As Hungary prepares for parliamentary elections, independent journalists have become a target of the pro-government media outlets. This follows a speech by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban at the end of July at Tusványos, the annual Fidesz jamboree in Băile Tușnad, Romania, during which he said: “We must stand our ground against the Soros mafia network and bureaucrats in Brussels, and will have to go to battle against the media they operate in the coming months.”
Orban’s message at Tusványos is considered a preview of what to expect from the Hungarian government in the following months. A few days after the speech, Magyar Nemzet daily reported that the prime minister’s words signal a clear change in tactics: instead of defaming independent media outlets and their owners, pro-government media outlets started going after prominent journalists, known for their work of exposing the corruption of the Hungarian government.
During September 2017, pro-government media outlets started publishing articles discrediting leading Hungarian journalists critical to Orban’s regime.
On 5 September 2017, 888.hu published a list of journalists accused of being “mouthpieces” for George Soros, who has been called a “national security risk” and a “public enemy” by Orban for allegedly supporting the mass immigration of Muslims into Europe.
“The international media, with a few exceptions, generally write bad things about the government because a small minority with great media influence does everything to tarnish the reputation of Hungary in front of the world — prestige that has been built over hundreds of years by patriots,” 888.hu wrote.
Among those listed are Lili Bayer, a journalist working for Politico, László Balogh, a Pulitzer-winner photographer, Márton Dunai, Gergely Szakács and Sándor Pető, journalists working for the Reuters news agency, as well as Zoltán Simon, a journalist working for Bloomberg, and ZDF producer István Sinkovicz.
“The article is indicative of the extent to which the pro-government press seems willing to carry out the political orders of prime minister Viktor Orbán,” Budapest Beacon commented, adding that the editor in chief of 888.hu is Gábor G. Fodor, deputy chairman of Századvég Foundation’s board of trustees. Századvég is a think-tank and consultancy that has been embroiled in numerous scandals involving large government orders since 2010. The publisher of 888.hu is Modern Media Group Zrt., a company owned by Árpád Habony, an informal advisor to the prime minister.
The list was condemned by the 3,500-member National Association of Hungarian Journalists (MUOSZ). The body said that there is no evidence of any contact between Soros and the journalists named in the piece. “Stigmatising colleagues by using listing methods that hark back to former anti-democratic times is far from the practice of democratic journalism and informing (the public),” said MUOSZ.
The campaign against journalists continued on 11 September 2017 with a piece on 888.hu attacking Gergely Brückner, one of Hungary’s leading business journalists working at index.hu. The piece accused Brückner of writing an article about the political-diplomatic background of several millions of dollars transferred to Hungary from an Azerbaijani slush fund without any evidence.
“I was not particularly bothered by the editorial, although I don’t think he understands correctly where the trenches in the Hungarian media landscape are,” Gergely Brückner told Index on Censorship. “He also exaggerates my importance (of course, I felt flattered), and for sure he does misunderstand the goals I had with my articles.”
“It is known that the ruling party is always looking for enemies, these being refugees, Soros, the EU, NGOs and independent journalists, all of which are under attack,” Brückner added. “This is how they are trying to keep their core voters engaged.”
Unfortunately, ordinary media consumers have a difficulty in making a distinction between independent, fact-based journalism and biased, post-truth journalism, as Brückner explains. “I am not disturbed at being targeted and it does not influence my work or my sources. They had an obviously exaggerated opinion about me, but they did not have false statements. In the latter case, I would seek legal redress.”
On 14 September 2017, Attila Bátorfy, a data journalist at investigative website Atlatszo.hu and research fellow at CEU’s Center for Media and Communication Studies was also the target of a defamatory article published on an obscure blog, Tűzfalcsoport. The piece, illustrated with a photo of enlarged mites, is claiming that Bátorfy’s piece on the spread of Russian propaganda in Hungary is based on faulty evidence.
A day later, on 15 September 2015, Pesti Srácok, another website close to the government published an article about András Földes, a journalist working for index.hu who reported extensively on the migration crisis. The piece is a list of Földes’s more important reports, along with “ironic” commentary.
“When he goes to war zones, he watchfully takes a peek on the trenches, carefully avoiding danger, then he presents the things he saw as he wishes (…). His extraordinary talent is also shown by the fact that he believes anything to 17-year old immigrant men born on 1 January. At least we hope he naively believes the overstatements he writes about, and these (overstatements) are not invented by him,” the article goes.
Even if the readership of such a blog or website is relatively small, these articles are usually echoed in the media universe loyal to Orban and are often referenced by the public media as well, meaning that the allegations reach a considerable audience.
The recent defamatory pieces are only the tip of the iceberg of the attacks on press freedom in Hungary. Since 2010, the Hungarian government led by Orbán is working systematically to silence critical voices by changing the legal framework regarding media, redrawing the advertising market, introducing preferential taxes that only hit certain, independent broadcasters, buying up media companies, or simply closing them down, as happened with the largest opposition newspaper, Népszabadság.
The most alarming recent incidents regarding press freedom in Hungary: