Tag Archives: Nick Thorpe

Wholesale harassment of foreign journalists in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Although the transcript of Orbán’s speech about his government’s accomplishments in the last eight years, which he delivered this afternoon, is already available on the prime minister’s website, I will either postpone or perhaps even skip an analysis of it. Instead, today I will cover the muzzling of foreign correspondents who are posted in Budapest.

The phenomenon is not entirely new, but until recently only the government-sponsored media took it upon itself to attack journalists by name, some of whom were actually Hungarian nationals writing for foreign publications. Soon enough, however, Zoltán Kovács, who has the fancy title of Director of the International Communication Office, also entered the fray.

Kovács’s first victim was Lili Bayer, who did an interview with him for Politico in which she lauded Kovács by saying that “if Orbán’s critics, in Brussels and beyond, often seem unable to put a glove on him, it is thanks in large part to Kovács’s mastery of the political spin. He’s won respect, grudging from his detractors, as an effective and tireless mouthpiece of his boss.” But a Twitter comment that Bayer wrote raised the ire of Kovács. Bayer said that the anti-Soros campaign that started in September 2017 was anti-Semitic, and she compared it to the numerus clausus of 1920. Whether this is a correct comparison or not is beside the point. Governments must put up with an awful lot of criticism, some of which might not be fair but must be endured. In most civilized countries the law protects freedom of expression. Officialdom can’t blacklist journalists whose opinions they don’t like. But this is exactly what’s happening in Hungary. Since that incident Bayer is not allowed to attend official functions.

And she is not the only one who has encountered difficulties getting information. Zoltán Kovács admitted in an interview that on the very same day that he accused Bayer of being under the influence of drugs when she wrote her Twitter entry, two other journalists, a German and a Brit, also had to be “disciplined.” And, I’m afraid, the list is growing.

Just today newspapers reported that in the last year fewer articles about Hungary have appeared in the foreign press, but what has appeared has been more critical than previously. Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő accused foreign newspapers of meddling in the Hungarian election campaign on the side of the opposition. Three publications have been singled out: Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and The New York Times. This list, I’m sure, will expand in the coming months because I understand that several important papers that had no special correspondents in the region are planning to send journalists to Budapest. Also, the number of articles dealing with Hungary will undoubtedly multiply in the wake of the scandal created by OLAF’s revelations of widespread corruption linked to the family of Viktor Orbán. No matter how often Zoltán Kovács tells journalists that they are concentrating on unimportant issues instead of reporting the successes of the Orbán government in the last eight years, it is unlikely that critical articles will cease to appear in the foreign press. And if Kovács refuses to have any dealings with those critical voices, soon enough he will not be able to exchange a word with any of the foreign reporters.

Zoltán Kovács has a blog where he comments frequently on domestic and foreign affairs. On February 12 Patrick Kingsley wrote a biting article about Viktor Orbán in The New York Times, calling him one of the modern autocrats. In return, Kovács composed a letter of sorts titled “Dear New York Times: Hungarians are not stupid.” He told Kingsley that what he wrote in his article is actually old hat. Already in 2011 The Guardian was talking about “Hungary’s democratic ‘dictator in the making’ [who] takes center stage in Europe.” Kovács went on about all those articles that complain about the assault on the media, the judiciary, checks and balances, and the constitution. The article is “a classic example of the herd behavior of international journalists writing about Hungary, simply repeating without questioning.” Foreign journalists rely on information gleaned exclusively from spokesmen of the opposition, Kovács claimed. Actually, Kingsley did manage to get an interview with Kovács, but he was the only government official who was willing to talk to him. After this lecture, Kovács told Kingsley what he should have written about. He should have addressed successes like low unemployment, cutting the deficit, reducing the debt, restoring the credit rating to investment grade, and so on. These are the things that affect the lives of Hungarians, not what he and other foreign journalists write about.

Kovács continued: “We look forward to the visit of many international journalists to Budapest in the coming weeks in the run-up to that big day in April. For those journalists, here are a few suggestions. Try not to write your story before you arrive. Set yourself apart from the herd by starting your reporting from a different perspective. Try to answer the fundamental question at play in this election: if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoys such strong popular support (and the opposition such dismal support) that he is predicted to win a third consecutive term, why is that? And if you want to find a thoughtful answer to that question, get out and talk to real people.”

