Tag Archives: MTV

The deadly embrace of Hungarian television propaganda

Yesterday, while waiting for the results of the anti-refugee referendum, I decided to take a look at Channel M1, one of Magyar Televízió’s four or five channels. This particular channel is devoted to news and political discussions. I must admit that I hadn’t bothered to watch it before, though of course I knew that since 2010, when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election, MTV had become a servile mouthpiece of government propaganda. I heard all the jokes about its being the Hungarian version of North Korean Television and that anyone who has a cable connection avoids M1 like the plague. Insufferable, unwatchable, disgraceful; these were the verdicts coming from Hungary. And then, yes, there’s the astonishing €160,191,200 yearly budget on channels few people watch, although MTV can be received across the country and beyond. (Of the private stations, only RTL Klub and TV2 have nationwide coverage.) Well, yesterday I took the plunge.

Watching Channel M1 while the voting was in progress was a shocking experience. The intensity of the propaganda could easily be compared to the times of Mátyás Rákosi–if, that is, Hungary had had television broadcasting in those days. Friends of mine who worked as journalists during the last two decades of the Kádár regime tell me that, despite the limitations imposed on them by the regime, they had more freedom than those journalists who still work at MTV. The better ones were fired years ago; those who remained do what they are told.

I hate to think how much money MTV spent on this last-minute campaigning for a valid and successful referendum. One reporter was sent to Belgrade to interview “migrants” who are stuck there. Another went to France. Another was dispatched to the “capital of Székelyföld,” which is a fiction of the Hungarian right since there is no way Romania will grant autonomous status to the two counties where Hungarian-speaking Szeklers are in the majority. Another journalist stood in front of a former refugee camp in Debrecen.

The anchor at intervals asked for the latest developments in Belgrade. The correspondent there reported that the “migrants” are breathlessly waiting for word on the outcome of the referendum. If it is not valid, they are planning to storm the Hungarian border first thing Monday morning. Ten or fifteen minutes later the anchor got in touch with the reporter in Belgrade again for “the latest developments.”

Then came the turn of the reporter from France. She was in the village of Allex in southeastern France where, as several French- and English-language papers reported in mid-September that“furious villagers have plunged France’s asylum system into chaos after demanding a vote on whether to kick out migrants re-homed in their neighborhood.” Allex had to take 50 refugees and the locals, egged on by the Front National, created a situation that became explosive. They demanded a referendum, which couldn’t be held because localities cannot decide on immigration issues. This news was picked up by right-wing Hungarian internet sources like Origo, 888.hu, and Pestisracok.hu around September 15. So MTV sent a special correspondent to this village to record a conversation with the mayor about “the lack of democracy” in France.

The reporter in Csíkszereda told MTV’s audience in Hungary about the great enthusiasm among the Szeklers for this referendum. Népszabadság’s Bucharest correspondent, who was also in Csíkszereda, reported otherwise. According to the Hungarian consul-general, 17,525 people asked for ballots and instructions to vote on Sunday but 11,820 (67.45%) didn’t bother to pick them up. In Cluj/Kolozsvár the situation was a bit better. All in all, there was not much to see in Csíkszereda. Most people had already voted by mail and, as we know, more than 16% of the ballots were invalid. According to the National Election Office, 30,705 ballots came from Transylvania before October 1.

Then came the story of all the atrocities that “migrants” had committed in the last year or so in Hungary. The reporter stood in front of the by now empty barracks that used to house refugees in Debrecen. The whole neighborhood was ruined, there was litter everywhere, fighting broke out over some dispute about the Koran, every time they wanted something some migrants climbed up on a tower and threatened to jump if their demands were not met. In short, it was sheer hell and, if migrants were allowed to enter Hungary, the whole country would be like that. The story then continued with the “terrorists” in Röszke who threw rocks at the policemen, people at the Keleti Station, and the march toward Vienna. A long litany of atrocities committed by the “migrants.”

