Tag Archives: Hungarian state television

Justice in Orbán’s Hungary: The Ahmed H. case

As I was looking through my old posts to see my coverage of Ahmed H.’s trial for terrorism, which took place in 2016, I found to my astonishment that I hadn’t even mentioned the name of this Syrian man who received ten years for allegedly committing terrorism at the Serbian-Hungarian border. I have often been told that over the years the posts of Hungarian Spectrum can more or less serve as a timeline of Hungarian politics. I’m trying to cover all the important events, but, as is clear from this example, I don’t always succeed.

The omission is especially egregious because Ahmed’s alleged terrorism case was one of the pretexts for the government’s attempt to introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in the event of a “situation created by a terrorist threat.” Ahmed’s arrest and the subsequent charge of terrorism against him were followed by an unprecedented hate campaign against migrants. This Syrian man from Cyprus, where he has been living legally for the last ten years, became a symbol for all those vicious terrorists who want to overrun Hungary. The only problem with the Hungarian government’s plan was that the terrorism case against Ahmed H. was mighty weak.

Even if I missed covering the original trial, I can now make up for it, at least in part, by reporting on the ruling of the appellate court on June 15 and by recalling some of the events that led to the news that Ahmed has a second chance to receive a fair trial. The appellate court found the work of the court of first instance so flawed that the whole case must be retried–and not, as the judge made clear, by the same panel of judges.

Representatives of such civic organizations as Amnesty International and Migszol, a group formed at the time of the refugee crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2015, have been calling Ahmed H.’s trial a “conceptual show trial.” Looking through the available documents, one thing is sure. The Orbán government very much wanted to find someone guilty of terrorism. It needed such a verdict for its anti-migrant drive. Ahmed seemed to fit the bill. He had a bullhorn and was talking to the crowd in several languages, including English. He allegedly incited the crowd to violence, repeatedly threatened the security forces, and then joined the disturbances that took place on September 16, 2015. He was also charged with illegally crossing the border. On November 30 Ahmed H. was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

The trial was a mockery of judicial fairness. The judge refused to hear the testimony of more than 20 defense witnesses and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, was not certain of the accused’s identity. It was true that Ahmed threw a couple of items during the melee, but there was no proof that he hit anyone. He claimed that he tried to calm the people. But even if he was guilty of all the crimes he was accused of, did Ahmed H. deserve 10 years? Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe, said that “to sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd.”

The spokesman for Fidesz expressed the party’s delight after the initial verdict was announced. He repeated the slogan on the billboards: “every migrant must learn that, once in the country, he must honor the laws of Hungary.” But those outside the circle of Fidesz and its followers were stunned. The United States asked the Hungarian government to conduct a transparent investigation of the incidents at the border that would include an independent civic organization. The government should review Ahmed’s case. As far as the United States is concerned, it will follow the case’s future handling, the statement promised. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond, telling the United States that criticizing the work of the court may be allowed in the United States but not in Hungary. Moreover, in Hungary it is not the civic organizations that decide on the guilt or innocence of people but the courts. The ministry spokesman ended his harangue by saying that “we can promise one thing: Hungary will never demand an explanation of U.S. court decisions on terrorists attacking American policemen.”

A week before Ahmed H.’s case was to be continued at the Szeged Appellate Court, the Hungarian media reported that Péter Bárándy, one of the best lawyers in Hungary who was minister of justice between 2002 and 2004 in the Medgyessy government, was going to be Ahmed’s defense lawyer. (There is some indirect evidence that Bárándy had been working on the case since at least March.)

Ahmed H. has had four lawyers, including Bárándy. First, he had a court-appointed lawyer. Then a local Szeged lawyer took over who, according to a member of Migszol, “during the trial sat quietly and wasted not one word in defense of his client.” Two weeks before the end of the trial he quit. The accused got another court-appointed lawyer who apparently did at least try to defend his client, unfortunately without much success.

The news of Péter Bárándy’s appearance as the lawyer for the defense was not exactly welcome news in government circles, but it did give Fidesz leaders an opportunity to connect “terrorism” with its alleged supporters, the Hungarian liberals and socialists. In fact, Gyula Budai, the man who in 2010 was entrusted by Viktor Orbán to bring all socialist and liberal “criminals” to justice, gave a press conference in which he charged that the Soros organizations, Brussels, and the socialists are working hand in hand to free Ahmed H. and therefore “they support terrorism.” He used strong words like “while Europe is terrified of terrorism, Brussels is openly supporting it.” He wanted to know “who is paying the lawyer” and called on MSZP to give an account.

