2018-11-06 19:09:36 UTC
The News Is Bad in Hungary
Viktor Orban didnt like what the press was reporting, so he took it
By Pamela Druckerman, Nov. 1, 2018, NY Times
BUDAPEST If youre wondering what attacks on the news media around
the world mean for the future of democracy, its worth a trip to
Budapest. Consider it a cautionary-tale vacation.
When I visited Hungary recently, I knew I was entering a waning
democracy thats become increasingly authoritarian. I knew that Prime
Minister Viktor Orban won a third term in April by convincing voters
that a phantasmic combination of Muslim migrants, the Hungarian-born
billionaire George Soros and European Union bureaucrats was coming to
But I only understood how Mr. Orban pulled this off when I spoke to
Hungarian journalists. They explained that Mr. Orban first criticized
the press for being biased against him. Then he and his allies took
over most of it, and switched to running stories that promote Mr.
Orbans populist agenda and his party, Fidesz.
This happened fast. The investigative website Atlatszo estimates that
more than 500 Hungarian media titles are now controlled by Mr. Orban
and his friends; in 2015, only 23 of them were. Loyalty trumps
experience: Hungarys biggest media mogul is a former pipe fitter from
Mr. Orbans hometown.
In some cases, Orban allies bought publications and shut them down.
One morning in 2016, journalists at Nepszabadsag, one of Hungarys
biggest dailies, were simply locked out of their offices. Its new
owner, an Austrian businessman, claimed financial problems; the paper
had just run a series of articles exposing government corruption.
Other news organizations were bought and transformed from within. Some
now reportedly take their talking points directly from the government.
Recent headlines at Origo once a respected online news site were a
numbing assortment of articles about migrants wreaking havoc on
various European cities and conspiracies about Mr. Soros.
Headlines were strikingly similar on the website of Lokal, co-founded
in 2015 by one of Mr. Orbans top advisers. Its free print version,
handed out at train and bus stations, is now Hungarys
Theres still independent news online, but most Hungarians dont see
it. And when one of these websites exposes corruption, Orban-friendly
publications align to attack it.
This is what the government would like to teach society that there
are no reliable sources at all among those who criticize the
government, explained Attila Batorfy, who tracks the Hungarian media
Hungary was especially vulnerable to this kind of takeover. The
country became a democracy only in 1989. And government advertising
for everything from the national lottery to the state opera is still a
key source of revenue for media companies, and has long been doled out
Still, journalists I met in Budapest were struck by how quickly the
press had changed, and that all it took to break this pillar of
democracy was a combination of money and fear. Its not Russia,
Csaba Lukacs told me. No one thinks that someone will be shot.
Everyone thinks that he will lose his job. Its enough.
Mr. Lukacs was a senior reporter at Magyar Nemzet, an 80-year-old
daily newspaper that closed in April. (Its government advertising
evaporated after its owner broke with Mr. Orban.)
In May, Mr. Lukacs and two dozen former colleagues started a weekly
called Magyar Hang (Hungarian Voice), which operates out of a one-room
Budapest storefront. Most of its issues have no advertisements,
because companies fear drawing the governments ire by association,
Mr. Lukacs said. The paper is printed across the border in Slovakia,
because no Hungarian printer would do it. One of the biggest problems
is that people are afraid to be subscribers, he added. Its
journalists worked unpaid for the first two months. Now they sell
enough copies just under 10,000 per week, mostly at newsstands to
pay themselves the minimum wage.
Magyar Hang is a conservative, center-right newspaper no more
radical than The Wall Street Journal. Some of its writers, including
Mr. Lukacs, used to support Fidesz. But because theyre willing to
criticize the ruling party and report on official malfeasance, the
government hasnt credentialed its reporters, so they cant attend its
news conferences and question officials there, Mr. Lukacs said. And no
state entity responds to their calls.
If we ask someone from the governmental hospital, How many cases of
infections? they will not answer us, he said. For Fidesz, its not
enough to be loyal, you have to be servile. You have to follow their
instructions without questions, without any doubt.
The news media isnt Mr. Orbans only victim. Last week, Central
European University, co-founded by Mr. Soros, announced that, barring
a last-minute deal, it will move its main operations from Budapest to
Vienna, because of the governments attacks.
But the media is a special target for autocracies and waning
democracies everywhere. Brazils president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has
threatened to pull state advertising from Folha de São Paulo. The
Brazilian newspaper ran an exposé describing how supporters of Mr.
Bolsonaro financed a WhatsApp misinformation campaign to help him win.
Donald Trump regularly claims that articles critical of him are simply
made up, and calls journalists the enemy of the people. And Saudi
Arabias government apparently masterminded the murder of its critic
Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post.
Hungary shows that under the right circumstances, attacks on the press
can keep getting worse. And voters might respond by just tuning
everything out. A Pew survey this year that looked at 10 European
countries found that Hungarians were least likely to closely follow
local and national news.
Near the end of my trip I spoke with Gyorgy Zsombor, the editor in
chief of Magyar Hang. We couldnt imagine 10 years ago that it would
happen in Hungary, he told me. We thought democracy was stronger.