Finally came a series of interviews with politicians and ordinary citizens who all voted no and who explained their weighty reasons for doing so. These stories were packed into one hour of non-stop propaganda, which was outright stomach turning.

television-propaganda

I decided to write about the hour I spent on the state propaganda channel of a so-called democratic country because the defeat of Orbán’s referendum is even more momentous when viewed in the context of this government attempt at brainwashing voters.

Although most foreign and domestic observers consider the result a colossal failure for the Hungarian government, the Fidesz leadership gathered stone-faced in front of a small and somewhat artificially enthusiastic crowd to announce the government’s great victory. Journalists were forbidden to be present. In a short speech Viktor Orbán shamelessly claimed that nine out of ten Hungarians voted for the sovereignty of Hungary. “Brussels or Budapest. That was the question and we decided that the right of decision lies solely with Budapest.” Although I often get confused with numbers, I’m pretty sure that 2,978,144 is not 90% of 8,272,624 eligible voters.

As for his future plans concerning a change of the constitution, it is about as illegal as the referendum itself was. I know that Jobbik will support it because Gábor Vona’s original suggestion was a simple change of the constitution, which Fidesz refused to consider and instead launched the referendum campaign. We don’t yet know whether the democratic opposition parties will present a common front. So far DK and MSZP have announced that they will boycott any parliamentary action concerning an amendment to the constitution. The small Magyar Liberális Párt also expressed its disapproval of changing the constitution on account of the refugee quota issue.

Tomorrow I will attempt to shed some light on the very complicated issue of the relationship between the referendum and the constitution. Meanwhile we will see how Orbán handles this new situation. I suspect with belligerence and even more hateful speeches against both the refugees and the opposition. 444.hu recalled today an interview with Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife, in Story magazine a couple of years ago. She told the reporter that her husband is unable to lose and gave a couple of examples. When they run together, he pretends that he is close to chocking and is far behind, but in the last minute he revives and sprints ahead, beating her. Only once did it happen that they took part in a ski competition where she came in first and he second. By the time the results were announced Orbán had arranged to separate the sexes, and thus he was first in the men’s category. He is always ready to change the rules of the game. I think this is what we can expect.

October 3, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s “national security experts” on terrorism

A change of pace. It’s time to have a little fun with those “national security experts” who diligently support the Orbán government’s propaganda campaign, which portrays asylum seekers as current or future terrorists who will be the scourge of Europe within a decade or two.

Here I will concentrate on three of these so-called experts: György Nógrádi, László Földes, and, the latest addition to this illustrious crowd, George Spöttle. It seems that the Hungarian media simply cannot get enough of these guys.

Let’s start with Nógrádi, who is the smartest and best educated of the bunch, though he has a checkered past. In 2009 researchers of the 1956 Institute identified him as one of a large group who were supposed to spread government propaganda at the time of the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs. The historians also discovered that in 1981 Nógrádi joined the internal security establishment. He received a cover name and was assigned an officer to whom he had to report. He denied the allegation, but his cover name, “Raguzza,” gave him away. He was known to be a lover of the former Yugoslavia, and Raguzza is the Italian name for Dubrovnik. In any case, the 1956 Institute didn’t remove his name from their list. Until recently he taught at Corvinus University, but last year he was invited to teach at the new National Civil Service University. It looks as if his past sins have been forgiven by Fidesz.

György Nógrádi

György Nógrádi

The past of László Földi is not exactly pristine either. Born in 1956, he was a devoted member of the Communist Youth Organization (KISZ) all through high school and later at the Ho Chi Minh Teacher’s College in Eger. Földi never spent any time teaching. After graduation he joined the Hungarian intelligence service (III/I), where he became the party secretary. After the regime change Földi’s career didn’t suffer until the fall of 1996, when the socialist minister in charge of the intelligence service removed him from his position. I can’t go into the very complicated story that became known as the Birch-tree Affair, but it seems that Földi wasn’t only investigating criminal activities in the Hungarian-Romanian-Ukrainian border area but also socialist politicians, and that he may have passed this information on to Fidesz. At this point Földi became a businessman. Later, during the first Orbán administration, he received a lot of government orders and became quite rich. Ever since his retirement from the intelligence service he has been one of the experts on national security matters.

