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.
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.