The Hungarian news agency in the service of the state

A few weeks ago György Bolgár, who practically never writes on politics in the daily press, could no longer stand it. He wrote an article in Népszabadság about “the death of MTI,” the Hungarian news agency.

In 2010 several changes were made in MTI reflecting Viktor Orbán’s far-reaching plans for the agency. First and most critical, the government announced that from there on the services of MTI would be free. No longer would only the better-off newspapers and electronic outlets be able to afford articles written by the correspondents of MTI. Everybody, even the smallest provincial paper, would have free access to their archives. Well, one could say, isn’t that grand? How democratic. But naturally, this was not the real aim of the Orbán government. By making MTI’s news service free, they made sure that only MTI could stay afloat in the Hungarian media market. And indeed, since then the other news agency closed its doors.

Second, Viktor Orbán ensured that only loyal supporters would be in top management at the agency. Third, the scope of the agency was greatly restricted; MTI today is only a shadow of its former self. And fourth, its independence had to be abolished. Indeed, over the last four years MTI has become a state organ serving propaganda purposes.

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The journalists working there are worried about their jobs and therefore tread lightly. Their reports go through several hands as one can see by the number of initials: “kkz, kbt, kto, kvs.” Four men or women were responsible for the article about The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő. Indeed, that is a very sensitive topic and no “mistakes” would be tolerated.

As György Bolgár contended in his article, the situation is worse now than it was in the Kádár regime. Then at least the journalists were told by the party what they could and what could not write about. Now frightened journalists are measuring their words on every subject at the MTI headquarters in Budapest. And they have good reason to be frightened: back in 2011 a seasoned correspondent to Berlin was sacked because of “wrong wording” in a report on conductor Zoltán’s Kocsis’s interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A couple of days ago Tamás Szele wrote an article, “English Lesson to MTI,”  in Gépnarancs.  In it he compared MTI’s reports on three important editorials from the United States about Viktor Orbán’s by now notorious speech on his vision of an “illiberal state.” The editorials appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I decided to devote a post to the subject as well because non-Hungarian speakers should be aware of how the Orbán government controls the flow of information. This topic is especially timely since it was only yesterday that we could read Neelie Kroes’s words on the self-censorship that is prevalent nowadays in Orbán’s Hungary. Gergely Gulyás in his answer to Kroes hotly contested the existence of any kind of self-censorship by pointing out the prevalence of anti-government articles in the Hungarian press.

So, let’s see how much the Hungarian newspapers who use the MTI newsfeed reported about the three editorials, starting with the Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “The ‘ Illiberal Idea Rises: Hungary’s Leader Issues a Warning to a Complacent West.” Anyone who knows Hungarian and is interested in comparing the original and the Hungarian version can visit MTI’s website. By my best estimate, MTI translated less than half of the article, leaving out some of the sentences uttered by Viktor Orbán that were deemed to be “unrepeatable.” For example, “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.”  They also did not think it judicious to mention Russia, Turkey, and China “as successful models to emulate.” MTI generously left in the charge that “he has chipped away at the country’s constitutional checks and balances” but they omitted the next sentence: “He has packed courts and other independent institutions with loyalists from his ruling Fidesz party, politicized the central bank, nationalized private pensions, and barred the media from delivering ‘unbalanced news coverage.'”

MTI also didn’t include the Wall Street Journal‘s reference to “the rise of Jobbik” and its claim that “Fidesz has often abetted and amplified, rather than confronted, Jobbik’s ugly politics.” But at least we could read in the MTI report that “Mr. Orban looks with admiration to Vladimir Putin–and harbors Putin-like aspirations.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the WSJ‘s claim that “the goal of resurrecting a Greater Hungary stretching beyond the country’s post-World War borders is no fantasy for many nationalist elites” remained.

