Tag Archives: MTI

The opening extravaganza of the Aquatic Championships didn’t capture the world’s imagination

The Aquatic World Championships, the largest ever sports event in Hungarian history, began with an expensive opening ceremony on Friday night. The cost of the event has preoccupied members of the Hungarian media. In the last few days journalists have been trying to figure out how much each minute of the two-hour program cost the taxpayers, and they came up with 28.3 million forints or $89,960.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, every cent spent was worth it. After all, and now I am quoting the government’s very own Magyar Idők, “because thanks to the television coverage [the director] dazzled the world with a fantastic image of the country.” The justification for holding the event was that tourism would receive a boost that would compensate for the expenses incurred. But the real emphasis was always on image building. People would be overwhelmed by the cityscape over the Danube, the majestic parliament building, and the Royal Castle. The speed with which the organizers managed to put this great show together should also impress the world. Hungary is strong, proud, and competitive.

As far as Magyar Idők is concerned, everything turned out absolutely splendidly. The new Duna Aréna is “one of the largest and most beautiful swimming pools.” As for the opening ceremony, it was “dazzling” as it portrayed “the meeting of water and culture in Hungarian history.” The program generously began with the Roman city of Aquincum, today’s Óbuda. There were eight episodes, which included the Hungarians’ arrival, Renaissance Buda, hussars, the music of Ferenc Liszt and Zoltán Kodály, Hungarian operettas, pop culture, folk songs, and folk costumes. How much did foreigners understand from all that? I suspect not much. In addition, the American CeeLo Green sang “Bright Lights Bigger City” and “Crazy.”

As for the quality of the program, well, that depends on your artistic sensibilities and to some extent on your political views. Reporters from media outlets like Index and 444.hu were less than thrilled. But for the organizers the most important consideration was the impact of this extravaganza. After all, the chief aim of staging the championships was ostensibly to advertise Budapest and Hungary, and therefore they wanted millions of people to be exposed to the events in Budapest. The eyes of the world will be on Hungary, the organizers assured the population. They talked about 5 billion cumulative views.

But came the first day with the opening ceremony on which they spent so much money and the reaction was, how shall I say, less than what they expected. Hours after the event one couldn’t find anything on the internet about this proud moment, which was supposed to spread the good name of Hungary all over the world. No problem. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary creating an alternative reality is an everyday occurrence.

Hungary’s official news agency, MTI, came up with the simplest solution. It created news showing the opening ceremony being widely covered in the international media. Let me quote the opening lines of its news item. “On Saturday the international media first and foremost concentrated on the opening ceremony of the Aquatic World Championships in Budapest. The objective articles are richly illustrated with photographs, highlighting the most important moments of the ceremony.“ But MTI failed to mention any of those publications that carried the richly illustrated articles. Therefore, suspicious Hungarian reporters who are only too aware of MTI’s habit of falsifying the news tried to verify the MTI report. The blogger of Comment:com checked both Google and Bing and found only one article, in Euronews.com. Here is what it had to say about the opening ceremony: “Crowds in Budapest witnessed spectacular scenes at the opening ceremony of the World Aquatic Championships, the biggest sporting event ever staged in Hungary…. Euronews correspondent Ferenc Horvath noted that the cost of producing the opening extravaganza may break records.” Period.

In addition, this morning a short, somewhat sarcastic little news item appeared in Politico’s “Brussels Playbook”–“Budapest’s Latest Soft Power Play.” It did mention the “flashy opening ceremony,” but the article was really about “the most powerful woman in Hungary,” Katinka Hosszú, who is “a multi-millionaire triple Olympic gold medalist who is using her political skills to form a global professional swimmers union. Watch out, Viktor!” It was from this meager amount of material that MTI created an event reported widely and enthusiastically as a “spectacular and dazzling” performance.

As far as TV coverage of the championship events over the next two weeks is concerned, although sports fans in Great Britain and Canada will be able to follow at least some of the events on BBC and CBC, I fear that not too many Americans will be able to watch them. They will be aired on a brand new sports channel, NBC Olympic Channel, which was launched just today. Thus, for example, the opening ceremony will not be broadcast. It will be a very narrowly focused channel. The programming will be done by NBCUniversal, the International Olympic Committee, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Olympic Channel will be available via some of the large cable providers such as A&T DirecTV, Comcast, and Verizon. But the viewership of programming on a brand new channel will most likely be minuscule.