László Földi

László Földi

We know only as much about the life of our third expert, Georg Spöttle, as he decided to share with us. He had to have been born around 1960, and his father was “a Hungarian from Marosvásárhely (Târgu-Mureș)” who didn’t figure in his life but as far as he knows was a diplomat. His mother, whose maiden name was Spöttle, was a German who during the war ended up in Hungary. Since his father didn’t care about him, he decided to take his mother’s name. In 2002 he claimed that he had spent about half his life in Germany, where he was drafted into the German army. Because he speaks four languages, the German military intelligence approached him with a job, which he gladly accepted. He claims that in that capacity he spent a great deal of time in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. Oh, yes, before I forget, Spöttle was once abducted by UFO’s, as the blogger of orulunkvincent.blog.hu discovered.

George Spöttle

Georg Spöttle

All three of these experts are forewarning the Hungarian public of the immense dangers that await Europeans. Let’s start with Nógrádi, who predicts that in twenty years Europe will be in the midst of civil war, ethnic tensions, and total chaos.  He was one of the first “experts” who suggested building a barbed wire fence. The reason for keeping these people out is Nógrádi’s conviction that Middle Eastern immigrants cannot be integrated into European society. How to keep the new immigrants out? Simple, sink the boats that bring them to Europe’s shores. “They say that this is inhumane. My answer: they should have been sunk a long time ago.”

Földi’s favorite theme is that Europe is at war. A war that was started by the United States and her allies and that by now has reached Europe in the form of the influx of migrants. They are foot soldiers sent by ISIS to destroy Europe. He is convinced that there is a whole intelligence network behind the refugees whose members organize the movement of the people. “This is a consciously planned, built-up system in which everybody to the last man is channeled in.” All of them receive instructions from the organizers. Földi believes that the intelligence agencies of European countries are fully aware of all this and that, if the fence is not enough, “if necessary even weapons must be used.”

Földi is busy. Every three or four days he comes up with a newly-discovered horror story. A couple of days ago he told the public that Hungary by now is absolutely full of spies, just like Vienna used to be during the Kádár period. Hungary is both politically and economically a stable country and therefore it has become a favorite place of foreign secret services. Földi claims that there are many night clubs in Budapest where groups of foreign intelligence officers can be seen because “they want to demonstrate their presence.”

And then there is Georg Spöttle. He is also convinced that the refugees are not escaping from ISIS but on the contrary are being sent by the Muslim extremists. In his opinion, the European intelligence agencies have known since spring that ISIS is planning another 9/11 in Europe, adding that 85% of the migrants are young men of military age. “Once these muscled young men grab guns, God save Europe!”

On state television Spöttle and Földi were asked to comment on certain files found on an abandoned cell phone that the “experts” of TEK had already identified as proof of the owner’s terrorist affiliation. The program dealing with these files was about ten minutes long. Besides Spöttle and Földi, another former secret service official, József Horváth from the Kádár era, was also interviewed. Horváth’s name should be familiar to those who followed the case of UD Zrt, for whom Horváth worked after he was sacked by the secret service in the socialist period. UD Zrt spied on the government on behalf of Fidesz. All three people took it for granted that an especially gruesome picture found on the phone was proof that the phone belonged to a terrorist.

Enter János Széky, a columnist for Élet és Irodalom, who charges that either the so-called experts are total dolts who know nothing about the subject they keep talking about or that MTV, with their help, is knowingly falsifying the facts. The title of Széky’s article, which appeared in parameter.sk, is “They found Ivan in Röszke,” a cryptic one. All of you who can read Hungarian should read the original, which I’ll summarize here for those who cannot.