Now let’s move on to Fareed Zakaria’s “The Rise of Putinism” in The Washington PostThis article was so mutilated that practically nothing remained of it. MTI did include the beginning of the article: “When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was the first country in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy. Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy.” The next three paragraphs, however, were left out. In these paragraphs were several important sentences. For example, Zakaria mentions his 1997 essay about “illiberal democracies” and writes that “even I never imagined that a national leader–from Europe no less–would use the term as a badge of honor.” Well, you can imagine that that sentence could not be translated. MTI did, however, report the following sentence: “Orban has enacted and implemented in Hungary a version of what can best be described as ‘Putinism.'”

Zakaria’s article proceeds with a short synopsis of Putin’s career between 1998 and now and mentions that “he began creating a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain his power.” Obviously, comparing the current Hungarian regime to a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain power was too much for the sensitivities of MTI’s journalists. But they thought that the crucial elements of Putinism–“nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism, and government domination of the media”–did not need to be censored.

The next paragraph again led to forbidden territory and thus remained untranslated: “Orban has followed in Putin’s footsteps, eroding judicial independence, limiting individual rights, speaking in nationalist terms about ethnic Hungarians and muzzling the press. The methods of control are often more sophisticated than traditional censorship. Hungary recently announced a 40 percent tax on ad revenues that seems to particularly target the country’s only major independent television network, which could result in its bankruptcy.”

The last paragraph of the article about Putin’s gamble in Ukraine remained. If he triumphs in Ukraine, he can come out of the conflict as a winner but if Ukraine succeeds in resisting Russian encroachment “Putin might find himself presiding over a globally isolated Siberian petro-state.”

Finally, let’s see what happened to The New York Times’s “A Test for the European Union” written by the newspaper’s editorial board. This was a true hatchet job. The editorial consists of five paragraphs, but the first four were completely eliminated. I guess it was time for “the most unkindest cut of all” because this editorial was the most hard-hitting of the three and the one that showed the greatest knowledge of the Hungarian situation. “Orban’s government has taken steps to undermine the rule of law, gut press freedom, attack civil society groups and increase executive power.” The editors of The New York Times recall that when the Constitutional Court struck down some of the laws that the government introduced, “the government simply brought them back as constitutional amendments.” The editorial mentions advertisement revenues, the pressure on civil society groups, criminalization of the homeless, and stripping 300 religious groups of their official status.

The New York Times was also well-informed about the Venice Commission’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s actions. They knew about Neelie Kroes’s criticism of the advertising tax, calling it “a threat to a free press that is the foundation of a democratic society.” In the editorial they note that Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, said that the EU should consider the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights. Naturally, none of these things could ever reach the eyes or ears of ordinary Hungarian citizens.

MTI accurately translated only the last paragraph, which contains some suggestions for the European Commission. “The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, needs to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing.” They suggest a decrease of the 21.91 billion euros the European Union has allocated to Hungary. They mention the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights as a possible step.

The aim of the massive cuts in this particular editorial is clear. Neglecting to mention the “sins” of the Orbán government and reporting on only the harsh treatment suggested by the paper, MTI is abetting the government’s efforts to portray the West as an antagonistic foe that wants to punish the Hungarian people for defending their independence and sovereignty. Poor innocent Hungary! I’ve already read comments from outraged Hungarian patriots who question the right of anyone to demand punitive action directed at their country and only a few hours ago Tamás Fricz, a propagandist masquerading as a political scientist wrote a vitriolic article in Magyar Nemzet, questioning the right of Americans to meddle in the affairs of the European Union.

