Hungarians tap ‘samizdat’ tradition to break Orban’s media grip

Fears grow of press crackdown after Orban vows post-election ‘revenge’

Not everyone in Hungary is happy to receive a copy of Nyomtass Te Is, a free weekly newsletter created to counter prime minister Viktor Orban's domination of the country's regional media.

“One guy just saw a headline on the front page and immediately ripped it up, threw it on the ground and stamped on it,” Kornel Klopfstein-Laszlo recalled of an encounter with one dissatisfied reader in the southern town of Kaposvar.

“The article was about a corruption case involving Orban’s son-in-law. It can generate anger among those who believe everything the government says.”

Klopfstein-Laszlo and fellow volunteers launched Nyomtass Te Is last summer, as three businessmen friendly to Orban completed deals to secure control of all 18 of Hungary's regional newspapers.

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Many of these sell more copies than national dailies, and the government line now booms through provincial media and public broadcasters, pushing Orban's key message ahead of next month's elections: that Hungary faces mortal danger from migrants, the European Union and liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Nyomtass Te Is aims to break into the rural "information ghetto" created by the ruling Fidesz party and air critical stories that pro-Orban media ignore, Klopfstein-Laszlo says.

Three of each newsletter’s four pages carry edited versions of articles from online publications and national newspapers that provincial readers may otherwise miss, with an emphasis on investigative reports and key issues such as healthcare and education; the last page of every issue is devoted to local news.

Distributed by volunteers

Nyomtass Te Is – pronounced "Nyomtash Tey Ish" – is made and distributed by volunteers in six regions around Hungary, and readers are encouraged to do as the title suggests: "Print it Yourself" and give copies to friends and neighbours.

“Samizdat was the main inspiration,” Klopfstein-Laszlo (31) says, of how unsanctioned publications were secretly printed and shared in communist states.

“In Budapest that sounds ironic, because it’s not an underground thing. But in small villages it can feel like it is . . . That’s another part of our mission – to show that people don’t have to be afraid” to voice their views, he adds.

“As well as bringing news to people, we want to counteract the brainwashing that has taken place on the migration issue . . . It is creating hate, aggression and xenophobia, which could easily turn on to the Roma or other marginalised groups in Hungary.”

The rising pressure on media critical of Orban has been noted abroad, and last November the US state department announced a $700,000 programme to fund regional press in Hungary.

"There are still independent and opposition media outlets here that are able to practise journalism with broad editorial freedom," said David Kostelancik, the US chargé d'affaires to Hungary.

“However, their numbers are dwindling, and they face challenges in the advertising market that the pro-government outlets do not. They face pressure and intimidation . . . as a result, fewer and fewer Hungarians are exposed to the robust debate and discussion that is so important – in fact fundamental – to a representative democracy.”

Media crackdown

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs declined to comment for this article, but in a blog post last September he said Orban's administration "does not target the media or the freedom of press and it never will".

Yet a major speech by Orban this month stoked fears that a media crackdown could follow his likely election victory on April 8th.

“We will take moral, legal and political revenge after the elections,” he declared, between more claims that his domestic and foreign critics were part of a conspiracy between Soros and the EU to oust him and flood Hungary with migrants.

"People are wondering who he might be referring to, and solution number one is the media," says Marton Gergely, former deputy editor in chief of Nepszabadsag, which was Hungary's best-selling broadsheet and a sharp critic of the government until its sudden closure in October 2016.

"If you want to know Orban's type of revenge, you just have to look at what happened to Nepszabadsag."

Gergely and colleagues went home one Friday evening planning to start at new premises on Monday. On Saturday morning, however, they found their computer systems were locked and the 60-year-old newspaper was "suspended". Nepszabadsag was not economically viable, according to its owner, Mediaworks, which also held a large portfolio of regional publications.

A few days later Mediaworks was bought by a firm controlled by Lorinc Meszaros, a former gas fitter who, since his childhood friend Orban took power in 2010, has become mayor of their hometown and one of Hungary’s richest businessmen.

The manoeuvres killed off a leftist newspaper that investigated alleged corruption among top Fidesz members and gave perhaps Orban’s closest ally a stable of provincial newspapers.

“It was like a big piece of meat that they wanted, and we were the bone inside,” says Gergely.

Critical views

Away from the relentless pro-Orban coverage of Hungary’s public broadcasters, critical views are still found on television, at newsstands and online.

Direkt36 is one of several investigative news portals that dig into Fidesz's affairs, and it has revealed alleged corruption among officials and Orban's relatives, and closely examined Hungary's growing political and business links with Russia.

Andras Petho co-founded Direkt36 after his articles about Orban's chief of staff for the Origo website resulted in its chief editor being forced to resign in 2014.

Investigative journalism has “definitely got harder” under Orban, says Petho.

“They took over public media quite quickly and turned it into a quite disciplined propaganda machine. Then they went after private media companies . . .

“Based on what we’ve seen in the past eight years, it’s pretty certain they will continue to go down this path.”

By shrinking the space for critical voices and depicting them as foreign-funded enemies of Hungary, Orban’s opponents say he also diminishes his government’s accountability – no senior Fidesz politician has been fired, let alone prosecuted, for corruption despite a growing swirl of scandal.

“For [Orban] to let any of these people fall would be a sign of weakness,” says Petho. “He sees these stories as attacks. I don’t think he believes in independent journalism.”