All in all, the dreams about the fantastic impact the championships will have on Hungary’s image were, I’m afraid, way overblown.

July 15, 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

Katrina Lantos Swett returns her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit

Népszabadság reported this morning that Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Tom Lantos Foundation and Institute for Human Rights and Justice, returned her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. With her gesture the number of those who expressed their disgust over the decoration of Zsolt Bayer by returning their own awards has increased to 109.

Katrina Lantos recalled that her father was the only Holocaust survivor who served in the U.S. Congress. He was a real Hungarian patriot who, despite all the tragedies he witnessed, “never lost his love for the country. For three decades he did all he could for Hungary.” She herself continued in this tradition and tried to pass the linguistic and cultural traditions of her family on to the younger generation. She was hoping to give the Knight’s Cross to her children one day and is sorry that by returning the decoration she will not have this opportunity. “The Hungarian government bestowing the Knight’s Cross to Zsolt Bayer stained this noble decoration.” She added that if her father were alive he would ask the government “to take back this unearned decoration from Bayer.” I should add that Judit Járai, the Washington correspondent for the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI), didn’t find Katrina Lantos’s announcement newsworthy.

Katrina Lantos Swett

Katrina Lantos Swett

A few words about the foundation and the institute that is being financed by the Hungarian government. Tom Lantos died suddenly in 2008, and shortly after his death it was proposed to establish a foundation and institute in his memory. But by the time the institute began to take shape there was a change of government. The new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had had a somewhat strained relationship with Tom Lantos. The last time he asked for an interview in Washington, Lantos made him wait for three days, and at the end of the meeting there was no joint press conference. Orbán left and Lantos had a few measured words to say about their differences.

As was expected, the Tom Lantos Institute’s board was composed primarily of Fidesz faithfuls whose views were a far cry from Tom Lantos’s. For example, Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition based in Washington and Kinga Gál, Fidesz EP MP. The Hungarian American Coalition is a decidedly right-of-center organization that has always favored Fidesz. Just to give you an idea of their bias, here is a story in which I myself was involved. One day sometime in 2002 I read that the Coalition had paid for about 20 members of the Hungarian parliament to spend a couple of weeks in Washington to take a closer look at American democracy in action. They all turned out to be Fidesz PMs. When I asked the then president of the Coalition why they invited only Fidesz MPs, he told me that the socialists and the liberals had turned down the invitation. It was a lie, as I found out in no time from the leader of the socialist parliamentary delegation.

So, the Tom Lantos Institute has been a controversial project from the beginning, mostly because of Viktor Orbán’s insistence on making it a party foundation. After all, he must have figured, it is his government that sponsors it and therefore it is his. This is how his mind works. The fact is that the government has given a fair amount of money to the institute. The institute’s website has no detailed information about its finances. All we know is that under “Donors and partners” they list only two donors: the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. We know that in 2009 the institute received 3 billion forints from the government to cover expenses for five years.

The staff consists of nine full-time associates, of whom five are researchers. The other four deal with finances, communication, and administrative duties. Otherwise, the focal points of the institute’s activities are “Jewish life and anti-Semitism,” “Roma rights and citizenship,” and “human and minority rights.” The institute’s publications are mostly texts of lectures delivered at conferences organized by the institute.

In 2011 Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, visited Budapest specifically for the opening of the institute. At that time I received a letter from a very reliable source who called himself “Diplomat Anonymous.” He begged Clinton not to go to Budapest. I published the letter in its entirety at that time. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s especially painful to hear that you may be coming here to bless the opening of the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI). I didn’t know the late Congressman well; we only shook hands once in Washington. But I know that he fought against prejudice, he fought for human rights. Yes, to his great credit, he cared about the Hungarian ethnic minority in the neighboring countries, and the Institute may well publish books or pamphlets on that issue. But what about media freedom here? What about anti-Semitism? Will TLI address these painful issues? I predict that it will not – it cannot — because the Orbán government authored this very restrictive media law, and it doesn’t believe there’s anti-Semitism in Hungary. As for the Roma issue, which is the most agonizing social problem here, please ask an aide to check out the background of Rita Izsák, TLI’s new Director. In the Roma community, of which she’s a member, she’s known as Uncle Tom. She will respect the wishes of the government, which, after all, is TLI’s sole financial backer.