There is one picture that the great experts found indicative of the mentality of these terrorist soldiers who are already in Europe. According to Spöttle, who helped the audience interpret the picture, on the photo there is “a dead infant with a weapon in one hand and a dagger in the other; around the child there are empty liquor bottles.” People who carry such pictures on their phones are pseudo-refugees. M1’s Híradó (News) blurred out the picture of the child.

Széky became curious and, with the help of Google Image Search, in no time found the original of the picture. On the original the child is not dead but is a well-fed baby. So, the staff of M1’s news lied; after all, they were the ones who blurred out the child’s picture. But it is just as bad if not worse that the picture has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East. It is an old baby picture of Ivan Guzmán, the oldest child of Joquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the hunted drug lord of Mexico. In addition to this picture, Híradó also showed Arab-language videos which, according to Spöttle, were produced by ISIS for recruiting purposes. Széky found these videos on YouTube and with the help of an Arabic-speaking friend found out that, in fact, these videos condemn ISIS and claim that the group’s extremism has nothing to do with Islam. So much for the “experts” whose opinions are so useful to the Orbán government’s anti-refugee propaganda campaign.

And finally, just a brief return to László Földi, whose latest salvo is that Angela Merkel should resign because she is “entirely incapable of leading the continent.” Europe is engaged in a war and “since when did a woman win a war?” asked the former history major. Several papers pointed out that Földi should have learned in elementary school about Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom managed quite well in times of war.

The reorganization of Hungarian state television: An attack on RTL Klub and HírTV

Today let’s begin with one of András Bruck’s observations about Viktor Orbán which, according to him, explains a lot about the system he has been busily building in the last five years. And that is vengeance.  If someone stands in his way, he retaliates. Orbán is someone who orders the closing of the research institute headed by his former undersecretary of agriculture, József Ángyán, because he criticized the government’s land lease program. He is someone who blocks the appointment of a history professor because he happens to be the son of a man who is critical of the regime. He is the kind of person who cuts off sponsorship of the Paks football team because the city’s voters did not elect the “right” man for mayor last October.

The latest example of Orbán’s vindictive nature is the reorganization of MTV, which is supposed to function as an independent public television station but which by now is nothing more than a government propaganda machine. Admittedly, MTV badly needed a face lift. Quite a few years ago Sándor Friderikusz submitted an application to head Hungarian public television. In it he outlined the need for separate news, sports, and cultural channels instead of trying to squeeze everything into one channel, from religious services to sports events to soap operas. Friderikusz, of course, didn’t stand a chance of getting the job because of his liberal political views. Moreover, the public was told that to reorganize MTV along the lines Friderikusz proposed would be far too expensive. Well, these days MTV costs Hungarian taxpayers more than 80 billion forints for programs nobody wants to watch. And yet there is now money for multiple channels.

Somewhat belatedly, the Orbán regime came to the conclusion that after all it was a good idea to have several channels with different media content. In addition to MTV there is Duna TV, which was established to target the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin. I don’t know how popular Duna TV is outside of Hungary’s borders, but I understand that it’s not watched much by the locals. Now it will be the “mother ship” of the reorganized MTV. It will be “the chief television station of the nation” while M1, the former mainstay of the network, will be a second BBC cum CNN. This is at least what government officials promise. They even hired a Brit, Simon Jago, who worked for BBC and al-Jazeera, to head the news channel. I wonder how long he will last once he realizes that he is supposed to run a propaganda machine. But I guess as long as he doesn’t understand the language all will be well.

In addition, there will be a sports channel (M4) and Petőfi TV, which is described as a channel for youngsters and young adults. Way back in October when the plans were first announced, 444.hu made fun of this swinging new channel “offered to the lovers of public media.” It is a well-known fact that no young adult ever watches stodgy state television. But perhaps Petőfi will do the trick.

We know that Viktor Orbán can never leave anything alone. He must turn everything upside down. Therefore it is understandable that he wants to reshape the state television network. But in this case there is more to it. The reorganization of state televison has the added benefit of making the lives of two “enemies” very difficult. I’m thinking here of RTL Klub and Lajos Simicska’s HírTV. Petőfi TV will be taking on RTL Klub while M1’s news channel will compete with HírTV.