Kovács had scarcely finished his opus to The New York Times when two articles by Jennifer Rankin appeared in The Guardian on February 12 with the telling titles: “How Hungarian PM’s supporters profit from EU-backed projects” and “Orbán allies could use EU as cash register, MEPs say.” By that time, Kovács must have given up because he refrained from delivering another sermon about proper journalistic practices. But The Guardian was already one of the bête noires of the Orbán government on account of an article that appeared on January 11 titled “Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession.” It is a lengthy, thorough, beautifully written article that must have made Viktor Orbán and his closest associates extremely unhappy. I heard an interview with György Szöllősi, who is now the editor-in-chief of Nemzeti Sport, Orbán’s favorite sports paper, about the article shortly after it appeared in print. He was very upset about the negative picture of Viktor Orbán that emerged. That is not what they expected, especially after the journalists even had a chance encounter with Viktor Orbán himself, who opened up about his love of the game.

One of the authors of this article was Daniel Nolan, a freelance journalist who has a sterling reputation. He has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, VICE News, Deutsche Welle, and the Blizzard, among others. He writes mainly on Central and Eastern European media, culture, politics, and human rights.  In 2016 he was shortlisted for the 2016 European Press Prize for his article “Spinning the Crisis: How the Hungarian Government Played Europe’s Migrant Influx.” The Orbán government considers Nolan to be a paid propagandist, just as Kovács called Lili Bayer. He is one of those who are now taking part in the election campaign against Viktor Orbán and his government.

What happened to Nolan at János Lázár’s “government info” this past Thursday shows that a journalist doesn’t have to be banned from official government press conferences. It is enough to ignore him because his questions might be embarrassing or because the government bigwigs consider him to be unfriendly.

Mr. Nolan. There is an order of things. The rule is that it is I who calls on you.

Dan Nolan, who is currently working on a piece for Al Jazeera, was unable to get an interview with Zoltán Kovács, so he decided to attend János Lázár’s weekly press conference where Kovács serves as a kind of emcee. It mattered not how hard he tried to get recognized, Kovács ignored him until, I guess out of frustration, Nolan grabbed the mike and began asking a question. Or, rather, tried to ask a question. Kovács immediately intervened. When Nolan insisted, saying that he had only one short question, Kovács indicated that if he doesn’t stop he will be removed from the premises.

After opposition parties called the event “an outrage,” Kovács decided to address a letter to Nolan, whom he mistakenly identified as The Guardian’s correspondent. There are rules, Kovács explained, and “here is a basic one: A journalist who wishes to ask a question requests permission and may pose the question after being granted permission.” So far, one could even agree, but this was not the reason for Kovács’s ignoring Nolan. The problem was that he is “more a partisan activist than a professional journalist. Once upon a time, there was a rule for journalists, part of the code of ethics of the profession, to strive to be objective in covering the news and avoid behavior that would seem partisan or biased.”

Just as in the Lili Bayer case, Nolan is considered to be “a partisan activist” because on Twitter he posted some unflattering comments about the Orbán government. A day later an unnamed author in Magyar Idők explained the situation more fully. “It should be known that Daniel Nolan played the hero in the middle of the migration crisis. He called the reception centers concentration camps.” The powers-that-be have a good memory. They don’t forget and they don’t forgive.

Even old-timer Nick Thorpe of the BBC, who has had the reputation of being far too soft on the Orbán government, complained the other day on BBC Radio 4 that he has been unable to get interviews with government officials. In fact, a day after the Nolan affair he was called in by Zoltán Kovács and was read the riot act about his biased reporting and being a partisan activist. The last time Thorpe, who has been in Hungary since 1988, experienced something very similar, he said, was in the Kádár regime. That’s what Hungary has come to.

If Zoltán Kovács continues his harassment of foreign journalists, I can assure him that the coverage of his country in the international press will be even more critical. With good reason.