Since then Rita Izsák has left the institute. In 2013 Anna-Mária Bíró became the new director. She hails from Transylvania, where in the 1990s she was adviser to the president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or, as it is known in Hungarian, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ), a right-of-center party. Most of the researchers are young women. Just recently the institute hired a young Hungarian program manager for Jewish life and anti-Semitism and a publications and communications officer from New Zealand. It is hard to pass any judgment on the work the institute is doing based on the scant information that is available.

But let’s return to the president of the Hungarian American Coalition, Maximilian Teleki, who was interviewed by Népszabadság in connection with Katrina Lantos’s return of the Knight’s Cross. He expressed his astonishment at the government’s decision to give a decoration to Bayer and added that “many of us supported some if not all steps of the Fidesz government. We especially approved of their announcement of ‘zero tolerance’ against anti-Semitism. Now we ask ourselves how they are able to go against their own pledge. Two steps forward and one big one backward?” Mr. Teleki, who by the way doesn’t speak Hungarian so his knowledge of the present political situation must be limited, came to the conclusion that the political views of Jobbik and Bayer are identical. Well, just for his information, Bayer is a member of Fidesz and without the blessing of Viktor Orbán he would not be able to publish the smut he does. The members of the Hungarian American Coalition should wake up and admit to themselves that, at least since 1994, they have been supporting a party and a government which no real democrat with a modicum of conscience should. Make a clean break instead of constant excuses. It doesn’t reflect well on the Hungarian American Coalition.

September 2, 2016

The Washington voice of MTI: Judit Járai

The two pro-government dailies, Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, don’t express their editorial opinions on the U.S. presidential election too often. They seem to be satisfied reprinting the reports of Magyar Távirati Iroda/MTI coming from its Washington correspondent Judit Járai, who is a fully committed ideologue of the right, if not the extreme right. Járai arrived in the United States only a few months ago, but this is not her first stint in Washington. She was the correspondent of Magyar Rádió/MR between 2004 and 2010. She turned out to be a biased reporter whose knowledge of the English language and the American media was scant. After her return to Budapest, I wrote a Hungarian-language article about her incredible ignorance and her misrepresentation of the U.S. political process. If you know Hungarian and want to have a good laugh, read my piece in galamus.hu.

So, Járai is back and is continuing where she left off six years ago, except that now she can do much more damage than before. As the correspondent of MTI, which supplies news stories to all Hungarian media outlets, regardless of their political persuasion, her biased reporting can spread far and wide. The leadership of MTI must be very satisfied with Járai’s reporting because almost every article she sends to Budapest is designated as “Judit Járai reports from Washington,” something that was not customary during the tenure of her predecessor, Demeter Pogár.

Jarai

In my Hungarian article I noted that Járai doesn’t seem to know that a reputable journalist doesn’t rely on the notorious National Enquirer as a source. She still hasn’t learned which American sources are reliable and which are not. This resulted in MTI passing along misinformation, which has remained largely uncorrected.

Here is the story. A right-leaning internet site, DailyCaller, published an article about Khizr Khan, the father of the slain Muslim war hero whose appearance at the Democratic National Convention was one of its most memorable moments. The author claimed that Khan had written extensively on Sharia law, which he considers to be superior to all others. It is unlikely that Járai read this short, not very coherent post, but she certainly discovered an article by Paul Sperry in the right-wing Breitbart News. On August 2, under the headline “Khizr Khan Believes the Constitution ‘Must Always Be Subordinated to the Sharia’,” Sperry offered a fuller account of two publications by Khizr Khan: a very short book review and a juristic classification of Islamic law. Sperry, I assume quite intentionally, completely misinterpreted Khan’s writings. On the same day, Khan appeared on CNN and in a conversation with Anderson Cooper explained that he couldn’t possibly be an adherent of Sharia law for the simple reason that there is no such thing. “There are laws of various Muslim countries which are a hodgepodge of British laws, French laws, Portuguese laws. In them, there is tremendous discrimination of genders which disqualifies them under the constitution of the United States.” Since then, a detailed critique of Sperry’s interpretation appeared in the Huffington Post titled “Breitbart Tried To Smear Khizr Khan, But Face-Planted.” By the way, Breitbart is still on Khan’s case. Now the site tries to besmirch his legal qualifications by talking about his age when he passed the bar exam.