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27 comments

  1. FYI: (correspondent’s original in Hungarian about the WSJ piece)

    USA-Magyarország-politikus
    Orbán-beszéd – A WSJ az illiberális eszme előretöréséről ír
    Washington, 2014. augusztus 1., péntek (MTI) – Az illiberális eszme előretöréséről ír pénteki számában a The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) tekintélyes amerikai gazdasági politikai napilap.
    A lap azzal a megállapítással indítja véleménycikkét, hogy az, hogy világszerte csorbát szenvedett a politikai és gazdasági szabadság eszméje, annak egyik következménye, hogy az Egyesült Államok visszavonult globális vezető szerepéből. Az írás megjegyzi, hogy politológusok ezt demokratikus visszacsúszásnak nevezik, de az autoriter bűnbeesés jobb megnevezés lenne.
    A lap ezt követően röviden ismerteti Orbán Viktor tusnádfürdői beszédét a liberális demokrácia globális versenyképtelenségéről, valamint arról, hogy az uniós tagság nem zárja ki, hogy Magyarország egy nem liberális természetű állammá váljon.
    A WSJ emlékeztet, hogy Orbán Viktor a nyolcvanas években a szó XIX. századi értelmében vett liberális politikusként vált ismertté, de 2010-es ismételt hatalomra kerülése óta apránként leépítette az ország alkotmányos fékeit és ellensúlyait, a bíróságokat és más független intézményeket hozzá hű emberekkel töltötte fel a Fidesz soraiból, átpolitizálta a jegybankot, államosította a magán-nyugdíjpénztárakat, és megtiltotta, hogy a sajtó “kiegyensúlyozatlan híradásokat” tegyen közzé.
    Ezzel egy időben a WSJ szerzője szerint megerősödött a “kimondottan neonáci” Jobbik, amellyel a Fidesz a lap szerint nem, hogy szembeszállt volna, hanem a legtöbbször pártolta és erősítette a “Jobbik ronda politikáját”.
    “Magyarország lassított felvételben történő átalakulása puha autoriter állammá provinciális problémának tűnhet Washington vagy Brüsszel számára Európa perifériáján, de Orbán Viktor csodálattal tekint Vlagyimir Putyinra és hozzá hasonló vágyakat dédelget” – írja az amerikai lap, amely szerint a “nacionalista elit” sok tagja számára nem pusztán fantázia az első világháborút követően kialakult határokon átnyúló Nagy Magyarország feltámasztása.
    “Orbán Viktor illiberális őszintesége figyelmeztetés, hogy a szabad piacok és a szabad társadalmak erőteljesebb védelmet igényelnek” – írja a WSJ, emlékeztetve, hogy a hidegháborút követően eluralkodott az elégedettség, hogy a liberalizmus győzedelmeskedett, “a történelemnek vége”. De a tekintélyelvűek mindig lesben állnak, hogy kihasználják a demokrácia gyenge pontjait – fűzi hozzá az amerikai napilap.
    A cikk végül felszólítást intéz egész Nyugat-Európához, hogy a gazdaság beindításával bizonyítsa be, mire képes a szabadság, valamint az amerikai elnökhöz is, hogy emeljen szót a liberális eszme védelmében.

  2. A news agency is not a translating service. In opinion pieces, they focus on the opinion-part, not recounting past stories or repeating already reported news or facts. It is beyond doubt however that they omitted far too much than is justifiable. It’s a shame. It also makes no sense as anyone can instantly verify what they left out, it is available on the internet.after all.

  3. Polish zloty / Hungarian forint is at a new high.

    The meaning of this is that the forint is sinking on its own, not because of external factors.

  4. @Armitage

    “It also makes no sense…”

    Sadly, this shows how far a western mind is from comprehending the depth of chicanery
    of the Hungarizmos–It DOES make sense because the ‘sheep’ go no further than
    to get their news from the government version (and little do they care. In fact, it’s all they trust.)

    As for the internet, do you really think that the countrified mustachios partake…?

    Hungary now is a feudal society, with allegiance only to their leader; and total mistrust
    of all others.

  5. Eva: Re. Forint

    On TV yesterday. People soon have to pay if they leave money on the bank account. VO and Matolczy reduced the interest rate so much, that banks will charge interest to clients who left money on the bank account.

    If this is going to be the case, than money will be transferred abroad as interest is going to be higher there. If I was a foreign bank I would start advertising this.

