the men and women of the media empire supported by Soros real journalists just as I don’t regard the pseudo-civic groups supported by Soros civic activists. They tend to provoke, and their activities amount to being mere agents” for foreign interests. Journalists whose media outlet receives any money from abroad are enemies of the nation. From here it is but a single step, which at times has already been taken, to conclude that all journalists who are critical of the government are also agents. In the last few days we heard several times that George Soros wants to overthrow the Hungarian government. Anyone who with his or her critical writings assists this effort is equally guilty. Unless someone stops Viktor Orbán, the fate of critical journalists may be similar to that of the journalists who languish in Turkish jails for treason.

Recently there have been three occasions when physical force was used against female journalists. The macho Fidesz guys usually don’t take on other men. They prefer women, who can be intimidated or easily overpowered by sheer strength. Halmai in Brussels, instead of refusing to leave the premises where she had every right to be, walked out. Moreover, a few minutes later when Viktor Orbán, wanting to sound magnanimous, called her back for a friendly chat not as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen, she even obliged. Women don’t want to create a scene. I think she made a huge mistake when she left the press conference and an even greater mistake when she accepted Orbán’s qualified invitation for a friendly conversation.

In January of this year the spokesman for the ministry of national economy grabbed the microphone out of the hand of HírTV’s reporter when she dared to ask a question which Undersecretary András Tállai didn’t like. On May 3 another reporter of HírTV was prevented from conducting an interview. The brave Fidesz politician twisted the arm of a female journalist when she asked a couple of questions the official didn’t like. But these were trivial matters in comparison to what happened to a female reporter for 444 two days ago.

The government decided to have a campaign to explain the real meaning of the questions and answers of the notorious “Stop Brussels!” national consultation. One hundred and twenty meetings will be held all over the country for the further enlightenment of the population. Although the government announced that 900,000 questionnaires have already been returned, this number (real or invented) is nothing to brag about considering that over eight million questionnaires were sent out. High government officials were instructed to hit the road. Mihály Varga, minister of the national economy, and István Simicskó, minister of defense, held the first such gathering in the Buda Cistercian Saint Imre Gymnasium in District XI. It was a public gathering, and 444 sent a female reporter to cover the event. She was planning to video the gathering but was told she had no permission to do so. She obliged, which again in my opinion was a mistake. No such restriction had been announced earlier. After the speeches were over, she received a telephone call, so she left the room to go into the corridor. When she wanted to return to gather her equipment, she was prevented from doing so. The local Fidesz organizer of the event, who turned out to be the program director of the ministry of defense, grabbed her telephone, deleted the couple of pictures she took, forcibly dragged her down the staircase, and threw her out on the street. Once outside, she phoned the police. When they arrived they couldn’t find the culprit, who apparently had split as soon as he realized that he might be in trouble. The reporter filed charges with the local police.

Fidesz embraces the adage that the best defense is a strong offense. It took them a few hours, but the District XI Fidesz headquarters eventually came out with a statement that accused 444 of sending out reporters to Fidesz events to provoke the members of the audience and disturb the proceedings. The organizers suddenly decided that the gathering was a private forum to which 444 didn’t receive an invitation. They are outraged at the journalist’s description of what happened, which included such words as “jostle,” “intimidate,” and “attack,” none of which is true. Therefore the Fidesz group in Újbuda will file charges against her for defamation.

Soon enough a demonstration was organized on the internet, and yesterday about one thousand people gathered in front of the District XI Fidesz office. Media-related associations are outraged because of the uptick in incidents of this sort. There is a concerted effort on the part of the government to obstruct the work of the independent media. Reporters are excluded from public events and are boycotted by state institutions.

Amerikai Népszava published an editorial yesterday which summarized the situation very well. “Orbán by now is irritated not only by the independent journalists’ activity but their sheer existence.” If Viktor Orbán keeps up his constant attacks on “foreign powers and their agents,” we may see physical attacks on journalists by Fidesz loyalists who blindly follow the instructions of their leader. Back in the fall of 2006 Fidesz employed such tactics, and later it used football hooligans to prevent MSZP from filing a referendum question that was not to its liking. But the mood of the country is different today, and I would advise caution.

May 7, 2017

The state of the Hungarian press on World Press Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. So, I think it is fitting to devote a post to media freedom in Hungary.

Only a few days ago I took a look at Freedom House’s latest assessment of press freedom in 199 countries, which concluded that Hungarian media freedom has been severely constrained since 2010 when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election. Although the Orbán government proclaims that the media enjoys total freedom, the fact is that by now the overwhelming majority of the media outlets in Hungary are either under state control, like the so-called public television and public radio, or have been acquired by Fidesz oligarchs who are willing conduits of government propaganda. Media experts estimate that by now 90% of all media content is in Fidesz hands.