Judit Járai most likely wasn’t paying attention to the fact that, aside from Breitbart News, no respectable American newspaper picked up the spurious story. Nor that Khan had explained his position on the subject on CNN two days earlier. Otherwise she wouldn’t have filed a report on August 4 taking the accusations against Khan as proven fact. And of course she didn’t take the trouble to check Breitbart’s sources, because if she had (and if her English is good enough) she would have discovered that Breitbart’s accusations were unfounded.

Járai makes no effort to hide her political bias in her reporting. Here are a couple of telling sentences from her Khan story. She describes Khan as “a lawyer from North Carolina who after the party meeting [pártgyűlés] arrived in Washington, where he continually delivers indictments [vádbeszédeket] against the Republican candidate, Donald Trump.” Her disapproval and sloppiness shine through.  For starters, Khan lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, not in North Carolina. And then there is her choice of the word ‘indictment.’ In this country a grand jury hands down an indictment only if it finds, based on evidence presented to it, that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed by the suspect. A loaded word, and one that is especially loaded in Hungarian. Khan was not delivering an indictment, he was expressing his opinion. In a democracy this is not a sin. As for the “party meeting,” it is an odd way to describe the party convention. As far as I know, the Hungarian word is “konvenció.” Or, here is another sentence by the “objective” reporter of MTI: “Khan, who is invariably introduced as a ‘Pakistani-American’ by the Clinton campaign team and the liberal media, is an expert on the doctrine of Sharia law.” What is wrong with describing Khan as a Pakistani-American? He was born in Pakistan and later in life he and his family emigrated to the United States where he became an American citizen. A perfect description of Khan’s status. But obviously Járai’s mind works differently. To her Khan is first and foremost a Muslim and a Pakistani. The unnatural emphasis on Khan as an American is a political ploy to drum up public resentment against Donald Trump.

Járai’s report was published by Magyar Idők and a couple of other mostly right-wing or extremist internet sites, Gondola, Hunhir, Dzsihádfigyelő, and a few independent ones whose editors were not careful. To my surprise, the next day Magyar Idők ran (well, actually, buried) a correction under the unlikely headline “The Clintons’ man is under fire.” Buried in the story is the crucial sentence admitting that Khan didn’t express his own opinions but rather “summarized legal arguments” on Sharia.

I’m sure that if one took the trouble one would find hundreds of subtle and not so subtle comments in Járai’s reports favoring Trump and denigrating Clinton. But, for now, Hungarians prefer a Clinton presidency by a large margin. Her biased reporting hasn’t changed their minds. More about this tomorrow.

August 14, 2016

Censorship in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

In some cases the censorship is subtle. In other cases not at all. Both kinds involve the state-owned wire service, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI). As things stand in Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy, MTI is the sole supplier of news to the state television and radio stations. Moreover, since MTI has no competition and its service is entirely free, all Hungarian media rely on items offered by the politically controlled news agency. Even the media critical of the government. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that one must be very careful of information that comes from MTI.

Lately there were at least two instances in which MTI played games with the photos that accompanied their news items. Both involved trips the prime minister took to two Hungarian cities: Nyíregyháza in Szabolcs County and Szombathely in Vas County, ten kilometers from the Austrian border. Orbán visited these places as part of his “Modern Cities” project which is, very simply put, a set of irresponsible promises made to these larger regional centers with respect to future government spending. He usually promises a stadium and a Olympic-sized swimming pool in addition to some new roads or the renovation of certain historic buildings.

News outlets that use photos provided by MTI can be mightily misled by its photographers and cameramen, who are eager to oblige and/or fearful of losing their jobs. As it is, MTI functions with a skeleton staff whose members are not sure whether they will have a job the following day if they use a “wrong” adjective in their reports.