Péter Bárándy in the courtroom

At the trial the prosecutor mostly praised the excellent decision that had been reached in the lower court. But he found the sentence of 10 years, the minimum for those accused of terrorism, insufficient and asked the court for 17.5 years instead. It was then Bárándy’s turn, who pointed out that he found 205 serious mistakes in the proceedings of the lower court. Here, of course, I cannot recount all of them. But I think a couple of examples will give a good idea of the kind of justice that was meted out to Ahmed H. A key charge against him was that he was the leader of the crowd that was throwing rocks against the police. A video, however, showed that the rock throwing had been going on for at least 45 minutes before Ahmed got hold of the bullhorn. In addition, the judge ignored the existence of a video taken by a policewoman which, as opposed to other videos, also contained sound and it doesn’t support Ahmed’s alleged incitement of the crowd. On the contrary, he can be heard saying to the fellow refugees “please, wait, stay here,” “please advise,” “we speak English, we don’t want an Arabic interpreter, we are asking for someone who speaks English.” And finally he told the refugees in Arabic, “no, wait, go back, please go back.” The verdict also claimed that Ahmed gave the police two hours to open the border. How did the police know this? He held up two fingers. But this can also mean “victory.” Finally, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the border, but even that judgment was wrong because Ahmed had free access to all EU countries, including Hungary. At the most, Ahmed was guilty of a misdemeanor (szabálysértés).

Ahmed H. with his back toward us is trying to calm the crowd / Source: police.hu

After the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a retrial, Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők titled “H. Bárándy and Ahmed Péter.” Bayer may seem to have gotten a little mixed up. I assume you get the gist of what he wants to tell us. It was a relief to read close to the end of the article that “we are not going to incarcerate the judge [of the appellate court] or H. Bárándy.” That’s awfully charitable.

Let’s end this post on a lighter note. The management of state television M1 channel most likely was certain that the Ahmed H.’s verdict would not be reversed or annulled. Perhaps he will even get 17.5 years as the prosecution demanded. They decided to send a camera crew to the trial along with their legal experts who were supposed to give live commentary. For three solid hours one could watch the trial. Once the decision was handed down, however, M1 ended the live broadcast in a great hurry. No further commentary necessary.

The reaction of the top Fidesz leadership has been as expected–a complete denial of any possibility that the original verdict could be flawed and a charge that the socialists, the civic organizations, Brussels, and everybody else under the sun are working together to open the borders and let in all those migrants who are in Bayer’s words members of “the terrible mob of Mordor, the Third World.”

June 18, 2017

DRI: Monitoring Hungarian TV coverage of the refugee referendum

Yesterday, I offered my impressionistic assessment of the Magyar Televizíó’s bias in its presentation of the refugee crisis and the referendum, which was supposed to save Hungarians from the curse of a Muslim invasion. But, as I wrote yesterday, I watched the programming for only an hour, just before the polls closed. I interpreted the frantic tone of the reporting as a last, desperate attempt to change what by then looked like an inevitability: an invalid referendum. But, as you can see below, thanks to Democracy Reporting International (DRI), which is a Berlin-based think tank, today we have an objective, scientific assessment of M1 as a propaganda tool of the government. I should add that ATV and HirTV can be viewed only by cable subscribers.

I know that some of you think that “no one watches Channel M1,” but that is incorrect. According to a 2015 survey, M1 is the fourth most often watched channel after RTL Klub, TV2, and Duna TV. Channel M1’s audience is around 1.8-1.9 million people; ATV has about 1.2 million viewers. At that time HírTV didn’t even make it in the top fifteen.

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Hungary’s public TV backed government position 95% of the time during EU-refugee referendum – new research

Hungary’s state-owned TV network M1 showed a strong pro-government bias in primetime news programming during the referendum campaign on EU refugee quotas, despite a legal duty to show balanced coverage. New research published today reveals that 95% of airtime allotted to refugees and the referendum endorsed the government’s position, and 91% of related news items were negative about refugees.