RTL Klub is the most popular commercial television station in Hungary. The channel airs programs aimed at a younger (18–49) audience, which some high-brow people consider to be mindless entertainment. RTL Klub wanted to remain on friendly terms with the government and therefore the station’s news program did not dwell on the darker side of the Orbán regime. They rarely announced news that was uncomfortable for the government. But RTL Klub’s subservient attitude did not satisfy Viktor Orbán, who decided to drive the company out of the country by levying an inordinately large tax on its advertising revenues. RTL Klub did not take the assault lying down, and the news editors began filling their evening programs with juicy stories about the corruption cases involving government officials and friends of Viktor Orbán. The war was on. The move backfired. RTL Klub’s audience soared, and many observers are convinced that RTL Klub’s decision to “enlighten” its younger audience contributed substantially to the general dissatisfaction with the government that has been growing rapidly of late.

And there is the another problem for Viktor Orbán–his old childhood friend, Lajos Simicska, whom Orbán once described as a financial genius. Simicska became a very wealthy man, an oligarch with great political influence. There was a division of labor between Simicska and Orbán that seemed to be beneficial to both. In the last six months, however, there has been more and more talk about their falling out. Perhaps Orbán thinks that Simicska’s political influence is no longer in his own interest and would like to see him out of the picture.

Whatever the case, in addition to his company, Közgép, which has received 44% of all government contracts financed by the European Union, Simicska has a media empire that includes Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Both have a very bad reputation as far as reliability is concerned. Magyar Nemzet must have been sued at least 300 times for publishing false information. HírTV is also notorious for falsified stories and the unprofessional behavior of their reporters. In fact, at some of the demonstrations people chanted all sorts of derogatory slogans about HírTV, and in one case one of their reporters was roughed up a bit. HírTV’s staff worked hard and with enthusiasm for the cause, but now they are no longer the favorites of the regime. Most likely they are the victims of the Orbán-Simicska feud. HírTV’s fate was sealed when it refused to air Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal speech” in Romania last summer.

Source: Válasz

Source: Válasz

Who would ever have believed that the vice president of HírTV would give an interview to the social democratic Népszava? But that is exactly what happened. Péter Szikszai, vice president of HírTV, told the reporter that it has been clear to them from the initial announcement of the plan that the creation of an MTV news channel was a move against HírTV. The creation of this new channel will cost an additional 4-5 billion forints, but experts doubt that it will be a success given the reputation of MTV. Neither HírTV nor ATV, which also specializes in news, worries about the launch of M1.

Szikszai was not kind to MTV when he predicted that the new state television news station will be full of “production reports” (termelési riportok), which were the standard fare of television news in the Kádár regime. Surely, HírTV will have no difficulty competing with such programming. They have more than ten years of experience and are ready to pick up the gauntlet. Such attacks only make them stronger. They will forge ahead without changing their profile. “Despite the advertising tax and the launch of a rival station, we will do what the job of a right-wing television station is. Even if at the moment a right-wing government does not like us.”

This last sentence sounds ideologically correct from the vice president of a right-wing TV station, but I somehow doubt that the content of HírTV will be exactly the same as it has been in the last ten years. I wonder whether they will follow RTL Klub’s example and send out their aggressive reporters who until now have gone after only opposition politicians to do the same with the members of the government that “does not like them at the moment.” Because if this is the case, Viktor Orbán’s vengeful plan may backfire.

László Toroczkai: Quite a career from the siege of MTV to the mayor of a small town

Hungarian media and the public attuned to politics have been unable to recover from the shock of a by-election in Ásotthalom, a larger village near Szeged, close to the Serbian border. László Toroczkai, an infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities, became the new mayor of the borough. How could this have happened?