If Orbán’s trips to Nyíregyháza and Szombathely are any indication, not so many people are interested in seeing the great man as was once the case, and in spite of local promotion of his visit only a couple dozen people showed up to greet him. The challenge for MTI’s photo reporters, in this case Zsolt Czeglédi and György Varga, was to take shots of Orbán and his few admirers that looked as if he were addressing a huge crowd. In the case of the Nyíregyháza trip, most likely nobody would have noticed that anything was distorted if the local online news site, Szabolcs Online, hadn’t published a picture of its own. And there was quite a difference between the two. The first is the most often used MTI photo by Zsolt Czeglédi and the second is the one that Szabolcs Online published.

nyiregyhaza3

Just to show what a difficult job Zsolt Czeglédi faced, here is the first picture again, along with three other photos of the same event, all trying to give the impression that the crowd was much larger than it actually was.

nyiregyhaza2

This was bad enough, but what came after that does not fall into the category of “subtle censorship.” It was outright censorship. The eagle-eyed local Fidesz crew at city hall must have noticed “the error” of Szabolcs Online. Within a short time the picture was removed from the site, though not before Kettős mérce, a left-wing blog, managed to download it.

The same thing happened a few days ago in Szombathely. But here, in addition to MTI’s photo by György Varga, a reporter from 168 Óra was also present, who took a picture of his own. Here are the two pictures for your amusement.

szombathely

This time, unlike in Nyíregyháza, in addition to MTI’s brief news item, we have a gushing report by Károly Pálfi of Origo, which gives the impression of a very busy square right in front of city hall where “there is a lot of hustle and bustle” and “where youngsters are hanging out in clusters.” The reporter finds only Orbán fans, but these passersby were obviously not curious enough to stay to meet him personally.

MTI practices a more serious form of censorship when it comes to sensitive issues concerning the Orbán family or some dirt discovered on government and Fidesz officials. The latest such case is the business practices of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. Earlier I wrote about István Tiborcz’s rapid enrichment after marrying Orbán’s eldest daughter, Ráhel. The first post had the title “How do European Union funds end up in the hands of the Orbán family?” and the second was titled “The end of an Orbán family business?” The Hungarian media was full of stories about how Tiborcz’s business venture blossomed. Soon enough, however, Brussels took notice since Tiborcz’s business activities were financed almost entirely from EU funds. OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud office, started to look into Tiborcz’s business, which Tiborcz sold as soon as the Hungarian government got wind of the probe. A good English-language article appeared only a couple days ago with the title “How Brussels took on the son-in-law of Hungary’s Prime Minister.”

The dubious business activities of István Tiborcz is a topic that MTI is forbidden to report on. The very fact that Tiborcz’s firm is under investigation by OLAF is taboo. So, when MSZP wanted to publish a communiqué, which is one of the services MTI offers to political, cultural, and civic organizations, the party was denied space. They wanted to publish their reaction to the OLAF investigation. The alleged reason was that István Tiborcz is not a “public figure.” Zoltán Lukács, one of the deputy chairmen of MSZP, was outraged. After all, OLAF is investigating a firm for possible misappropriation of EU funds. How can Tiborcz not be a public figure?

The communiqué was eventually published by 168 Óra. Lukács announced that he finds “MTI’s course of action censorship” pure and simple. As Magyar Narancs said in one of its headlines: “Yes, there is freedom of the press–when I allow it.”

Orbán buries democracy with faint praise

After Viktor Orbán delivered his speech at the Friends of Hungary Foundation on Saturday, I received two e-mails calling my attention to it. One of them included a commentary on the speech by Zoltán Bodnár, former CEO of the Hungarian Export-Import Bank and earlier a deputy chairman of the Hungarian National Bank. Lately, Bodnár can often be seen on TV as the adviser to Gábor Fodor’s liberal party on economic matters.

Bodnár called Orbán’s speech a milestone, akin to his speech in Romania last summer about illiberal democracy. “Any of you who still have doubts about what kind of a society Orbán wants … should listen to this speech.” I searched for newspaper accounts of the event but was disappointed. I couldn’t find any earthshaking revelations in the summaries of Orbán’s speech. Bodnár must be exaggerating, I thought.