Lőrinc Mészáros, Viktor Orbán’s alter ego and front man, owns, by the latest count, 192 newspapers in Hungary. Most of these are regional papers, which are essential for the Orbán propaganda machine. Relatively few people subscribe to national newspapers anymore. Népszabadság, before it was shut down, had the largest circulation, which by 2016 was only around 40,000. On the other hand, regional papers are sold in great numbers. Propaganda through these newspapers reaches far more people than propaganda placed in the few nationwide dailies.

The real bonus of these papers from the government’s point of view is not so much what they report on but what they leave out. A few days ago I read a fascinating study of a week’s worth of “non-news” in regional papers about the demonstrations in Budapest and some other cities. That’s why I was surprised to learn from Medián’s latest poll that people outside of Budapest were well informed about recent events in connection with the government’s attempt to close Central European University.

Outside observers might be horrified at the overwhelming presence of pro-government media in Hungary, but the government is still not satisfied. I understand that Mészáros’s company would like to acquire the few remaining regional papers that are owned by companies not connected to the government. Origo, once one of the two best internet news sites, has become a servile mouthpiece of the Orbán government rivaling Magyar Idők. Mária Schmidt’s acquisition of Figyelő is another sign of the insatiable appetite of the Orbán government. They even made an attempt to grab Népszava, which was eventually saved in the last minute by László Puch, the former financial director of MSZP. The government wants to have all the media under its control, just like in the good old days of János Kádár.

Apparently Orbán’s next victim was to be Index, considered by many to be the crown jewel of Hungarian-language internet news sites. But 444.hu reported a few days ago that in February 2014 Lajos Simicska, who became Viktor Orbán’s archenemy after March 2015, signed an agreement with Zoltán Spéder, the owner of Index, which stipulated that in the event Spéder decided to sell the site Simicska would have the right of first refusal. Simicska took advantage of this agreement on April 20, 2017, apparently in the nick of time because Orbán, through Árpád Habony and Mária Schmidt, had for some time been pressuring Spéder to sell Index. Simicska will not personally own Index. He transferred ownership of the site to a newly established foundation called Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (Foundation for Hungarian Development), headed by László Bodolai, lawyer for both Lajos Simicska and Index. Without this move, Index would undoubtedly have been gobbled up by the Orbán government or one of its surrogates.

The reaction in the government media to the sale of Index was predictable. In the last couple of days one article after another has bemoaned the loss of Index. What is especially galling is that it was Simicska who prevented the takeover of the internet site. Well, it’s too late for the government to gain control of Index, but it has many ways of discriminating against the site. Independent organs normally don’t receive any advertising income from the government or from state-owned companies, but papers and television stations owned by Simicska are subject to additional hardships. One standard government ploy is that government officials are forbidden to give interviews to Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Fidesz did the same thing while in opposition, when its politicians were forbidden to appear on Napkelte (Sunrise), an independently produced program Orbán deemed to be too liberal and antagonistic toward Fidesz.

Zoltán Balog has been leading the troops against Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Simicska treated his brother-in-arms (bajtárs) shabbily, so Balog first announced that he and his ministry will refuse to have anything to do with Simicska’s media empire. Although Balog was aware that the law on public information forbids such discrimination, that didn’t seem to bother him. Moreover, that wasn’t punitive enough for Balog. By December 2016 all employees of institutions under the ministry of human resources–for example hospitals–had to get written permission from the ministry to give interviews or make statements about simple facts to anyone. For example, on December 6, 2016 a reporter for Magyar Nemzet wanted to write a heartwarming story about patients in a children’s hospital receiving gifts on St. Nicholas Day. Two hours before the event she received a telephone call from the hospital saying that she needs written permission to attend. Permission was denied. Not surprisingly, the reporter for MTI, the official news agency, had no trouble receiving permission. I assume that the legal problem of discriminating against certain media outlets and not others is supposed to be solved by requiring every news organization to obtain the requisite permissions. Meanwhile, the ministry’s boycott of Magyar Nemzet continues. When the paper filed charges against the ministry, Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office decided that everything was in order.

Now Index has been added to the blacklist. Yesterday Sándor Joób, a well-known reporter at the news site, shared a revealing story. Index has been sending hundreds of requests for information about hospitals, for which the ministry’s permission is required. Joób wanted to talk to an official in charge of the reconstruction of Budapest hospitals. The official was most willing, but he needed permission. By mistake the reporter himself was included among the recipients of the message: “We ask you to refrain from giving this interview.” Magyar Nemzet immediately responded: “Welcome to the Club!”

Journalists at independent or opposition media outlets work under extremely difficult circumstances. For instance, Fidesz members of parliament refuse to answer any of their questions, and just the other day Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, called reporters hyenas. Under these circumstances one can only admire the commitment of the journalists working for Magyar Nemzet and Index as well as other outlets like 24.hu, 444.hu, and Népszava. These journalists work for low wages and their job security is nonexistent. I just read about the former editor-in-chief of Dunántúli Napló, a regional paper in Pécs with a large circulation. After Lőrinc Mészáros’s Mediaworks took over the old Pécs standby, he lost his job. Now he is selling sausages as a street vendor.

May 4, 2017

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017