Washington Post

Attacks on Charles Gati and the American media

Charles Gati’s article “The Mask is Off”appeared on August 7 in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. I guess readers will not be surprised to hear that it created quite a storm in Hungary, especially in the right-wing press. And in a counterattack Válasz published a piece by an Italian politician assailing Gati and whitewashing Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the “illiberal state.”

Let’s start with the reception of Gati’s article, which was not translated word for word but was extensively summarized in Népszabadság on the very day of its appearance. Other left-of-center publications followed suit. Two days later Magyar Nemzet, the unofficial mouthpiece of Fidesz, published an unsigned piece that condemned the article and accused Charles Gati of willfully misinterpreting Viktor Orbán’s concepts and of meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary. His article, it argued, was intended as an instrument of political pressure.

Magyar Nemzet reported on Hungarian reactions to the article, starting with Fidesz’s official position. The answer the paper received emphasized that “Hungary is an independent, democratic state whose government and prime minister were chosen by the Hungarian people.”

Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz if you wish, received additional ammunition from András Schiffer of LMP. After paying lip-service to the importance of checks and balances, Schiffer declared that “Hungary must be governed from Hungary and no matter how serious a situation was created by the ‘system of national cynicism’ it can be remedied only at home as a result of the will of the Hungarian people…. Those from overseas who entertain visions of a cultural war don’t realize that with their pronouncements they hurt the self-esteem of the Hungarian people and unwittingly extend Viktor Orbán’s stay in power.”

Magyar Nemzet also asked a “political scientist” from the Nézőpont Intézet who is a committed supporter of Fidesz and the current government. Gati’s article struck him as “desperate” and, he said, the “foreign misgivings” repeated by Gati “have been ordered” by unnamed foes of the Hungarian government. So, it seems, the sin Charles Gati committed was to dare to “meddle” in Hungarian affairs by voicing his opinion about Viktor Orbán’s regime and by outlining options the United States could pursue under the circumstances. András Schiffer, whose position vis-à-vis the Orbán government is anything but clear, was perhaps the most explicit: foreigners shouldn’t have “visions” about the Hungarian situation, especially since such criticism damages the self-esteem of the Hungarian people. But even the somewhat meaningless Fidesz statement makes a sharp enough distinction between “Hungarians” who have a right to express their opinions and foreigners who don’t.

But then what can we do with Viktor Orbán’s “vision” of the Hungarian nation as a “world-nation” (világnemzet)? This concept is supposed to express the unity of the Hungarian nation regardless of where these Hungarians happen to live. Of course, we all know the reason behind this generous gesture, and we also know the efforts the Orbán government made to limit the number of possible voters from the West while actively recruiting voters from Romania and Serbia. But still, he can’t have it both ways. Either those who are Hungarian by birth are part of the nation and can have a say in the governance of the country or not. Once the Orbán government extended that privilege and made all of us members of this wonderful world-nation he has to take the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose.

Right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

The right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

As for foreign powers “meddling” in another country’s internal affairs, it happens all the time. Viktor Orbán in his long political career openly sided with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during U.S. presidential campaigns. But others are not supposed to speak their mind about Hungary. Even non-Hungarian Europeans know this. The pro-government Válasz published an article by Luca Volontè, an Italian Christian Democratic politician who was at one time the whip of the European People’s Party in the Council of Europe. Válasz gave this title to Volontè’s polemic against Charles Gati: “Hands Off Hungary!”

Luca Volontè is the only outsider the Orbán government managed to recruit so far. His article sounds not a little suspicious. Almost as if he received some help from Budapest. He seems to be too familiar with the current Hungarian political scene, and the interpretation of Orbán’s speech bears a suspicious resemblance to some of the Hungarian right-wing media’s efforts at explaining Orbán’s message away. We will see whether Fidesz will be able to gather a few more supporters from Europe. The emphasis is on Europe because the current Hungarian line is that in Europe the speech did not make waves; that happened only in the “anti-Hungarian” United States. In fact, Válasz‘s byline made it clear that the anti-Gati voice came from Europe.

And finally, an illustration of the right-wing media’s efforts to control the damage caused by Viktor Orbán’s speech. Today a brief exchange was published, also in Válasz, between Harold Meyerson and Zoltán Laky. Meyerson wrote an opinion piece on August 6 entitled “Hungary’s prime minister a champion for illiberalism” in The Washington Post. Laky, a journalist who obviously thinks that The Washington Post is the mouthpiece of the U.S. government just as Válasz is of the Hungarian government, wanted to know whether Meyerson received instructions concerning Viktor Orbán’s crossing the Rubicon with this speech either from the U.S. government or from the editors of The Washington Post. Meyerson set his Hungarian colleague straight. He has no idea what the U.S. government thinks of Viktor Orbán’s speech and, as far as The Washington Post is concerned, he is not an employee of the paper; the editors don’t even know what he will write about. He is an independent journalist. Yet the title of the Válasz article was titillating: “Permission to target Orbán? The journalist of The Washington Post speaks.”

As for damage control in the United States, I believe the Hungarian government’s chances are slim to none. Budapest can send a new ambassador, as it will in September, and it can spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts, but its quest is hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. When the conservative Washington Times publishes an opinion piece entitled “Democracy’s dangerous descent in Hungary,” then Hungary’s chances in Washington are close to hopeless. Viktor Orbán managed to alienate even the paper that in the past usually defended his government.

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.