Today I know what the problem was. The summary that appeared in scores of Hungarian newspapers was prepared by MTI, the official Hungarian news agency, whose management has a keen sense of what should be left out of their reports. Anything that would create an outcry both at home and abroad must be ignored. And Bodnár was right. Those missing lines would have created an uproar if they had been widely reported.

First, I will look at the speech as it appeared on Orbán’s website. I will concentrate on those sections that were left out of the MTI summary and will also point to the prime minister’s creative use of quotation marks. Second, I will call attention to some very important sentences that were uttered during the question and answer period but were not transcribed for the prime minister’s official website.

What is it that Bodnár and others found more objectionable and more telling than Viktor Orbán’s words about “illiberal democracy”?

Democracy versus autocracy

The main theme of the speech was the necessity of breaking through political taboos that prevent us from finding the right answers to real questions. Instead of listening to our instincts, “we escape to a world of voodoo and taboo away from our own questions, the questions of our own lives.” According to the Hungarian prime minister, Europe is spending its energies on sterile debates about ideology and political systems instead of trying to find answers to such important questions as “how it is possible that while Europeans–including ourselves–value democracy over non-democratic arrangements, the latter are more successful today? Will democracy in the decades ahead–as we would like to believe–be capable of providing good political leadership?” While last summer Orbán simply talked about illiberal democracies, by now he got to the point of doubting that democracy can be a viable instrument of political leadership. While allegedly valuing democracy, he testified to the superiority and even desirability of autocracy over democracy.

Viktor Orbán in his element during the question and answer period

Viktor Orbán in his element during the question and answer period

Orbán elaborated on this theme: “The European politician is inclined to suppose that the question of political arrangement is of the utmost importance because, if it is solved, the problems of reality are automatically taken care of.” I think this sentence needs a “translation.” In my interpretation, what Orbán means here is that European politicians believe that democracy is the foundation of a healthy society and economic system, but in his opinion that is not the case. Democracy itself doesn’t solve problems, and solving problems doesn’t require a democratic system.

These were the main points that were cunningly left out of the MTI summary that circulated in the Hungarian media.

While I’m still on the main body of the speech, I’d like to point out at least one instance in which Orbán falsified his source. Orbán wanted to prove that small nations actually have an advantage over large ones in this uncertain world and that therefore “Hungary has a real chance to show new ways, new means, and methods for the benefit of the whole world.” What is the supporting evidence for this contention? Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, wrote an article a couple of months ago titled “Are You Ready for the Technological Revolution?” In it Schwab claims that “the defining features of [the new post-post crisis world] is the rapid pace of technological change. It is so fast that people are even referring to it as a technological revolution. This revolution is unlike any previous one in history, and it will affect us all in ways we cannot even begin to imagine…. In this new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.” The message is that countries, regardless of their size, will be successful as long as they respond quickly to technological challenges.

Orbán the technophobe took liberties both with Schwab’s text and with the very notion of citation. He attributed the following sentences to Schwab, putting them inside quotation marks: “The era has ended in which a big fish eats the small one. From here on the fast fish will rule while the slow ones will be destroyed. In this new world nothing will be taboo, we must study and re-evaluate all practices.

“No” to an intellectual direction that is considered progressive 

Finally, let me translate a passage that can be heard on a five-minute video in which the key sentences from the speech were collected. The most valuable part of the video is the one- or one-and-a-half-minute segment from the question and answer period. From Orbán’s answer it seems that someone from the audience must have said something about the “bad communication” of the government as the reason for Hungary’s unsavory reputation abroad. Orbán corrected him. Yes, communication could have been better, but this is not the only reason for the West’s dislike of his government. Here is the relevant text:

There is an intellectual debate in Europe about which way the Continent should be heading. What its mission is. In my opinion we are on the right side of this debate, but it is not a popular one. Today those are in the majority who think that Europe should move toward the fulfillment of individual rights, and that means three things. For example, it would help our individual freedom if we could get rid of our sexual identity. They think it would further the cause of freedom if we could get rid of our national identity. They think that we would be better off if we could rid ourselves of those ideas that stem from being God’s creatures. In this case we could make decisions more freely about life’s questions. But we don’t agree. It is better if we openly admit that. In our opinion, man will not be freer if he removes the barriers imposed on him by being a created entity. [Applause] In our opinion we don’t have to get rid of our sexual identity, our national identity. Here we cannot make concessions even if our reputation suffers. In these questions we can’t lie. The truth is that we don’t agree with the intellectual direction that considers itself progressive.

