Tag Archives: Katalin Halmai

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

Viktor Orbán and freedom of the press

I wasn’t very much off the mark in my predictions yesterday. Viktor Orbán didn’t have the opportunity to veto the European Commission’s plans for “compulsory quotas” or, as the failed amendments to the Constitution called them, “compulsory settlements of alien populaces.” For the time being, there is no word about EU-controlled camps in North African countries, Viktor Orbán’s pet project. And, contrary to his repeated protestations against Russian sanctions, he voted to extend them. Nonetheless, he was something of an alien presence himself. As several newspapers noted, the specters of Putin, Trump, and Erdoğan loomed over the summit, all of whom Orbán admires and supports.

Orbán’s press conference for the reporters who showed up was held at the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the European Union instead of the Justus Lipsius Building, where the Council of Ministers is housed. At the press conference hardly anyone asked questions. By and large Viktor Orbán delivered a monologue in which he tried to inflate his role. He stressed that his best ideas haven’t been accepted yet but they are getting ever more popular among the leaders of the member states. He admitted that he failed to convince the others to lift visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens.

He talked at length about the common understanding among the Visegrád 4 countries. As Lili Bayer pointed out in the Budapest Beacon the other day, however, “in Slovakia and the Czech Republic there are growing concerns about both the nature of the alliance and the Hungarian leader’s portrayal of the bloc.” At the end of his press conference, he smuggled in a few words about the European Commission’s evil plans that would prevent his government from lowering utility prices.

The press conference would have been uneventful, even dull, save for an ugly incident. Bertalan Havasi, as assistant undersecretary, is head of the prime minister’s press office. He is thoroughly despised by his former colleagues for at least two reasons: (1) he allows practically no reporter to ever get close to Orbán and (2) he is an arrogant fellow who likes to speak in the name of the prime minister. At one point he used physical force against a Dutch cameraman who in his opinion was too pushy. The poor fellow ended up with a bloodied head. I tried to learn more about Havasi’s background from the government website but got the error message “file not found.”

In any case, among the small number of reporters at the press conference Havasi noticed Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság. She is  now an accredited freelancer who writes the blog “Európában.” She informed the authorities about her intention to attend, and she received an invitation to attend. But before the press conference began, the spokesman for the Permanent Representation went up to her and asked her to leave on the order of Havasi. The pro-government and/or fearful journalists said nothing until Gábor Nemes, the correspondent for Klubrádió, rose and objected to Halmai’s treatment. In his opinion, these press conferences should be held in the Justus Lipsius Building, where “one cannot send reporters out of the room.” He reminded Havasi that Halmai is still an accredited reporter who works as a freelancer. Good for Nemes, who I suspect thinks that after what Klubrádió had to suffer as a result of Orbán’s desire to shut it down, not much more can happen to that harassed station.

Viktor Orbán and Bertalan Havasi / MTI, Photo:  Balázs Szecsődi

Havasi’s answer was typical of this impertinent, arrogant, vicious crew. “Thank you, we will make note of your objection for the records. I didn’t know that there is still a newspaper Népszabadság published in Brussels. Do you? This room would be far too small if we invited and allowed in all blog writers.” Apparently, eight or nine reporters were present and there were at least 40 empty chairs. Nemes wasn’t intimidated and asked: “Do you see any problems with space here?” Which Havasi left unanswered. Instead, Orbán said that “we will consider this a suggestion and will take it under advisement.” I assume he meant the venue of future press conferences.

After a couple of more questions, the decision was reached that Viktor Orbán should talk to Halmai, “not in her capacity as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen.” She returned, and a private conversation lasting about 15 minutes took place between the two of them in the presence of staff of the prime minister and the ambassador of the Permanent Representation. Apparently, Orbán’s greatest concern was that this happened to “a lady reporter.” This is so typical of Orbán. The autocrat had just trampled on the freedom of the press, but he was worried about “a lady reporter,” as if that was the real shame instead of his total disregard of the fundamental democratic right of the free flow of information.

Today Havasi released a statement announcing that his office will allow only reporters of actually existing newspapers (sajtóorganumok) to attend the press conferences under his jurisdiction. He doesn’t consider blog writers legitimate reporters, so they have no place at press conferences. And what is Halmai complaining about? Viktor Orbán personally received Katalin Halmai, who is a Hungarian citizen, and had a conversation with her during which “the lady told him that at the present time she is not a reporter and doesn’t write for any specific newspaper.” Of course, the Orbán government destroyed the largest and most influential newspaper, and now that its sixty-odd reporters are left jobless, the petty prime minister bars the former paper’s Brussels correspondent from his press conference because “she is not a reporter.”

As if banning a reporter from a paper his regime shuttered weren’t enough, he doubled down in answering a question about George Soros, the personification of everything Viktor Orbán hates about liberal democracy and western capitalism. He said: “A man of tight upbrining doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring, of course, to Katalin Halmai.

Apparently, Halmai was specifically targeted because after Népszabadság closed she was quite active on behalf of the paper in Brussels. At the end of November she was one of the speakers at a conference on the freedom of the press, where she explained the circumstances of the demise of Népszabadság. Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, also participated in the conference.

This is not the first time that a reporter is barred from Viktor Orbán’s press conferences in Brussels. MTI’s reporter, János Kárpáti, just once asked a question from the prime minister that he was not supposed to ask. It was in April 2015, when Orbán’s then hobbyhorse was the reintroduction of the death penalty. Kárpáti asked a question that he apparently hadn’t cleared with his superiors. The question, which he addressed to him in English, went something like this: “You have gotten a great deal of criticism over your point of view on this subject even from your colleagues in the European People’s Party. How do you see Fidesz’s position within the EPP?” That was pretty much the end of Kárpáti’s career. From that time on his superior organized his schedules in such a way that he was unable to attend the next three of four press conferences given by Orbán. After a few months he lost his job altogether. The lives of Hungarian journalists are not enviable, and I’m afraid the situation will only get worse as more and more publications are acquired by Fidesz oligarchs and strómans.

December 16, 2016