Hungary: where editors tell reporters to disregard facts before their eyes

With elections imminent, some say independent media is in a weaker state than in communist 1980s

On Hungary’s national day last month Viktor Orbán accused the opposition of seeking to drag the country into Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The Hungarian prime minister’s highly questionable claim was the centrepiece of a 30-minute speech to supporters that was broadcast on the state TV channel M1 nine times in 24 hours. For Orbán, it was perfect coverage, as he seeks a fourth straight term in the country’s most closely fought election in years, on 3 April. The main opposition leader, Péter Márki-Zay, has also been on state TV: he got five minutes.

Orbán’s patriotic message was amplified by gushing tributes on government-friendly media. “Anyone who saw or heard Orbán’s annual assessment speech, saw a successful head of government at the height of his power … in which lightness and humour were as just present as the deep and highly complex web of a statesmen’s thoughts,” said the pro-government website PestiSrácok. Over on TV2, one of the main commercial channels, an evening news anchor declared: “I am going to support Viktor Orbán on 3 April.”

By contrast, it was hard to find coverage of this week’s press conference by Márki-Zay at a Habsburg estate reportedly owned by the prime minister’s father, Gyözö Orbán. Márki-Záy hammered away at one of his main themes: corruption. Pro-government news sites, such as Origo and Magyar Nemzet, did not mention the speech, nor did Hungary’s main news agency, MTI. The last-discovered reference the agency made to the Hatvanpuszta estate, alleged to have been subject to a lavish renovation, was more than 20 years ago.

Welcome to the media in Hungary, where NGOs are blacklisted, critical stories are binned and senior editors instruct journalists to disregard the facts before their eyes. “We have reached a situation where our position is now much much worse than it was back in the 1980s when Hungary was a communist country,” said one person with decades of experience of Hungarian state media, recalling the days when the central European country was described as “the happiest barracks” in the eastern bloc, for its relative freedom.

“The situation back then in terms of censorship and state interference in public service journalism is nowhere near, nowhere near, the situation right now,” the person told the Guardian.

People familiar with MTI, a source of news for other media, say there is a blacklist of organisations that cannot be reported on, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any attempt to write about their reports “is work done for the dustbin”, said a second source. And while there is no ban on reporting the opposition, “the coverage is profoundly lopsided in the sense that the coverage given to pro-government parties and politicians is disproportionately wider in range and scope”, one person said. “I would go as far as saying that the distribution is nine to one in the government’s favour.”

While these comments refer to the news agency, the rules are said to be identical across Hungary’s public service broadcasting organisation, MTVA, which houses state TV, radio and the news agency.

One senior MTI editor was said to have instructed journalists that international news agencies, such as Reuters and Associated Press, could not be trusted and should only be used for basic facts, not the wider context of their articles. Another senior MTVA editor, Balázs Bende, told staff after Joe Biden’s victory not to refer to him as US president-elect. “I’ve marked it with asterisks AGAIN that he is not president-elect, and he has not won until there is an official result,” Bende wrote in an internal mail, a copy of which has been seen by the Guardian. “And I don’t care if everyone is OK with this or not.” In another email sent more than a week after Biden’s victory was confirmed, Bende quoted Donald Trump to his staff: “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA.”

Instructions are not always needed. Senior editors are on message with the government line, an approach that worked, until Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing the traditionally pro-Kremlin Orbán government to condemn the war and side with the EU on sanctions. The script had changed, but nobody seemed to had told the state news agency, which described the invasion as a “Russian military operation” – echoing the Kremlin’s phrasing – for the first five days of the war.

M1’s Russia-friendly attitude reflected the editors’ personal agenda and confusion over how to frame the war, rather than any government order, according to three sources close to state TV. Another person familiar with MTVA said they did not believe the pro-Russia stance was intentional, but reflected the exodus of professional journalists at the top. “It’s not political, it’s unprofessional. The whole thing has been so messed up that there are no clear professional criteria.”

Pro-government media and numerous acolytes on Facebook have attacked the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, especially after he told Orbán to choose a side in Russia’s war on his country. Hungarian journalists joke bleakly that Zelenskiy is the new Soros, a reference to the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, who has been the main target of an antisemitic smear campaign by the Hungarian government and its supporters.

Magyar Nemzet published an article stating that Márki-Zay’s staff had contacted Zelenskiy. Ukraine’s embassy in Budapest accused the paper of “anti-Ukrainian scaremongering”.

Earlier this week, a complaint was filed to the European Commission alleging that Russian war propaganda has been “continuously disseminated” by Hungarian public media. The complaint from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Political Capital institute accuses Hungarian authorities of failing to place sanctions on public service media “when it presents disinformation as truth”.

The war may be recent, but the erosion of Hungary’s independent media has been unfolding since Orbán was elected again in 2010. His victory was soon followed by a media law that asserted government control over the main media regulator. In later years, independent newspapers and websites went bankrupt or were taken over by government-friendly buyers, squeezed, in part, by state advertising heavily tilted towards pro-government outlets.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s small cadre of independent media outlets have had their journalists targeted by Pegasus spyware. By 2021 the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights concluded: “The combined effects of a politically controlled media regulatory authority and distortionary state intervention in the media market have eroded media pluralism and freedom of expression in Hungary.”

While Hungary tumbled down international press freedom rankings, EU authorities were accused of standing by. More than a decade after the country dismantled its independent media regulator, the European Commission promised a media freedom act to protect independence and pluralism across the EU.

For Hungary’s opposition, slightly behind in the polls, it is too late to level the playing field. People familiar with Hungarian media do not expect any change if the current government remains in power: “The light we saw at the end of the tunnel in the late 80s is now behind us.”

Responding to the main points in this report, a government spokesperson said Hungary recognised and protected the freedom and diversity of the press. Media legislation, the statement said, prevented the emergence of information monopolies and ensured pluralism.

"“The government isn’t an authority directing the public service media. If you look at the Hungarian press, if you look at Hungarian radio and television, if you look at social media, you’ll see that there are very many different opinions, a wide-ranging palette. This is very different from the media in western societies. On the whole around 50% of the Hungarian media is Christian democrat, traditionalist and conservative, while the other 50% is progressive, liberal, left-wing and so on. This is what we call pluralistic media,” said the spokesperson.

MTVA did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations, including those concerning staff members named in this report.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Flora Garamvolgyi in Budapest

The GuardianTramp

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