  6. Eva S. BaloghAnd indeed, since then the other news agency closed its doors.

    That’s no apology for the unbalanced reporting, of course, but it’s a tough and shrinking market: most EU member states now have a single ‘general’ wire agency. And the Hungarian language has a very small audience, which means that state funding is probably more critical than ever.

    Fortunately for MTI, a wire service is cheaper to run than an airline …

  7. Thanks Eva I translated Tamás Fricz’s short essay and shared it with several retired US military officers, who I am sure have passed it along. One response to the Fricz essay is worth repeating: “Once Hungary asked to be under our nuclear umbrella by NATO membership and the citizens of the US are placed at risk to ensure the security of Hungary our media has every right to publicly editorialize over Orban’s speech.”

    I know I would have never read the article in Magyar Nemzet so Eva’s link was really invaluable.

  8. The police is investigating Ökotárs in connection with a suspected “embezzlement”. How and on what basis this “suspicion” arose is of course unclear.

    http://444.hu/2014/08/05/sikkasztas-vadja-miatt-nyomoz-a-rendorseg-a-norveg-civil-penzeket-kezelo-okotars-alapitvany-ellen/

    It is clearly a trumped up charge and just as it was foreseen Lazar is using the police – prosecution power base to ante up the pressure.

    He was told by Orban to get results and he will not disappoint his boss. He is not like that, he just hates to disappoint Orban. And this is just the beginning, the beginning of the beginning.

    Let’s see how tough the Ökotárs people are. I wish them luck and hope they will resist this craziness, but Fidesz will use any and all means to get what it wants to achieve.

    The Western people (e.g. Norwegians) always give up first, because they just can’t handle the political-legal mess for long. They are not built that way. A new ambassadors comes, a new department head arrives at the Norwegian foreign ministry and he/she will just want to show he is a good manager who can get the deal done and close the conflict, which the predecessor could not. At that point they give the fight and give up Ökotárs, i.e. their principles, but who cares about principles.

    Will this be the first exception?

  9. “The Western people (e.g. Norwegians) always give up first, because they just can’t handle the political-legal mess for long.”

    That load of nonsense know absolutely nothing about developments in this case, so I suggest you keep your thinly disguised Orbanist fantasies to yourself.

    Why excatly has Orban sent in his brownshirts?
    Because the Norwegians have “given up” *and* the NGOs which the fascist regime despise are surrendering under the ever-increasing intimidation?
    Think about it.

  10. “The Western people (e.g. Norwegians) always give up first, because they just can’t handle the political-legal mess for long”.

    And…that statement is absolutley dripping in racism.

  11. There is a misunderstanding. According to Valasz.hu (Heti Válasz’s online version), only praise came from the US in connection with the WSJ article about the Tusványos speech.

    The title of the valasz.hu article was rewritten soon, but someone caught the original title which was in English: “Orban was praised in the US: Hungary is setting the course”

    http://mivoltmaaneten.tumblr.com/post/93577918267/ha-ez-vicc-akkor-azert-annak-egy-kicsit-eros-d#notes

  12. Thank you for the Paris Review link Eva!
    I guess having language as Hungarian gives a different mindset – for better (and)or worse – the flexibility and near limitless freedom provides great resource for creative people, and gives a helluva headache as soon as one intend to be just as flexible using an other language.

    One has to convert the way of thinking too, and this is the hardest part in my opinion.

  13. @szudáni
    Perhaps they managed to understand the article just as well as Orbán understood the concept of illiberalism…so what?

    From now on Hungary building a highly successful Illiberal State and the US will praise Orbán’s Hungary for the achievement, this is the official policy.

    Don’t ever dare to deny it!!!