At least Orbán is honest here, which is something. It doesn’t happen too often. My other correspondent, who shared his reaction with me and many others, wrote: “I’m in despair. What should we do? What can we do? Our leader went mad. I feel sick!”

In the one published reaction to the video I found these words: “It rarely happens that I have to search for words, but it has happened. I looked at, I listened to the mad speech of our leader, and even without a degree in medicine I can say: we are in big trouble.”

What can I add to that? Perhaps I should correct the blogger who thinks that something is wrong with Orbán’s mental state. No, I am convinced that he is perfectly sane and that he believes every word in this speech as well as in many others. They are all variations on the same theme, except the message gets stronger with the passage of time. I wonder when the day will come that the Hungarian people as well as the European Union decide that they have had enough.

The Hungarian news agency in the service of the state

A few weeks ago György Bolgár, who practically never writes on politics in the daily press, could no longer stand it. He wrote an article in Népszabadság about “the death of MTI,” the Hungarian news agency.

In 2010 several changes were made in MTI reflecting Viktor Orbán’s far-reaching plans for the agency. First and most critical, the government announced that from there on the services of MTI would be free. No longer would only the better-off newspapers and electronic outlets be able to afford articles written by the correspondents of MTI. Everybody, even the smallest provincial paper, would have free access to their archives. Well, one could say, isn’t that grand? How democratic. But naturally, this was not the real aim of the Orbán government. By making MTI’s news service free, they made sure that only MTI could stay afloat in the Hungarian media market. And indeed, since then the other news agency closed its doors.

Second, Viktor Orbán ensured that only loyal supporters would be in top management at the agency. Third, the scope of the agency was greatly restricted; MTI today is only a shadow of its former self. And fourth, its independence had to be abolished. Indeed, over the last four years MTI has become a state organ serving propaganda purposes.

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The journalists working there are worried about their jobs and therefore tread lightly. Their reports go through several hands as one can see by the number of initials: “kkz, kbt, kto, kvs.” Four men or women were responsible for the article about The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő. Indeed, that is a very sensitive topic and no “mistakes” would be tolerated.

As György Bolgár contended in his article, the situation is worse now than it was in the Kádár regime. Then at least the journalists were told by the party what they could and what could not write about. Now frightened journalists are measuring their words on every subject at the MTI headquarters in Budapest. And they have good reason to be frightened: back in 2011 a seasoned correspondent to Berlin was sacked because of “wrong wording” in a report on conductor Zoltán’s Kocsis’s interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A couple of days ago Tamás Szele wrote an article, “English Lesson to MTI,”  in Gépnarancs.  In it he compared MTI’s reports on three important editorials from the United States about Viktor Orbán’s by now notorious speech on his vision of an “illiberal state.” The editorials appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I decided to devote a post to the subject as well because non-Hungarian speakers should be aware of how the Orbán government controls the flow of information. This topic is especially timely since it was only yesterday that we could read Neelie Kroes’s words on the self-censorship that is prevalent nowadays in Orbán’s Hungary. Gergely Gulyás in his answer to Kroes hotly contested the existence of any kind of self-censorship by pointing out the prevalence of anti-government articles in the Hungarian press.

So, let’s see how much the Hungarian newspapers who use the MTI newsfeed reported about the three editorials, starting with the Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “The ‘ Illiberal Idea Rises: Hungary’s Leader Issues a Warning to a Complacent West.” Anyone who knows Hungarian and is interested in comparing the original and the Hungarian version can visit MTI’s website. By my best estimate, MTI translated less than half of the article, leaving out some of the sentences uttered by Viktor Orbán that were deemed to be “unrepeatable.” For example, “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.”  They also did not think it judicious to mention Russia, Turkey, and China “as successful models to emulate.” MTI generously left in the charge that “he has chipped away at the country’s constitutional checks and balances” but they omitted the next sentence: “He has packed courts and other independent institutions with loyalists from his ruling Fidesz party, politicized the central bank, nationalized private pensions, and barred the media from delivering ‘unbalanced news coverage.'”