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The study, which monitored news across the country’s five main TV stations from 8 – 22 September, found the state broadcaster also allotted the greatest airtime and prominence to refugees and the referendum. M1 headlined with related issues in 86% of news shows, as well as dedicating 42% of news programming – more than double the average amount of time allotted by all five channels at 18%.

infograph1

Michael Meyer-Resende, DRI Executive Director, says: “The staggering amount of airtime and prominence, not to mention the biased tone and lack of balanced debate, makes M1 seem like an extension of the ruling party’s no campaign. For six years Viktor Orbán has systematically dismantled democratic checks and balances. We’re seeing the results of that now.”

TV2, a station bought earlier this year by businessman Andrew Vajna with close government ties, exhibited the second strongest pro-government bias.

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Table 1: tone of news items on refugees in the referendum context 

The percentage of news items dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum based on the overall tone (negative, neural, or positive) of each item.

Channel Negative Neutral Positive
M1 91 9 0
TV2 83 4 13
RTL 42 46 12
ATV 65 30 5
HírTv 36 35 29

Table 2: number of news items covering refugees and the referendum

The number and share of individual news items on the refugee issue and the referendum by television channel.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Number 154 46 30 62 80
Share 41% 12% 8% 17% 22%

Table 3: airtime allotted to refugees and the referendum

The average length of news items dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum by news programmes (in minutes), and the share of total news programming on each channel.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Length (min) 23.3 5.4 3.4 5.9 9.9
Share of airtime 42% 10% 5% 17% 18%

Table 4: prominence allotted to refugees and the referendum

The slot in which news items dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum first appear among all topics in a given news show.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
1st news item 86 0 0 50 29
2nd – 5th news item item 14 0 7 43 64
6th or subsequent item 0 100 93 7 7

Table 5: percentage airtime that supports the government’s position

The proportion of time allotted to presentations of positions that favour the government’s stance in terms of dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Percentage of time that supports or promotes the government’s position 95% 89% 39% 46% 53%
Percentage of time that supports or promotes a position that is different to the government’s 5% 11% 61% 54% 47%

Table 6: average airtime that support’s the government’s position 

The average time allotted, respectively, to the presentations of positions that favour the government’s stance and of positions that differ from the government’s view, dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum (in seconds).

Channels M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Average length of content that supports/promotes the government’s position 118 55 29 38 40
Average length of content that supports/promotes a position that differs from that of the government 6 7 46 44 35

Table 7: percentage of news items that show plurality of voice

The share of news items which feature both voices which endorse the government’s view and voices which promote a view that differs from that propounded by the government.

Channels M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
The joint appearance of conflicting opinions 6% 30% 47% 21% 26%

Table 8: percentage of news items that encourage voter turnout

Share of news items that deal with the issue of turning out to vote as a percentage of all news items that address the referendum.

  Encourages to turn out Encourages not to vote Both Not mentioned
M1 76% 10% 6% 8%
TV2 46% 0% 29% 25%
RTL 15% 8% 8% 69%
ATV 19% 19% 17% 45%
HírTv 19% 8% 16% 57%

Table 9: percentage of news items that encourage voting a certain way

Share of news items that encourage viewers to vote a certain way as a percentage of all news items that address the referendum (or also refer to the referendum).

  Encourages to vote “no” Encourages to vote “yes” Encourages to submit an invalid vote  Presents several potential viewpoints Does not indicate how one should vote 
M1 59% 7% 0% 7% 27%
TV2 42% 4% 0% 21% 23%
RTL 8% 0% 0% 15% 77%
ATV 14% 6% 0% 19% 61%
HírTv 11% 0% 5% 11% 27%

Notes

The statistics are based on monitoring the evening news shows of five national television channels between 8 and 22 September. M1 is state-owned public television, TV2 is controlled by businessman and ally of the Prime Minister Andrew Vajna, RTLKlub is owned by Germany’s RTL Group, ATV is controlled by evangelical church ‘Faith Church,’ and HirTV is controlled by Lajos Simicska, former ally of the Prime Minster, now opposed.

RTLKlub (9%), Tv2 (7%) and M1 (5%) drew a significant share of viewers, while the two satellite channels boasted smaller ratings (approx. 2%). This research was commissioned by Democracy Reporting International and carried out by Mertek Media Monitoring Budapest.