“Political scientists” offered some highly unlikely explanations for this outrage, but these people rarely move from their desks in Budapest and therefore have no first-hand knowledge of local  politics and the politicians who more often than not influence the outcome of these elections. Moreover, they rarely bother to delve into the background of events they try to analyze. I who couldn’t just drive down to Ásotthalom had to gather information from at least two dozen sources before I had a fair idea of what was really going in that village.

Two of these political scientists, Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progresszív Intézet (which is becoming less and less progressive) and Zoltán Ceglédi of Republikon Intézet, blamed the democratic opposition for not coming up with a candidate of their own and thus letting Toroczkai be the sole challenger of Ferenc Petró, the former mayor who was just ousted by four of the six members of the council. Let me add that Ferenc Petró has been the mayor of Ásotthalom for sixteen years. Earlier he ran as an independent although the locals knew that he was a Fidesz man. In 2010 Petró decided that there was no longer any reason to hide behind the “independent” label and ran officially as the candidate of Fidesz.

As for blaming the democratic parties (MSZP, Együtt14 and DK) for Toroczkai’s victory, that is total nonsense. The inhabitants of Ásotthalom are known to be super loyal Fidesz voters. At the 2010 national election Fidesz-KDNP received 1,261 votes while MSZP got a mere 205. And yes, there were 164 Jobbik voters. Not an overwhelming number. Petró, the mayor ever since 1998, always won handily. He never had less than 55% of the votes, and there was at least one year when he received 70% of the votes. I would like to see a candidate of the left challenge this Fidesz mayor, however unpopular he is at the moment.

So, what happened? Ásotthalom’s budget shrank due to the policies of the Orbán government and the mayor of the village had to introduce austerity measures. Half of the staff of town hall was let go. Petró was heard making critical remarks about the government’s policies concerning municipalities and had conflicts with the district’s Fidesz member of parliament. According to some sources, Fidesz no longer supported Petró and perhaps even encouraged the four disaffected members of the council to dissolve it and force a by-election. Rumor has it that they had their eye on one of the Fidesz members of the council who in the last minute decided to drop out of the race. That left the door open to our neo-Nazi Toroczkai who moved into the village just this summer. He won with 71.5% of the votes. Mind you, only 37.4% of the voters bothered to go to the polls.

I wrote several times about this young man. He was involved in so many far-right, neo-Nazi organizations that I’m sure one could spend days listing them all. Looking through the laundry list, I’m convinced that in a western country this man would already be sitting in jail instead of running for office.

toroczkai, MTV

László Toroczkai’s great moment in front of the building of the Hungarian Television on September 19, 2006

Toroczkai was born with the pedestrian name of László Tóth, but surely such a great Hungarian patriot cannot be called Mr. Slovak. (Tót means Slovak in Hungarian.) He picked the name Toroczkai, allegedly because his ancestors came from the town of Torockó/Râmetea, naturally in Romania. After all, someone who established the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to Greater Hungary’s counties, must find his origins somewhere outside of the Trianon borders.

As a high school student Toroczkai had a lucrative business smuggling alcohol and cigarettes from Subotica in Serbia to Szeged where he lived. He began his political career in 1998 at the age of twenty as a candidate of MIÉP. In the same year he became parliamentary reporter for István Csurka’s anti-Semitic Magyar Fórum. On the side, he organized a paramilitary organization called Special Unit of the Sons of the Crown, and a couple of years later in 2001 he set up HVIM, which became one of the most important organizations on the far right. He became known nationally when he led the mob from Kossuth Square to the building of MTV in September 2006. The crowd he led stormed, burned, and eventually occupied the building. During the siege 190 policemen were wounded, some of them seriously. The damage to the building was considerable, costing millions to repair. There were two attempts to charge him for his role in the attack, but both times he was acquitted. Nothing happened to him even when he threatened to murder Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