MTI also didn’t include the Wall Street Journal‘s reference to “the rise of Jobbik” and its claim that “Fidesz has often abetted and amplified, rather than confronted, Jobbik’s ugly politics.” But at least we could read in the MTI report that “Mr. Orban looks with admiration to Vladimir Putin–and harbors Putin-like aspirations.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the WSJ‘s claim that “the goal of resurrecting a Greater Hungary stretching beyond the country’s post-World War borders is no fantasy for many nationalist elites” remained.

Now let’s move on to Fareed Zakaria’s “The Rise of Putinism” in The Washington PostThis article was so mutilated that practically nothing remained of it. MTI did include the beginning of the article: “When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was the first country in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy. Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy.” The next three paragraphs, however, were left out. In these paragraphs were several important sentences. For example, Zakaria mentions his 1997 essay about “illiberal democracies” and writes that “even I never imagined that a national leader–from Europe no less–would use the term as a badge of honor.” Well, you can imagine that that sentence could not be translated. MTI did, however, report the following sentence: “Orban has enacted and implemented in Hungary a version of what can best be described as ‘Putinism.'”

Zakaria’s article proceeds with a short synopsis of Putin’s career between 1998 and now and mentions that “he began creating a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain his power.” Obviously, comparing the current Hungarian regime to a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain power was too much for the sensitivities of MTI’s journalists. But they thought that the crucial elements of Putinism–“nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism, and government domination of the media”–did not need to be censored.

The next paragraph again led to forbidden territory and thus remained untranslated: “Orban has followed in Putin’s footsteps, eroding judicial independence, limiting individual rights, speaking in nationalist terms about ethnic Hungarians and muzzling the press. The methods of control are often more sophisticated than traditional censorship. Hungary recently announced a 40 percent tax on ad revenues that seems to particularly target the country’s only major independent television network, which could result in its bankruptcy.”

The last paragraph of the article about Putin’s gamble in Ukraine remained. If he triumphs in Ukraine, he can come out of the conflict as a winner but if Ukraine succeeds in resisting Russian encroachment “Putin might find himself presiding over a globally isolated Siberian petro-state.”

Finally, let’s see what happened to The New York Times’s “A Test for the European Union” written by the newspaper’s editorial board. This was a true hatchet job. The editorial consists of five paragraphs, but the first four were completely eliminated. I guess it was time for “the most unkindest cut of all” because this editorial was the most hard-hitting of the three and the one that showed the greatest knowledge of the Hungarian situation. “Orban’s government has taken steps to undermine the rule of law, gut press freedom, attack civil society groups and increase executive power.” The editors of The New York Times recall that when the Constitutional Court struck down some of the laws that the government introduced, “the government simply brought them back as constitutional amendments.” The editorial mentions advertisement revenues, the pressure on civil society groups, criminalization of the homeless, and stripping 300 religious groups of their official status.

The New York Times was also well-informed about the Venice Commission’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s actions. They knew about Neelie Kroes’s criticism of the advertising tax, calling it “a threat to a free press that is the foundation of a democratic society.” In the editorial they note that Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, said that the EU should consider the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights. Naturally, none of these things could ever reach the eyes or ears of ordinary Hungarian citizens.

MTI accurately translated only the last paragraph, which contains some suggestions for the European Commission. “The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, needs to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing.” They suggest a decrease of the 21.91 billion euros the European Union has allocated to Hungary. They mention the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights as a possible step.

The aim of the massive cuts in this particular editorial is clear. Neglecting to mention the “sins” of the Orbán government and reporting on only the harsh treatment suggested by the paper, MTI is abetting the government’s efforts to portray the West as an antagonistic foe that wants to punish the Hungarian people for defending their independence and sovereignty. Poor innocent Hungary! I’ve already read comments from outraged Hungarian patriots who question the right of anyone to demand punitive action directed at their country and only a few hours ago Tamás Fricz, a propagandist masquerading as a political scientist wrote a vitriolic article in Magyar Nemzet, questioning the right of Americans to meddle in the affairs of the European Union.