Of droids and slaves – Media in the Orbán regime

Hungary’s unseasonably warm, spring-like weather is about to cool off in the next few days, and the political climate is also showing some signs of change, with a growing number of demographic groups cooling to the increasingly insular, arrogant and corrupt Orbán regime. This week, the ruling Fidesz party (it’s really not a ruling party, but rather a ruling clique within the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office) received two blows: one of them from the 5,000 teachers, parents and activists who took to the streets of the eastern Hungarian town of Miskolc in protest, and yet another blow from a former ally in the media world. Today, let’s take a look at the latter.

This weekend, we were provided with some insight into how the regime expects journalists to operate, thanks to the Hír TV cable news network, once the jewel in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s media empire. Those who follow Hungarian politics closely know that Hír TV and it partner, the Magyar Nemzet daily newspaper, broke ranks with Fidesz, after media mogul Lajos Simicska, Mr. Orbán’s former college roommate in the eighties, had a public, profanity-laced falling out with the prime minister, exactly one year ago. Ever since, HírTV and Magyar Nemzet, both owned by Mr. Simicska, suddenly began to understand what independent journalism is all about. They became more critical of the regime, whilst remaining basically right-wing in outlook, and are now much more watchable and readable than ever before. They are now more than mere party rags or propaganda tools of Fidesz. This is a welcome change, even if one must shiver at the thought of how easily people’s politics, ideologies and loyalties in Hungary can change from one moment to the other, based on whatever is most expedient.

Péter Tarr, Hír TV’s executive director, explained in an interview this weekend how Hír TV was a servant of the Orbán regime until very recently:

“There were days when we resisted a little, but the truth is that we served the regime. On occasion, we tried to follow the basic tenets of journalism and we did offer some professional, great programming, including some serious investigative journalism…whenever it was not required of us to just operate the parrot commando instead.”

After Mr. Simicska’s falling out with Mr. Orbán, the regime attempted to destroy Hír TV and Magyar Nemzet, by offering jobs elsewhere, including with the public broadcaster, to Mr. Simicska’s staff. And whenever this did not work, the Orbán regime overtly threatened those who would not quit, promising to bring a swift end to their journalistic careers. The regime communicated this through those still in leadership in Mr. Simicska’s circles who were loyal to the governing party.

“Journalists were seen as droids and slaves. But the regime could not always tells apart those who happen to be real journalists, from those who were just servants. They also did not know who in our team simply came to work every morning, and who did so purely out of party loyalty. The television network was the target of constant attacks and our colleagues left us, one after the other, including those in whom I blindly trusted, but who ended up stabbing me in the back, without qualms,” added Mr. Tarr in his revealing interview with the Médiapiac website.

Péter Tarr, Executive Director of Hír TV. Photo: Balázs Székelyhidi / Magyar Nemzet

Péter Tarr, Executive Director of Hír TV. Photo: Balázs Székelyhidi / Magyar Nemzet

Hír TV’s executive director recounted how some of his staff jumped ship and suddenly left the station, at the behest of the regime, a mere 48 hours before they were expected to appear on the air. Mr. Tarr had to spend a full month convincing and essentially begging staff to stay, in long late night conversations and in intense telephone calls.

A year after the scandal and weeks of chaos, both Hír Tv and Magyar Nemzet are still around. Mr. Tarr described how the regime tried to shut down Hír TV and that this was a veritable siege, lasting many weeks. But today, a year later, the journalists at Hír TV are slowly learning the ropes of being a conservative media organization, while also being critical of the authoritarian regime currently in power.

One of the positive changes is a new program called the Editors-in-Chief Club (Főszerkesztők klubja), where two editors from right-wing publications and two from left-wing publications sit down to discuss the key political and social topics of the day. Mr. Tarr said that his goal is to create a balance between left and right-wing voices in Hír TV and to become a centrist television news network.

There is certainly a need for responsible, independent journalism in Hungary. It’s a pity that it took a personal falling out between the prime minister and his long-time friend for so many people to finally see this.

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