Although the transcript of Orbán’s speech about his government’s accomplishments in the last eight years, which he delivered this afternoon, is already available on the prime minister’s website, I will either postpone or perhaps even skip an analysis of it. Instead, today I will cover the muzzling of foreign correspondents who are posted in Budapest.
The phenomenon is not entirely new, but until recently only the government-sponsored media took it upon itself to attack journalists by name, some of whom were actually Hungarian nationals writing for foreign publications. Soon enough, however, Zoltán Kovács, who has the fancy title of Director of the International Communication Office, also entered the fray.
Kovács’s first victim was Lili Bayer, who did an interview with him for Politico in which she lauded Kovács by saying 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.” But a Twitter comment that Bayer wrote raised the ire of Kovács. Bayer said that the anti-Soros campaign that started in September 2017 was anti-Semitic, and she compared it to the numerus clausus of 1920. Whether this is a correct comparison or not is beside the point. Governments must put up with an awful lot of criticism, some of which might not be fair but must be endured. In most civilized countries the law protects freedom of expression. Officialdom can’t blacklist journalists whose opinions they don’t like. But this is exactly what’s happening in Hungary. Since that incident Bayer is not allowed to attend official functions.
And she is not the only one who has encountered difficulties getting information. Zoltán Kovács admitted in an interview that on the very same day that he accused Bayer of being under the influence of drugs when she wrote her Twitter entry, two other journalists, a German and a Brit, also had to be “disciplined.” And, I’m afraid, the list is growing.
Just today newspapers reported that in the last year fewer articles about Hungary have appeared in the foreign press, but what has appeared has been more critical than previously. Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő accused foreign newspapers of meddling in the Hungarian election campaign on the side of the opposition. Three publications have been singled out: Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and The New York Times. This list, I’m sure, will expand in the coming months because I understand that several important papers that had no special correspondents in the region are planning to send journalists to Budapest. Also, the number of articles dealing with Hungary will undoubtedly multiply in the wake of the scandal created by OLAF’s revelations of widespread corruption linked to the family of Viktor Orbán. No matter how often Zoltán Kovács tells journalists that they are concentrating on unimportant issues instead of reporting the successes of the Orbán government in the last eight years, it is unlikely that critical articles will cease to appear in the foreign press. And if Kovács refuses to have any dealings with those critical voices, soon enough he will not be able to exchange a word with any of the foreign reporters.
Zoltán Kovács has a blog where he comments frequently on domestic and foreign affairs. On February 12 Patrick Kingsley wrote a biting article about Viktor Orbán in The New York Times, calling him one of the modern autocrats. In return, Kovács composed a letter of sorts titled “Dear New York Times: Hungarians are not stupid.” He told Kingsley that what he wrote in his article is actually old hat. Already in 2011 The Guardian was talking about “Hungary’s democratic ‘dictator in the making’ [who] takes center stage in Europe.” Kovács went on about all those articles that complain about the assault on the media, the judiciary, checks and balances, and the constitution. The article is “a classic example of the herd behavior of international journalists writing about Hungary, simply repeating without questioning.” Foreign journalists rely on information gleaned exclusively from spokesmen of the opposition, Kovács claimed. Actually, Kingsley did manage to get an interview with Kovács, but he was the only government official who was willing to talk to him. After this lecture, Kovács told Kingsley what he should have written about. He should have addressed successes like low unemployment, cutting the deficit, reducing the debt, restoring the credit rating to investment grade, and so on. These are the things that affect the lives of Hungarians, not what he and other foreign journalists write about.
Kovács continued: “We look forward to the visit of many international journalists to Budapest in the coming weeks in the run-up to that big day in April. For those journalists, here are a few suggestions. Try not to write your story before you arrive. Set yourself apart from the herd by starting your reporting from a different perspective. Try to answer the fundamental question at play in this election: if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoys such strong popular support (and the opposition such dismal support) that he is predicted to win a third consecutive term, why is that? And if you want to find a thoughtful answer to that question, get out and talk to real people.”