February 18, 2018

The Hungarian government and transparency: The case of the mentally disabled

On April 18, 2017, Pablo Gorondi, Budapest correspondent for the Associated Press, reported that the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), after visiting Topház Otthon (Top House Home) in Göd, 30 km from Budapest, a state-run institution for people with mental and physical disabilities, called for the closure of the institution. They uncovered signs of ill-treatment and malnutrition in the run-down facilities of the institution that houses 220 children and adults. Steven Allen, the group’s campaign director, said that “the conditions, abusive practice and evidence of violence … are the result of systematic failings in law, policy and regulation and a lack of effective and independent monitoring.” The report also pointed out that, according to the Central Statistical Office, there are some 25,000 people in Hungary with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues who have been placed in state institutions. The Hungarian government estimates that it would take 19 years to move these people to smaller homes. In addition to Gorondi, Nick Thorpe of BBC also filed a report about the “shocking conditions” found in the “home,” although he attached the opinion of an official of the Office of the Commissioner for Equal Rights who claims that “Topház is an extreme case.”

Of course, we have no idea whether this is really true since gaining access to these facilities is extremely difficult. Instead of going into the details of the terrible conditions found in all the wards MDAC visited, I will concentrate on the difficulties MDAC encountered in trying to gain access to Topház. Given the reluctance of the officials in charge of these facilities, they must be well aware of the conditions inside the walls of these institutions. Otherwise they wouldn’t prevent monitoring teams from entering the premises. Moreover, it is unlikely that Topház is an extreme case because investigative journalists over the years have called attention to similar problems at other facilities.

From the descriptions I read, the problems are systemic. One problem is that these institutions are regarded as “warehouses away from the public gaze,” as MDAC’s report aptly described their function. The mentally disabled are put there to be out of sight until they die. And they die with great frequency. When the associates of MDAC arrived, there was a black flag flying alongside the Hungarian national colors. What happens to those who die without a family to pay for a funeral I have no idea, but I was struck by the story a local told the reporter of Magyar Nemzet who visited the town after the release of MDAC’s report–that one of the employees of the institution became so attached to a patient that she herself took care of the funeral arrangements.

The facility, an old mansion, is ill-suited to its present function, and one doubts that any renovation has taken place since 1978 either inside or outside. Apparently, the size of the staff is totally inadequate, which results in confining people to their beds with all the adverse effects of such confinement. Psychiatric counseling is not available on site. The patients’ dental hygiene is deplorable. One could go on and on. All in all, the Hungarian state simply doesn’t spend enough money to maintain decent facilities for the mentally disabled.

The poverty of these institutions raises a vexing question. Topház and other similar institutions have received financing from European structural and investment funds administered by the Hungarian government. MDAC recommended that the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) open an audit and investigation into a breach of fundamental rights in the use of European funding. Considering the amount of corruption in Hungary, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the money that was supposed to be used to improve the facilities and the lives of their residents ended up in the pockets of those handling the funds.

Back in 2014 Index received permission to visit Topház where they found close to idyllic conditions. The patients were taken for excursions in the nearby forests, and physical therapists were working with some of them. The dining room was spotless and the children well dressed. Today they realize that the “show” was most likely organized for their benefit. With the exception of a few prearranged visits, Topház as well as all other facilities are closed to outsiders. For example, MDCA began their quest to receive permission to visit the premises on June 26, 2016. At that point, the director of Topház “expressed openness to collaborate” but two days later withdrew the invitation. It seems that the Directorate-General for Social Care and Child Protection (Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság/SZGYF) forbade him to allow MDAC’s visit.

After the initial denial MDAC wrote to the director of SZGYF seven times between July 1 and September 9, 2016. Then, on October 20, MDAC wrote to Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and social inclusion in the ministry of human resources, asking for a personal meeting. They received no answer. So, on November 3, MDAC wrote to Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, with copies to the Hungarian ombudsman and the Fidesz MP who chairs the parliamentary committee on persons with disabilities. This letter was also sent to a number of MPs in the hope that one of them would be willing to accompany the staff of MDAC to Topház since MPs have free access to such facilities. In theory, at least.

Bernadett Szél (LMP) agreed to go along, but when the group arrived in Göd, the deputy director of SZGYF, accompanied by the new director and the head nurse of the facility, were at the gate. They refused to let the monitoring team in. After Szél made a telephone call to the deputy undersecretary for social policy, the MP was allowed in for a short time while the monitoring team waited for her outside the gate.