After Fidesz won the election Toroczkai kept a low profile. And once in Ásotthalom he took on a whole new persona. He frequents the local Catholic Church. The parish priest, who didn’t like the former mayor because he didn’t let the public workers cut the grass of his parish, supported him. Toroczkai is married by now to a Romanian woman from Moldavia and the two have a child. The inhabitants of the village consider him a devoted and caring father. He also seems to have business interests in and around the village where a number of his voters managed to get jobs. In brief, he is popular, especially since he assured the people of Ásotthalom that there will be no austerity program and he himself will work for minimum wage. Moreover, according to a reporter of Népszabadság from Szeged who visited the village, it is almost certain that the majority of the voters have no idea of Toroczkai’s neo-Nazi career and his anti-Gypsy, anti-Jewish, anti-gay and anti-lesbian past and most likely present. The few videos I saw of him showed a young, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who takes his job seriously.

What will happen now? The town hall of Ásotthalom was in a great hurry to make sure that the borough’s website was immediately updated. Toroczkai’s name is already there for everybody to see. Toroczkai has no administrative experience, and the same is true about the new members of the council. Also, one doesn’t know what Toroczkai’s real plans are over and above those soothing words about the great future Ásotthalom will have under his leadership. At one point he wanted to create “a parallel state” in Hungary. I wonder whether it is his secret plan to set up one in Ásotthalom.

Ferenc Kumin’s encounter with Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller, the well-known Hungarian philosopher, is once again in the news. This time on account of a brief appearance in a Swedish television documentary on the state of Hungarian culture and politics, with particular emphasis on the extreme right.

Do you remember the case of the liberal philosophers whom the newly elected (and neither liberal nor philosophical) Orbán government accused of embezzlement? That was in January 2011 when the official inquisitor, Gyula Budai, entrusted with “uncovering mass corruption” on the part of politicians and, it seems, philosophers as well, began his investigation. Budai’s efforts bore no fruit. Of about 140 cases only a handful actually made it to court, and most of those ended either in acquittal or in a light, suspended sentence on questionable grounds. Eventually Budai’s position was eliminated and he was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where his greatest concern is the price of watermelons.

It took a year before the philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were cleared of any wrongdoing but not before news of their harassment spread far and wide. After all, Ágnes Heller is a very well-known person and her friends and admirers are influential people. Viktor Orbán and his underlings should have known better than to pick a fight with her. She is both pugnacious and scary smart. Moreover, she doesn’t give a hoot about government threats. If she wasn’t silenced by the Kádár regime when she was officially accused of treasonous activities and forced into exile, she certainly will not be frightened by threats coming from an assistant undersecretary entrusted with  “foreign communication,” better described as worldwide propaganda extolling the virtues of the Orbán government and defending it against malevolent attacks.

I’m talking about Ferenc Kumin who as far as I know is still working on his Ph.D. dissertation in political science. I don’t know how he finds time for his studies given his crowded schedule, which also includes a lot of traveling. Only a week or so ago he was in Washington trying to convince Jewish organizations that the Hungarian government’s support of the Jewish community is exemplary. I understand they were not moved. When he is at home he tracks every word uttered by foreign politicians or written by journalists he finds politically objectionable. In addition, he busies himself with writing an English-language blog and, unlike some, he takes his writing seriously. How much of it is written by him and how much is drafted in some Washington PR firm, I’m not sure.

Kumin’s position is new. He is one of those undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries who are attached to the Prime Minister’s office and who have usurped the Foreign Ministry’s traditional role. I just read an M.A. thesis by Lili E. Bayer (Hungary’s Turn to the East, Oxford, 2013) on Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern opening” in which the author found that only 8.75% of bilateral meetings were led by officials of the Foreign Ministry as opposed to 36.25% by the Prime Minister’s Office!

Every summer Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world go home for a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry and attended by the prime minister, who delivers a speech. During the very first such gathering in 2010, Viktor Orbán strongly urged all the ambassadors to raise their voices every time they noticed any attack on Hungary in the country’s press.