Kovács had scarcely finished his opus to The New York Times when two articles by Jennifer Rankin appeared in The Guardian on February 12 with the telling titles: “How Hungarian PM’s supporters profit from EU-backed projects” and “Orbán allies could use EU as cash register, MEPs say.” By that time, Kovács must have given up because he refrained from delivering another sermon about proper journalistic practices. But The Guardian was already one of the bête noires of the Orbán government on account of an article that appeared on January 11 titled “Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession.” It is a lengthy, thorough, beautifully written article that must have made Viktor Orbán and his closest associates extremely unhappy. I heard an interview with György Szöllősi, who is now the editor-in-chief of Nemzeti Sport, Orbán’s favorite sports paper, about the article shortly after it appeared in print. He was very upset about the negative picture of Viktor Orbán that emerged. That is not what they expected, especially after the journalists even had a chance encounter with Viktor Orbán himself, who opened up about his love of the game.
One of the authors of this article was Daniel Nolan, a freelance journalist who has a sterling reputation. He has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, VICE News, Deutsche Welle, and the Blizzard, among others. He writes mainly on Central and Eastern European media, culture, politics, and human rights. In 2016 he was shortlisted for the 2016 European Press Prize for his article “Spinning the Crisis: How the Hungarian Government Played Europe’s Migrant Influx.” The Orbán government considers Nolan to be a paid propagandist, just as Kovács called Lili Bayer. He is one of those who are now taking part in the election campaign against Viktor Orbán and his government.
What happened to Nolan at János Lázár’s “government info” this past Thursday shows that a journalist doesn’t have to be banned from official government press conferences. It is enough to ignore him because his questions might be embarrassing or because the government bigwigs consider him to be unfriendly.
Dan Nolan, who is currently working on a piece for Al Jazeera, was unable to get an interview with Zoltán Kovács, so he decided to attend János Lázár’s weekly press conference where Kovács serves as a kind of emcee. It mattered not how hard he tried to get recognized, Kovács ignored him until, I guess out of frustration, Nolan grabbed the mike and began asking a question. Or, rather, tried to ask a question. Kovács immediately intervened. When Nolan insisted, saying that he had only one short question, Kovács indicated that if he doesn’t stop he will be removed from the premises.
After opposition parties called the event “an outrage,” Kovács decided to address a letter to Nolan, whom he mistakenly identified as The Guardian’s correspondent. There are rules, Kovács explained, and “here is a basic one: A journalist who wishes to ask a question requests permission and may pose the question after being granted permission.” So far, one could even agree, but this was not the reason for Kovács’s ignoring Nolan. The problem was that he is “more a partisan activist than a professional journalist. Once upon a time, there was a rule for journalists, part of the code of ethics of the profession, to strive to be objective in covering the news and avoid behavior that would seem partisan or biased.”
Just as in the Lili Bayer case, Nolan is considered to be “a partisan activist” because on Twitter he posted some unflattering comments about the Orbán government. A day later an unnamed author in Magyar Idők explained the situation more fully. “It should be known that Daniel Nolan played the hero in the middle of the migration crisis. He called the reception centers concentration camps.” The powers-that-be have a good memory. They don’t forget and they don’t forgive.
Even old-timer Nick Thorpe of the BBC, who has had the reputation of being far too soft on the Orbán government, complained the other day on BBC Radio 4 that he has been unable to get interviews with government officials. In fact, a day after the Nolan affair he was called in by Zoltán Kovács and was read the riot act about his biased reporting and being a partisan activist. The last time Thorpe, who has been in Hungary since 1988, experienced something very similar, he said, was in the Kádár regime. That’s what Hungary has come to.
If Zoltán Kovács continues his harassment of foreign journalists, I can assure him that the coverage of his country in the international press will be even more critical. With good reason.