Monday

20th Nov 2017

Analysis

Hungary’s media deconstructed into Orban’s echo chamber

  • Orban (r), with his head of communications Antal Rogan (l) in the European Parliament. (Photo: European Parliament)

If you were a Hungarian, only consuming news that comes your way, you might think that George Soros is the biggest threat to Hungary as millions of migrants await his cue to invade Europe, aided by NGOs with funds from Soros, and the politically correct and bureaucracy-laden EU is helping him. All of this, despite multiple terror attacks across Europe.

And you might also think that UV radiation is not so bad for you, and that you should sunbathe between 11am and 3pm, as was reported in a pro-government tabloid in May.

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  • Hungarian born Soros' foundation once gave a scholrship to Orban to Oxford (Photo: European Commission)

It is a problem when reality is overshadowed by delusions or fake news in a country, especially when it is promoted by a government.

In its fourth billboard campaign against Brussels and migrants this year, Hungary’s government last week rolled out posters across the country, targeting Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

The posters show the 86-year-old Hungarian-born Jewish financier laughing, with the text: “Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh.”

It refers to the Hungarian government's claims that Soros wants to transport a million migrants into Europe, including Hungary.

The billboards prompted Gabor Torok, a political analyst, to draw parallels with George Orwell’s 1984, in which Goldstein, the enemy of the state according to Big Brother's Party, is the subject of the “two minutes hate”, a daily program in the book's dystopian world.

The billboards drew criticism, as many saw them as resembling the anti-Semitic campaigns from the 1920s and 30s. Hungarian government officials insist that the government of prime minister Viktor Orban has “zero-tolerance” for anti-Semitism.

Hungarian Jews said last Thursday that the campaign risked fuelling anti-Semitic sentiments and urged Orban to end it. "These poisonous messages harm the whole of Hungary," Andras Heisler, leader of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote in a letter to the prime minister.

Orban in a letter on Friday refused to halt the campaign, saying illegal migration is a national security issue, which needs to be dealt with "without regard to [anyone’s] origin, religious background, or wealth." He argued that the Jewish community should help him, as illegal migration brings anti-Semitism into Europe.

Creating an enemy to keep Orban's Fidesz party in power is not new. The most recent billboards are only the latest examples of the echo chamber created by the government, successfully stifling any meaningful public discourse.

Despite the concerns expressed by the EU over free press, Orban and his closest inner circle managed to take control of the media in Hungary without much hindrance.

No market forces

Today, Hungary’s media is no longer able to systematically maintain a check on those in power.

“The media market and the vast majority of market players are in the hands of the businessmen tied to the ruling Fidesz party,” Gabor Polyak, an analyst at the watchdog group Mertek Media Monitor, told EUobserver.

“The functioning of the media market is determined not by market forces, but by Fidesz,” he added.

Ever since Orban lost after his first tenure in office in 2002, he has put significant emphasis on balancing the media landscape, which was perceived, just like in other parts of the world, as being too liberal.

All governments in Hungary attempted to influence the media, but Orban’s approach elevated it to a different level.

Lajos Simicska, a longtime business associate of Orban, built a media empire – armed with a major television station, a popular newspaper, a major radio – to support Fidesz.

After Orban came back to power in 2010, the empire was propped up with government advertising money and expanded, while Fidesz pressured the public media to stick to the government’s line.

But in 2014, shortly after he was reelected, Orban broke with Simicska. To make up for the lost media empire that remained with Simicska, Orban’s closest aides acquired a massive media presence, with the help of state funds.

Three of Orban's allies were leading efforts to build a government-friendly media: former Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna, who is now the government's film commissioner; Orban's long-time adviser and spin doctor Aprad Habony; Antal Rogan, Orban's head of communications, who has been dubbed minister of propaganda.

New television stations, almost all the regional papers, a new tabloid, a weekly magazine, radio stations, online news sites – under the ownership of these three men – have come under political control, as any critical media was silenced.

Meanwhile, public media has been turned into a propaganda outlet, detached from reality.

Last week, EUobserver reviewed newscast on the public television channel . All stories, ranging from EU migration policy to NGOs doing training for judges on how to handle marginalised social groups, mentioned Soros and organisations he might have helped fund an said they were as a threat to Hungary, Europe and to the independence of judiciary.

Some of the stories use personal attacks and lies to discredit politicians or journalists.

In several cases where the targets sued, courts handed out fines and demanded corrections from the outlets, but some of the corrections were never published, and it is a weak tool to counter the mass propaganda campaign.

Polyak, from Mertek Media Monitor, said these organisations work as a “unified force,” with some of the articles produced by the political owners.

“The system can support as many media outlets as it likes, as they are living off of entirely state funds, or funds related to the state. The air is running out around independent media,” Polyak said.

Pockets of independent journalism remain against the odds, but their reach is not enough to withstand the propaganda machine.

Banned from reporting

Orban likes to point to criticism of him to prove there is free media in Hungary. But this is part of the army of half-truths that Orban’s government likes to use.

“Any opinion can be published, but not anywhere,” said Miklos Hargitai, editor and journalist with Nepszava and chairman of the National Alliance of Hungarian Journalists.

He told EUobserver that voters who use common channels of news are very restricted in acquiring the widest possible range of information to form a grounded political opinion.

“This [restriction] is against the constitution that Orban himself has pushed through,” Hargitai, who once worked for the now defunct Nepszabadsag daily, said.

The new constitution, adopted in 2011, says that "Hungary shall recognise and protect the freedom and diversity of the press, and shall ensure the conditions for free  dissemination of information necessary for the formation of democratic public opinion."

He added that the media cannot fulfil its role of controlling political power, and points out that 60 journalists are barred from entering the parliament to prevent them from reporting. “Much more depends on the personal bravery of journalists now,” Hargitai said.

Polyak adds that Hungarian voters’ apathy also contributes to the situation, in which few issues stir widespread protest.

Orban’s media empire is expanding beyond Hungary’s borders. Recently Reporters Without Borders raised concerns over Orban’s aide, Habony, buying a 45 percent stake in a Slovenian TV broadcaster, circumventing Slovenian law.

On the RSF’s world press freedom index, Hungary is 71st – with only Bulgarian, Croatia and Greece as lower-ranking EU members.

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Despite warnings from the UN, the EU and international rights organisations, Hungary's parliament passed a law that is seen as targeting NGOs partly funded by Hungarian-US billionaire George Soros.

MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary

The European Parliament took the first step towards launching the Article 7 procedure against Hungary for backsliding on democracy. The process might lead to sanctions, but Orban is not backing down.

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Journalists from Hungary's largest newspaper were locked out of their office for a second day on Monday, but the EU Commission said it was powerless to help.

EU launches legal probe into Hungary's NGO law

The European Commission says the new law is discriminatory, and interferes with the freedom of association. Hungary, which accuses the NGOs of helping illegal migration, has one month to answer.

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