October 4, 2016

Kriszta D. Tóth’s encounter with Hungarian state television under Fidesz rule

Today I will report on a interview with Kriszta D. Tóth, a journalist who was “the face” of the news at MTV, the Hungarian public television station, for four years. In March 2011 she tendered her resignation. From the interview we gain a glimpse into the inner workings of the so-called independent Hungarian public media under Viktor Orbán’s premiership.

Kriszta D. Tóth’s husband is an Englishman who, according to her, had difficulties grasping the depth of the problems she had to face day in and day out. He couldn’t fully comprehend the extent of government interference in news reporting. Nor can most people, either inside or outside of Hungary. Tóth’s story provides some anecdotal evidence.

D. Toth KrisztaKriszta D. Tóth is an impressive woman. She has an M.A. in English language and literature and, right after she finished her studies at ELTE, became a journalist at The Budapest Sun, a publication still in existence. During the spring and summer of 1996 she was a journalist trainee with the Instant News Service in Washington, from where she went to The Budapest Business Journal. It was in 1997 that she moved over to television, working for commercial stations in Budapest. In 2002 she was hired by MTV and for a while (2004-2007) served as bureau chief in Brussels, after which she returned to Budapest as MTV’s evening news anchor.

It couldn’t have been easy for her to submit her resignation after spending almost nine years with the MTV news staff. What’s worse, Kriszta D. Tóth felt compelled to resign twice. MTV coaxed her back after her first resignation by agreeing to move her from news to entertainment. But after a year and a half she realized that even the “lighter side” of MTV didn’t offer a refuge for someone like herself. In January 2013 she resigned for the second and most likely final time.

What caused this woman, after a lot of soul searching, to quit? As she says at the beginning of the interview, political interference in the programs of public television and radio has always existed; it was only the self-restraint of the politicians and the professionalism and human decency of the news staff that moderated it. All this changed after 2010. The new regime has no self-restraint, and those members of the staff who upheld the professionalism of the news programs were fired.

Interference with the news was not subtle. Tóth, as anchor, always wrote her own leads, but she often found minutes before the live program that they had been rewritten and that this rewritten appeared on her teleprompter. Initially she tried to recreate her original story, but eventually she just gave in. For example, the word “opposition” was always crossed out from her stories.

There were daily fights with the “news director” over the content of the program. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point that “political messages” were sent from above and the staff was ordered to write the news accordingly. “The question wasn’t what the news of the day was but what the politicians wanted to hear that day.”

Her life started to be sheer hell because her professional standards were being violated daily. Eventually she and her husband came to the conclusion that this couldn’t go on. The next day she submitted her resignation. But then came that infamous evening news broadcast that she anchored for the last time. It covered the European Parliament’s condemnation of Hungary’s media law. To refresh your memory, this was the time when Vikt0r Orbán traveled to Strasbourg to defend his government’s position but failed and the vote went against Hungary. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), delivered a fiery condemnation, which Orbán had to endure. I wrote about the scene on January 19, 2011. It was this event that had to be “explained” somehow to the Hungarian public. Apparently the fight over the content went on for hours and, according to Tóth, although the final product was terribly unprofessional it was still “a hundred times better than it would have been if the original instructions had been followed.” While the camera was focusing on Cohn-Bendit’s role in the 1968 student riots in Paris and his alleged pedophile activities, Tóth was just sitting there with her head down, totally exhausted and most likely disgusted. The camera caught her in that pose. Many of her audience thought that it was an intentional signal to them about the state of affairs at MTV.

Tóth was urged to stay on. She agreed to the request on the condition that she could have a show that has nothing to do with politics. So, after half a year of recuperation, she returned and started an entertainment show entitled, after her initials, the DTK Show. The program had a bumpy start because of her inexperience in the genre, but eventually it attracted a sizable audience, surpassing MTV’s other entertainment program called the Fábry Show. Nonetheless, the management kept firing the people involved with the show, and eventually she was even told whom she could and could not invite as guests. By January 2013 Kriszta D. Tóth had had enough and resigned anew.

She has just published her first adult novel. (Earlier she wrote children’s books.) It is entitled Jöttem, hogy lássalak ( I came to see you again). She thinks that one day she may return to television, but I guess it will not be at MTV while Viktor Orbán is in power.