In the last few months I have noticed a growing interest in the spread of “fake news” in the government-sponsored media, which Péter Krekó of Political Capital calls “government-organized media.” This is an important topic, given the government’s power over these media outlets and the amount of money it spends to keep them alive. It is a well-known fact that all regional papers are in the hands of pro-Fidesz oligarchs and that their content is provided from the center. Excellent graphs in an article published by Átlátszó at the end of November show the preponderance of government media. Through its daily and weekly papers, internet sites, and radio and television networks, Fidesz-government propaganda reaches 8.7 million people, whereas critical voices get to only 3.1 million. The only media surface where there is more or less parity is the internet, where 50% of the sites are government critical as opposed to 37% pro-Fidesz sites.
It would take a great deal more study of the “government-organized media” before one could give a full picture of how it is structured and what its end-goal is in spreading fake news. An incredible number of news items and opinion pieces appear in solidly Fidesz publications, such as Magyar Idők, Magyar Hírlap, and Demokrata, in which real and fake news are intertwined. The fake news items originate mainly in Russia and the United States.
Russian news and propaganda comes via English-language channels like Russia Today and Sputnik. The former is already available in Hungary for subscribers to a UPC package that includes CNN, BBC, and now RT. But since few people in Hungary speak English and, as László Seres claims, the “Eastern Opening” is not popular, most Hungarians are not being subjected to Russian propaganda directly. Instead, it is right-wing Hungarian journalists who rely on the news provided by these Russian propaganda sources and spread it, primarily through Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap.
A few months ago the rumor circulated that RT will start a Hungarian-language TV network, but this was just talk. Péter Krekó is right: to establish such a network would be a total waste of money since the Hungarian government is serving up Russian propaganda quite willingly. As for Seres’s claim that the majority of Hungarians are against the “Eastern Opening,” this might be true, but there is a large minority that is passionately pro-Russian and admires Vladimir Putin to no end. The other day both Magyar Hírlap and Mandiner, an online news site, published opinion pieces expressing their disgust at the European Union’s criticism of the Russian authorities’ decision to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running in next year’s presidential election. The comments that followed these articles showed a great deal of sympathy for Putin and the Russia he has built. This pro-Russian crowd is still a minority, but, with the help of the Hungarian government-sponsored media, pro-Russian sentiment is growing.
Pro-government Hungarian media outlets also rely on internet news sites that practically specialize in fake news and conspiracy theories. Infowars is one of these, which is quoted often enough in Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Idők. Media Bias/Fact Check, which styles itself as “the most comprehensive media bias resource,” describes Infowars as “extreme right.” It is considered to be “a questionable source [that] exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, overt propaganda, poor or no sourcing to credible information and/or is fake news.” Infowars uses material from Russian propaganda news sites and from conspiracy websites such as Zero Hedge.
One can also find references in the Fidesz media to Your News Wire, which is described by Media Bias/Fact Check as belonging to the “conspiracy-pseudoscience category,” which may publish unverifiable information that is not always supported by evidence. Another source that crops up in Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Idők is Daily Caller, which is “moderately to strongly biased toward conservative causes through story selection and/or political affiliation.” Daily Caller uses strongly loaded words in an attempt to influence, and they publish misleading reports or omit reporting of information that may damage conservative causes. All in all, the foreign news that reaches the readers of government papers, whether it comes from Russia or the United States, is strongly biased at best and fabricated at worst.
Let me give an illustration from an opinion piece written by István Lovas, in which I read the incredible news that “American military forces that are staying illegally in Syria enable ISIS terrorists to participate in military exercises at their military base near Al-Tanf.” The news reached Hungary thanks to the good offices of Russia Today. This astonishing news was reported by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Russia and first deputy defense minister. The Russians have proof: satellite sighting and intelligence reports. I found only one article, on a right-wing internet site called Strategic Culture Foundation, that carried the news today. The problem is that their source was the same Russia Today that was also the source for Lovas. Strategic Culture took the alleged news seriously and created quite a story around it, accusing Donald Trump of a dirty double game.
Finally, there are some western journalists who spread pro-Russian propaganda. Botond Bőtös of Átlátszó wrote an article recently about F. William Engdahl, an American writer based in Germany. As Wikipedia puts it, “he identifies himself as an economic researcher, historian and freelance journalist.” Engdahl’s propaganda, via Hungarian intermediaries, reached Hungary as well. There might be a connection between his old preoccupation with “George Soros and his financial network” and Viktor Orbán’s propaganda campaign against Soros.
All in all, the Hungarian government media serves Russian propaganda well, thanks to a number of domestic and foreign pro-Russian propagandists busily spreading the word.