In February 2017 permission was at last granted. After several preliminary visits, the MDAC team spent a whole day, April 18, 2017, inside the facility with “minimal supervision.”

Not even the presence of MP Bernadett Szél was enough to let MDAC enter the facility

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the horror story. Although the ministry of human resources, after reading MDAC’s report, suspended the director of the facility and promised that the facility would be closed as soon as possible, Zoltán Balog didn’t think the case needed his special attention. MDAC’s request to meet with him was denied. He sent Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and inclusion, to meet them–of all places–in front of the parliament building. He declined MDAC’s request to live stream the meeting, but he did promise access to the other facilities. However, “Mr. Czibere stressed that there would be ‘conditions’ to such access.”

The official state propaganda machine, Magyar Idők, chimed in on the incident. The first article, published yesterday, did say that the ministry of human resources had admitted “extremely bad conditions” in the facility, but the author felt compelled to point out that MDAC had been founded in 2002 by–drum roll–George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The paper also reported that several relatives of the patients had “rejected the accusations” in social media, and the paper managed to find a mother who spends three days a week at the facility. She testified that the employees of the facility have the best interests of the children in mind and there is not the slightest sign of neglect. So, reads the headline, “Is this a new smear campaign against our homeland?”

Magyar Idők’s second article, published today, was even more accusatory. This time the journalist said that MDAC’s visit was illegal and complained that the monitoring group should have gotten in touch with the ombudsman instead of snooping around the facility and “releasing information and pictures to The New York Times.” (In fact, the NYT simply republished the AP report I referenced at the beginning of this post.) In order to minimize the gravity of the situation, the author spent about half the article on a 1998 report of the ombudsman which pointed out that even at that time “the number of staff members is inadequate; the children don’t receive toys; there are too many beds with high railings; and the patients are overmedicated.” Finally, he repeated the claim that since one of the supporters of MDAC is Soros’s Open Society Foundation, “it is possible that—even if the charges are well founded—the goal is the disparagement of Hungary.”

This case is living testament to the necessity of having NGOs like MDAC, without which we would have known absolutely nothing about the dreadful conditions in Topház. As it is, the Hungarian government did its best to prevent us from ever learning about the true state of affairs in one of the state-run facilities for the mentally disabled.

May 6, 2017

Furious denial of any wrongdoing and rejection of a European solution to the refugee crisis

I would like to continue with yesterday’s theme for at least two reasons. One is that the report of Human Rights Watch on the brutal treatment of refugees along the Serb-Hungarian border has been confirmed by Nick Thorpe, Budapest correspondent of BBC, who paid a visit to two camps at Horgos and Kelebia where the conditions are, he said, appalling. Apparently, the Hungarian authorities could easily handle the registration of 100 people a day instead of the 15 they do now, so it is obvious that the aim is to slow the process to discourage people from crossing into the European Union through Hungary. A physician from Doctors Without Borders also confirmed “cases of intentional trauma that can be related to excessive use of force.” And Thorpe reported cases where refugees were already as far as 25 km from Budapest and yet were forcibly moved back to beyond the fence hundreds of kilometers away.

As for some of the most brutal acts of violence, they may have been committed by far-right members of paramilitary organizations patrolling the border on their own. This is speculation because the activity of such groups along the border is not officially acknowledged. And yet, although the Serb-Hungarian border is 175 km long, it is hard to believe that if such groups do indeed patrol the border and beat up refugees who cross illegally, officials are unaware of this fact.

The second reason for continuing this theme is that today the parliamentary undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, Károly Konrát, denied any and all wrongdoing. Human Rights Watch’s accusations are baseless. In fact, Hungary should be praised for its vigorous defense of the borders of the European Union. As for the humane treatment of migrants, again Hungary can only be praised. The government spends 140,000 forints a month on each refugee, more than the average Hungarian worker makes. Refugees receive three meals a day, a hygienic package, and medical treatment and medicine if needed. Of more than 17,000 illegal migrants, only eight filed complaints, and all eight cases turned out to be bogus.