  14. d7 democrat: there is no racism here at all. In Western cultures compromise is encouraged and conflicts are avoided (‘solved’). See the EU’s and the member states’ response to Russia’s aggression. They just can’t really react to an aggressor, to a troll, for them it is a strange kind of animal, because at home they don’t encounter such weird creatures. The penal system of most Western European countries contains very low sentences and a lot of understanding towards the delinquent person. In a way, Lazar or Orban are aggressors, delinquents, and the Norwegians just can’t approach them with the corresponding agressiveness or toughness. In my experience Scandinavians would rather help these poor fellows, since must have had such hard childhoods, see, Orban’s father regularly beat Orban while he was already in his twenties, poor Viktor, he probably means well, since deep down all people are good, only if we helped them, then they would behave like any cultured person does in Oslo. Not. Orban and Lázár will never change, they will always remain aggressors however sweet they will appear at the next party for ambassadors, they will remain wily bullies, who will always take advantage of naive foreigners. Just like Putin does from people like Kerry or Condi Rice.

  15. You don’t know what the Norwegians are saying to the regime.
    The fact that the regime have sent in the brownshirts should give you a clue.
    So please, don’t make racist assumptions.

  16. “…György Bolgár, who practically never writes on politics in the daily press…”

    Hahaha… I nearly fell off from my chair when I read that. He is considered as (one of) the most leftist journalist(?) in Hungary.

    I do not know who’s editing this blog, but he/she definitely has free time.

    And if Tamás Fricz is a propagandist, then what do you think about yourself? You wrote twice as long article. At least his defending his nation. And you? What are you doing?

  17. Wotan,

    I think you probably mean “Western Europe” when you describe “Western cultures”. I wouldn’t include England in that generalisation, let alone the U.S., and I don’t see Italians fitting in there very well, either. In fact, what you seem to be describing really only applies to Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and perhaps to the Netherlands and Belgium. Even Germany doesn’t really fit there, though I would say that they want the world to think they do (“they” being the majority of the elite, of course). Angela Merkel may seem like a consensus-seeking mollifier, but she’s quite tough when she needs to be. Hungary, up until this point, was not worth the backlash that would have ensued after a crackdown, but now Orbán has pushed away from the rest of the small fry (thank you, Monsieur Juncker, you have already done Hungary a great service), so disciplining him will not be seen as bullying by weaker EU members.

  18. Geometry,

    You wrote: “At least his defending his nation.”

    When I read that, I would have fallen off my chair from laughing if the thought of what Fidesz is doing to Hungary did not make me so sad. At best, what Tamás Fricz is doing is defending the current government of Hungary while they loot and pillage the country. What Eva is doing is trying to defend the majority of Hungarians from their predatory government, which has raised taxes on the poor while lowering them on the wealthy, hurt Hungary’s long-term economic outlook, and enriched the members and friends of Fidesz while impoverishing Hungarian culture, civil society, and even the safeguards of freedom and democracy. If you had any real love for the Hungarian people, you would not attack her, you would, at most, disagree with her about the best way to help Hungary be more democratic, which Orbán has admitted he does not want to see happen.

    Remember this, when Orbán loses favor with the voters, either there will be great turmoil and destruction, or the autocracy he has built will be put in the hands of someone with different friends to enrich and backers to repay. At that point, you will wish that democracy were still in place, because you will be on the wrong side of the wrath of a dictator, defenseless.

  19. What I really don’t understand is that so many people still believe in the “nation” concept – after all those wars of the 20th Century where the nationalities fought against each other.

    Especially in Central and Eastern Europe where almost everywhere the different “nationalities” were intertwined so much, that a pure nation state was practically impossible.

    I still remember the horror of Yugoslavia falling apart – when we were there on holiday each summer during “communist” times we met so many “racially mixed” ( and also religiously mixed) couples amongst the locals that I really can’t imagine how they managed after that bloody war.

    And among my best friends is a couple from Romania (and their children …), she of Hungarian descent, he a German – they moved to Germany after Ceaucescu and the children are/feel like Germans of course.

    I still kope that the EU will overcome all that – I’m proud to be an EU citizen and of course I’m proud to be a German too …

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