Tag Archives: journalists

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

Are security agents recruiting informants in media outlets?

The usually well-informed 444.hu published a story that has shaken the world of the Hungarian media. It was about an unnamed journalist (G.) who in December 2015 was approached by two men identifying themselves as agents of the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AH) or, in English, the Constitution Protection Office. According to the organization’s website, the primary duty of the office is the defense of the constitutional order against illegal attempts to overthrow it. These attacks may come from “extremist religious groups or organizations established on an anti-democratic ideological basis. For information gathering and observation AH can use secret service means and methods.”

G. was approached on the street on his way to his newspaper’s editorial office. The men said they wanted to talk to him about matters concerning his own “safety.” Although G. wanted to have the conversation right there, the two men insisted on going elsewhere. There he was confronted with intimate details of his and his family’s private life. He was told that the information was collected not by their own office but by “someone else with harmful intent.” They could help him but only if G. would be willing to cooperate. They kept insisting that he sign a long-term cooperative agreement to report to them. He didn’t find out what he was supposed to report to AH’s secret service men. He simply refused to sign. But he did agree to a second meeting because he was hoping to learn more about what the two agents were after. At this second meeting, somewhat more composed, G. told the AH agents that he intended to go to the police and file charges against the unnamed person who allegedly collected secret information on his private life. The men tried to get information out of G. about his contacts and sources, but G. refused to cooperate or to sign anything. And that was that. When 444.hu went to the ministry of interior responsible for the secret services, the spokesman for the ministry didn’t deny that such an encounter had taken place. He simply copied out the appropriate passages from the laws governing the functioning of the office. It was all legal, he insisted.

People familiar with the methods of the secret service during the Kádár regime recall that this kind of blackmail was a classic way to force unwilling people to cooperate with the ministry of interior’s infamous III/III department. Using so-called “sensitive material” from people’s private lives, according to experts, is still allowable today. But this information could be exploited only if “the security of Hungary were in immediate danger,” which was certainly not the case here.

By the next day journalists began to express their fears that G.’s encounter with the agents of AH might not be unique and asked themselves how many such willing or unwilling recruits are already in the editorial offices of media outlets. In the last few months quite a few suspicious stories came to light indicating that agents keep a tab on politicians and journalists. In 2014 the police confiscated a journalist’s cellphone in the hope of getting information on his sources. In May 2016 the police listened in on the telephone conversations of a journalist from Blikk. Benedek Jávor, PM member of the European Parliament, became aware that a third person was listening to his telephone conversations.

Naturally, all opposition parties protested, and the socialist chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security promised to discuss the matter next Thursday. The ministry and the head of AH will be called to report on the case. I don’t expect much from this meeting. Zsolt Molnár, the socialist chairman, usually accepts the disinformation that government agencies dump on the committee.

As I was gathering material for this post I recalled, though only in the vaguest of terms, a report about the ministry of interior’s failed attempt to make it legal to plant members of the secret service in editorial offices. Soon enough I unearthed the story. On November 4, 2015 Index discovered the offensive section in a 34-page amendment package to the law on the status of the various branches of the police. ¶38 listed the organizations that must have working relations with the national security establishment: telegraphic and postal service, energy suppliers, firms connected to the armaments industry. There is nothing surprising in this list thus far, but what made the journalists of Index stop was the mention of “content providers” (tartalomszolgáltatók). No definition of content providers was given but, according to the normal understanding of the phrase, it includes print and internet news sites as well as radio and television stations.

government-spying2

It took only a few hours for Sándor Pintér’s ministry to announce that “the Hungarian opposition was deliberately misinterpreting” the text. “It only allows what was already in force.” Members of the national security apparatus are already employed in the offices of telecommunication services. As Index pointed out, there are two problems with this denial. One is that in the law on the media “tartalomszolgáltató” is defined as “any media service provider or supplier of other media content.” The other difficulty is that if this provision “was already in force,” either it was being applied illegally or, if it was legal, why did the government want to create a new law to provide for it?

The upshot, I believe, is that Sándor Pintér indeed wanted to create a law that would allow the government to legally place agents in the offices of radio and TV stations, newspapers, and internet news providers but the opposition and the media discovered that crucial paragraph and the government had to retreat.

That was in November in 2015, and about a month later G. had his encounter with the two AH agents. I can’t help thinking that there is a connection between the failed attempt of the ministry of interior to change the law on national security and the effort of the two agents to recruit G. If that hypothesis is correct, we can be pretty certain that G. was not the only journalist approached. He had the guts to say no, although it took him almost a year to gather his courage and come forward with the story of his encounter.

It is unlikely that the upheaval will end here. G. is being encouraged to file charges. It is also possible that others will come forth with similar stories. But no matter what happens, the case will have a chilling effect on the already frightened journalists whose opportunity to ply their trade honestly and independently is shrinking in Orbán’s Hungary.

September 9, 2016