As for the refugees whom Hungary doesn’t want, according to Nick Thorpe “the unofficial leader of the camp” at the border is a 25-year-old Afghan doctor who negotiates with the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality. Then there is the 23-year-old Syrian refugee who, after spending five days in a Hungarian jail, is now studying computer programming in Berlin in a program called ReDi. But it seems that the Hungarian government finds the idea of admitting desirable immigrants “inhumane and contrary to the European ideal.” János Lázár, for example, described such a practice as a “market place for human beings” where each country picks the “desirable” ones. He fears that Germany and other western countries will pick the best, leaving “the rejects” for the East Europeans.

As expected, the Hungarian government is both denouncing and falsifying the European Commission’s proposed reform of the asylum system, released yesterday. In the interest of truth, I think I should summarize its main points.

The overall procedure will be shortened and streamlined, and decisions will be made in a maximum of six months. Asylum seekers will be guaranteed the right to a personal interview as well as free legal assistance and representation during the administrative procedure. A guardian will be assigned to unaccompanied minors. New obligations to cooperate with the authorities will be introduced. All asylum seekers must have the same protection regardless of the member state in which they make their applications. In order to achieve this harmonization, the member states will be obliged to take into account guidance coming from the European Agency for Asylum. As bruxinfo.hu, a Hungarian internet site reporting on the affairs of the EU, pointed out, there is no talk here of compulsory quotas or punishment for non-compliance. Each year member states would announce the number of refugees they could accommodate. They would receive 10,000 euros for each refugee accepted.

rejection

So, let’s see how this was translated into Orbanite Hungarian by János Lázár this afternoon at his regular Government Info. In his reading, according to Dimitris Avramopoulos’s suggestion “Hungary would have to undertake the complete integration of immigrants forcibly brought into the country.” This is a preposterous idea, which “goes beyond the notion of compulsory settlement quotas.” While he was at it, he reminded his audience that the European Parliament accepted a proposal that would include heavy financial penalties if refugees were not accepted. Moreover, George Soros’s scheme of imposing extra taxes and/or other financial punishment on countries that refuse to participate in the program is “still on the table of the European Commission.” Lázár is referring to Soros’s speech, discussed here earlier.

Lázár is convinced that the “leftist delegations” of the European Parliament, together with the European Commission, work daily on their settlement schemes and keep coming up with new suggestions. That is why there is a need for the quota referendum, to be held on October 2. Lázár finds it impossible to believe that the European Commission will simply ignore the results of “direct democracy.” The referendum, instead of decreasing European integration, will actually strengthen it. It will be “a stabilizing factor.” Unfortunately, he didn’t elaborate on this claim. I would have been curious to see how our maverick Fidesz double-talker could possibly make his case.

Lázár, in talking about fines, repeated a piece of disinformation that the Hungarian government has spread far and wide in the last few days. Fidesz accused MSZP, DK, and LMP members of the European Parliament of voting in favor of a motion to fine states that refuse to participate in the migrant quota scheme. In fact, the report the European Parliament adopted says only that “a European approach is needed based on solidarity and a just distribution of the burden to resolve the migration and refugee crisis.” And, as it turned out, not only “leftist” members but also the vast majority of the European People’s Party, to which Fidesz belongs, voted for it.

You may recall János Lázár’s statement last week that he wouldn’t vote for Hungarian membership in the European Union today because of its migration policies. Of course, he said, this is his “personal opinion,” but a high government official, especially the man who is in charge of the disbursement of billions of euros received from the European Union, should not publicly share a “personal opinion.” Today he followed up, saying that “we didn’t secede from the Soviet Union in order to become a member of another union, but we left the Soviet Union so at least we can be independent and sovereign.”

Well, I don’t want to sound like a schoolmarm, but Hungary was never part of the Soviet Union. That, of course, is the least of the difficulties here. Hungarians desperately wanted to belong to the European Union, and at a referendum well over 80% of them voted for membership. Today, 75% still want to remain in the Union. With their vote at that referendum the Hungarian people authorized their government to give up some of the country’s independence and sovereignty. If Lázár, the second most important man in the Orbán government, insists on full independence and sovereignty, he should discuss it with his boss, and they should start making preparations for a Hungxit. And, while they’re at it, for their retirement from politics.

July 14, 2016