Some of the ambassadors, especially the political appointees, took this advice seriously, perhaps not realizing that such an ambassadorial reaction, either oral or written, is unbecoming the official representative of a foreign country. I suspect that the old-timers in the foreign ministry were not too eager to follow Orbán’s ukase. Among those who took Orbán’s advice to heart were the ambassadors to Vienna and London. They have been very active and as a result, I’m sure, have made themselves singularly unpopular in the countries to which they are accredited. Now it seems that the newly appointed ambassador to Sweden, Lilla Makkay, who is actually a foreign ministry veteran, has joined them and subsequently received the treatment she deserved.

The occasion for the interference by Ferenc Kumin and Lilla Makkay was a half-hour program on the Swedish public television station about Hungary. The Hungarian government considered it to be one-sided because there were a lot of references to the growth of the Hungarian extreme right. Makkay called Kristofer Lundström, the man responsible for the series in which this particular documentary was broadcast, and complained. Moreover, she was annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted before the broadcast of the film. She invited him for a friendly chat at the embassy, I guess in order to enlighten him about the true state of affairs in Hungary.

Officials of Swedish Television (SvT) found the Hungarian reaction peculiar. They looked upon Makkay’s telephone call as “putting pressure” on them. Earlier, before the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it was customary for reporters wanting visas to go behind the Iron Curtain to receive “invitations” by ambassadors. But by now western journalists are simply not accustomed to such heavy handed and undiplomatic reactions. Alas, it was not without reason that Lajos Bokros in his October 23 speech called Fidesz politicians “neo-communists.”

Magyar Nemzet, whose reporters supported the Hungarian government’s efforts to influence the independent Swedish Television, most likely found the Swedish ambassador’s answer incomprehensible: she sent them to SvT if they have any questions or observations. The article that reported on the case called it a shirking of responsibility. Obviously, for them, the true independence of Swedish TV is unfathomable.

Meanwhile Ferenc Kumin decided to get involved in the affair. On his Facebook page–because Kumin is also active there–he wrote an impertinent letter to the highly respected philosopher twice his age. Kumin described Ágnes Heller as a prominent philosopher who, “with a background in Marxist thinking … as her Wikipedia biography points out, has clear political sympathies and antipathies.” Thus Kumin “reached out to Dr. Heller to ask her to join [him] in protesting the Swedish documentary and to clarify some of her statements, which [he] felt were factually incorrect or distorting in the way they depict Hungary.” Moreover, he suggested that Heller quote the current government slogan: “Hungary is doing better!”

Ssource Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Source Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Ágnes Heller wrote back. Here is gist of the letter she sent to Kumin. She first thanked him for making her 40 years younger than she is because it was at that time that she was called to account by the Kádár regime for signing a petition alongside counterrevolutionaries. (Here Heller is referring to the  Charta 77 in which about 100 prominent people protested the crushing of the Prague Spring. She was one of the signatories and, if I recall correctly, the only one from behind the Iron Curtain.) She continued: she can give Kumin the same answer she gave to the authorities then. Everywhere, on every forum, she expresses her own views regardless of who is asking her, be it Swedish TV or the Hungarian Kossuth Rádió, that is, if the Kossuth Rádió would ever ask her for an interview. She certainly didn’t quote the slogan “Hungary is doing better” because she doesn’t think that it is true. Finally, she asked Kumin whether he really considers the programs of MTV or MR balanced. What’s going on in those programs is the talk of parrots. She suggested to Kumin: “forget what you hear and occasionally consider that other people’s opinion can differ from yours.”

Yesterday she followed up with an amusing interview on ATV. It is always a pleasure to listen to her. She is delightfully forthright. During the interview she responded to the government’s latest suggestion of jail sentences for investigative reporters who publish audio tapes or videos which turn out to be fakes: “Well, that’s something.” She then stopped for a bit and continued: “this is the last nail in the coffin of the freedom of the press.” I wish there were more brave men and women like Ágnes Heller. Admittedly, she is untouchable. They can ignore her but they can’t silence her, no matter how much they would like to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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