Amid rising populism and anti-migrant sentiment, Hungarians will head to the ballot box on Sunday.
Budapest, Hungary – I am sitting on the front row at a press conference in the Hungarian Parliament. The weekly Kormanyinfo (government information) presser takes place in Parliament’s exquisite delegation hall, where portraits of bygone Hungarian statesmen stare down at the 50 or so members of the press who wait for the chance of a question. It is broadcast live on state television.
In my hand are two leaked documents written by employees of the ministry run by one of the two men standing in front of me. These editorial directives were written at Janos Lazar’s Prime Minister’s office – a mega-ministry set up by Viktor Orban after he returned to power in 2010.
Sent to senior staff at the state and government-friendly media, these editorial directives are designed to be cut and pasted to enable journalists to carry out character assassinations of critics of Orban’s “illiberal” system.
The man at the other podium, Zoltan Kovacs, is the government’s international press spokesman. Kovacs has refused to meet Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post, claiming that the government should not “in any way comment on media issues” and “has nothing to do with the media”.
Blowing the whistle on Orban’s ‘fake news factory’
This is the culmination of half a year’s work, meeting whistle-blowers from inside Hungary’s taxpayer-funded state media outlets.
One of them had reached out for a meeting last summer, and within weeks a dozen or so were waiting to expose what they called the “fake news factory” of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party.
Some of them were disillusioned 20-somethings, recruited during the realignment of government-friendly media after Orban fell out with his former ally Lajos Simicska.
Other, older whistle-blowers, had worked at openly Fidesz-friendly media since before 2010 but now feel that things are spinning out of control.
What they all share is a creeping sense that they are now working for the creation of a virtual reality network, a PR dictatorship, the 21st century’s take on one-party state propaganda.
Over six months, they told me about youthful ideals of “influencing things from within” soon being reduced to “churning stomachs in editorial meetings”. They recounted their bosses “dictating an article from first word to last to us while on the phone,” not knowing who was on the other end.
Viewers can clearly see the daily taxpayer-funded agenda of what one employee of the state media network MTVA described as “migration, migration, Soros, Soros, a new baby panda was born at the zoo.”
However, the leaked documents that were sent to the editors at both public and private media outlets – on the number one government bogeyman George Soros, activist Marton Gulyas, politician Gabor Vago and others – to then percolate around the Hungarian media, are concrete proof that these hit pieces were being coordinated by the government.
And that’s why it was important to give Kovacs and Lazar the right to reply.
What they all share is a creeping sense that they are now working for the creation of a virtual reality network, a PR dictatorship, the 21st century's take on one-party state propaganda.
‘Would you like the guards to escort you out of the room?‘
In the eeriness of the Kormanyinfo, ostensibly independent outlets reverently wait to ask their questions, but the gut feeling – an important part of a journalist’s toolkit – is that at least some of these exchanges are… ersatz.
Dani Renyi, a journalist for 444.hu, who appeared in our edition of The Listening Post, has amassed evidence that this is the case: long-standing left-wing media have indeed become managed opposition voices.
As I take the microphone, Kovacs moves to block me immediately, in English. “There is an order in the room, and the order is that you give back the microphone …”
I start to ask the question in Hungarian: “We have evidence that the government is directing state media outlets …” He doubles down, “Would you like the guards to escort you out of the room?” The microphone is taken from me.
I am reminded of one of the whistle-blowers recalling having been told, after interviewing a ruling party politician, to “ask before you ask something”.
My hand stays up for the rest of the presser, but I am not offered a question. There is no chance to doorstep on the way out either, as Kovacs scoots off, and anyway, my colleague, a camerawoman, was denied entry to the press conference earlier in the day and told to film her laptop instead.
I make a quick call to update Al Jazeera in London, who are eager to ensure that all of this has been caught on film.
By the time I meet my partner across the river in Buda an hour later, it is clear there is no problem there. A clip of the incident has gone viral: one clip alone is already well on its way to over a quarter of a million views. I tell her, and we pull faces and laugh nervously.
Having patiently lived through these months of clandestine meetings with whistle-blowers in Budapest’s parks and more transient, Ballardian spaces – train station bars are good – she knows as well as me what comes next.
Having set out to expose how the state media targets opposition voices, I have become a target myself.
The ‘three Ts’: Forbidden, tolerated and supported
The spokesman’s response is so untethered from reality as to be surreal. Kovacs, I am told, has said he was not approached for an interview earlier, something that is demonstrably untrue.
Similarly, he is quoted as saying that I had been refused because Kormanyinfo is a Hungarian-language event.
This begs the question of why he addressed me in English and threatened me with the parliamentary guards as I began to speak Hungarian.
Then comes an accusation that I seem to be “more partisan activist than professional journalist”, accompanied by a sped-up GIF of my taking of the microphone, presumably designed to make me seem aggressive.
A follow-up article cites The New York Times guidelines for social media, an eccentric citation considering Kovacs’s show of open disdain for that newspaper only days earlier.
The day after the incident, a government-friendly journalist tweets that Kovacs has been speaking to a conference. The tweet reads that it is a “very dangerous tendency when media employs political activists,” says @zoltanspox , adding that he has drawn a red line. Names @liliebayer as example, and criticises @nolan_dan’s “provocative” attitude at yesterday’s Kormanyinfo presser.
One piece in the government-funded, Magyar Idok claimed that I had “gallantly” described Hungary’s refugee centres as “concentration camps” in 2015.
In the middle of all these diversionary tactics, it is important to note that the Hungarian state media authority has not denied any of the evidence that the government issues editorial directives to public and private media outlets.
After over a decade of careful, measured journalism, the feeling is that I am being dragged into a soap opera. Opinion is divided – even friendly colleagues tell me that some found my response to Kovacs’s threat with the response “well, it would make good TV” as tabloidy, rather than one of those off-the-cuff throwaway comments that we Brits use to defuse confrontations.
The cultures of Britain and Hungary differ in certain respects.
While the Brits irreverently lampooned institutions in the second half of the 20th century, the Hungarians living under “goulash communism” had to navigate the state-endorsed culture of “The three Ts” tiltott, turt and tamogattot (forbidden, tolerated and supported). And the residue of that official cultural grey area remains, in the media and elsewhere.
Some colleagues are supportive: “More of that, please,” one says. Even well-meaning advice unsettles though: “Don’t cross the road alone or walk alone at night,” a friend and ex-cop advises me.
The Hungarian state media authority has not denied any of the evidence that the government issues editorial directives to public and private media outlets.
‘We will continue’
More leakers contact me. One tells me that Orban took personal offence regarding a Guardian Long Read on his football obsession, which was published in January.
Support comes from unexpected places, too. Several embassies write to tell me that the incident has been noted and I can rely on them. Nothing, though, from the Brits, who in the chaotic aftermath of the Brexit vote are carefully courting the support of the Orban government.
I consider contacting the British embassy’s press officer, but I am told she is the child of the founding Fidesz member who wrote its controversial constitution and is the head of the Hungarian judges association. So perhaps not.
The day before Hungarian head to the polls, the government’s news factory continues to push its one-note anti-migrant agenda with a special “thematic” day on the first anniversary of the Stockholm bus attack.
Meanwhile, Orban has openly threatened “some 2,000 people who are campaigning to overthrow the government and replace it with a pro-Soros pro-immigration cabinet … and we know exactly, by name, who these people are”.
But despite all of this, myself and many others in Hungary still find journalism the most satisfying job we could imagine, and – to borrow a slogan from Orban’s 2014 election campaign – “we will continue.”