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.