Hungarian Media Independence Under Attack: An Interview with Balázs Nagy-Navarro

Hungarian Media Independence Under Attack: An Interview with Balázs Nagy-Navarro

Hungarian Media Under Attack

In April 2010 the Hungarian right-wing party Fidesz won a sweeping victory, aided by the immense unpopularity of their Socialist opponents and one of the worst unemployment rates in the European Union. The party’s control of 68 percent of the seats in parliament allowed it to govern without ideologically diverse coalition partners. Upon gaining power, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did not hesitate to take full advantage of that fact, consolidating his party’s control of the government and, more ominously, the state. (For more context, read “The Hungarian Tragedy,” from Dissent’s Spring 2011 issue.)

Justifying his actions with populist-nationalist rhetoric, Orbán began encroaching upon the independence of the judiciary, the central bank, and the media. Then Fidesz swept the local and municipal elections of October 2010, winning almost every race. It even took Budapest, long a left-wing stronghold and the nation’s largest city by far. Emboldened by these victories, Orbán continued instituting measures designed to concentrate power solely in the hands of his party. The constitution was altered ten times in his first year in power. An entirely new constitution will be instituted at the beginning of next year. Electoral areas have been redistricted to make it almost impossible for any other party to gain a majority in parliament. Even cultural institutions are being stacked with party loyalists and other far-right figures.

All these measures seem unnervingly out of place in the heart of Europe, but it is the new media laws that gained the most attention, perhaps because they are the easiest to understand (few are well-versed in Hungarian constitutional law). To begin with, Orbán rid the constitution of an article forbidding “information monopolies.” Fidesz now effectively controls all public media industries, including television stations. (Previously state media was run along the lines of the BBC or PBS, where the government has no control over content.) Fidesz created a five-person Media Council, staffed entirely by party loyalists, with regulatory powers over all media outlets, including the internet. Journalists can be compelled to disclose their sources, shattering one of the most important precepts of the profession. Ill-defined offenses to “human dignity” or “unbalanced” reportage can result in staggering fines—up to almost $1 million.

On December 10, a group of Hungarian journalists and members of the television and filmmakers’ union went on a hunger strike to protest media repression and manipulation. Led by Balázs Nagy-Navarro, the vice-president of the union, the strikers are surviving on tea and water and camping out in front of the headquarters of the state-owned television station, Magyar Televízió (MTV).

The group, which has grown beyond its original four members, was inspired by a political intervention in a news broadcast. On December 3, Zoltán Lomnici, a Fidesz-appointed supreme court chief justice turned regime opponent, appeared in the background of a news broadcast with his face blurred out. There was no reason or explanation for the action—except his political unpopularity. For Navarro, it was the “last straw.” (Though it was not the first instance of media manipulation: in 2010 a video of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French politician and vocal opponent of Hungary’s media law, was extensively doctored to cast a negative light on his personal life.) The hunger strike is one of the first instances of organized opposition to the regime’s authoritarian trends. We can only hope it will inspire others.

I spoke to Navarro on Thursday, December 22, his twelfth day without food.

As the interview begins, tinny Christmas music can heard in the background

JB: Hello there. How are you?

BN: Everything is fine. Can you [hear] the music? This is like Guantánamo. They put down a rope with a sound box and it plays the same three songs, all day long. [The speaker is suspended over the hunger strikers’ encampment.] It has now stopped and will start again.

JB: MTV put it down there?

A new Christmas song can be heard, a solemn hymn of some kind.

BN: It’s really like the 1950s. It is a sound box hanging on a three-meter rope

JB: When did they drop it down?

BN: It started yesterday because there was a picnic for us at 7:00 p.m. that was announced on Facebook. So they already knew. At 7:00 punctually they dropped it down. At first we thought it was part of the picnic, but then we realized it was music just to annoy, just to disturb us. At first it was just on the news desk balcony. But now they have put it in a closed box and they have two guys almost guarding it. They said it was under the instruction of the CEO of the company. You can now understand the reality of the absurd tragicomedy that is going on here.

JB: I already have a basic understanding of what motivated your strike, but can you give us a stronger idea of what inspired your action?

BN: I’m a journalist. I cannot stand these unjust things. And also I am a trade union leader. We have certain measures we can use if there is some unjust thing. But all these measures were explored. We hadn’t gotten any reply from the employer. He was just ignoring us. The last drop in the bucket was this scandal of the blurred image. You had this image on the news like he was a criminal. I don’t care too much about [Zoltán Lomnici]. We are not protesting for him.

They made an investigation, a mock trial like the fifties [in response to the blurred image scandal]. You have a verdict before the hearing has started. They got three persons as scapegoats. We already knew, because we asked our colleagues, that there was this instruction from the boss that this person [Lomnici] couldn’t be seen on his program. They were just fulfilling his instructions.

JB: Can you tell me a little about what else has been happening in the media world? Has the government been infringing on the rights of journalists in other ways?

BN: We have a new media law from January [creating the Media Council], which can, in effect, control all aspects of the media. Just two days ago, the constitutional court abolished some aspects of the law, basically protecting the internet and most aspects of the printed media from the control. [It’s unclear how the decision will be affected by the institution of the new constitution, on January 1.] But still they can fine newspapers if their reporting is considered defamation for some persons. The fines could be so high that they could destroy a newspaper before it is proved it did anything wrong. It’s a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the journalists and editors. That’s why you have self-censorship all over the media.

In the public media they made lots of changes that aren’t actually written in the law. Transfers of employee rights, so that 90 percent of the public media sector’s workers are employed by a new company called the Fund, Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund. In the law there is only one paragraph about this and it says nothing about how it works, or how it will be structured. There are four entities of the former media, public media, the independent media outlets: the Hungarian radio, Hungarian television, the Duna Television, and the news agency. But of these four, three [have been reduced to] a skeleton. They just have fifty people working there including the CEOs, just a show for the outside world. On paper they exist as independent public media, but in effect it’s all done by this huge conglomerate, the Fund. All these changes involve massive layoffs. Most staff are not fired on a professional basis or because of real need, but for political motivation. Anyone who can be potentially dangerous, even [if that just means] they say no to illegal or unethical instructions, they are fired quickly.

JB: How have people, and journalists in particular, been reacting to all this? Has anyone else been resisting?

BN: Most journalists are not resisting at all. They just accept. Maybe they would resist between the walls [a Hungarian expression equivalent to “behind closed doors”], but they would not resist publicly. The professional organizations are extremely weak. The trade unions are very fragmented. There are thirteen trade unions in the public media sectors. We try to cooperate, I’ve headed a council of ten trade unions when we confront the employers about the massive layoffs, [but] the employers use the policy of divide and rule and it usually works. They compromise with some leaders, of some trade unions, so they go out of the common agreement.

Most journalists just feel threatened and terrorized. They don’t know if they are on the lists to be fired tomorrow or today. They say there is a new list of people that will go out next year. Everyone thinks of his or her own future. They don’t show any resistance. Our colleagues are just saying, “Thanks for doing this for us,” but they don’t dare to show up and show public support. That it reached this stage, that we journalists cannot stand up for ourselves and cannot stand up for each other—there is no real sense of solidarity—we partly have to blame ourselves.

JB: So how many people are participating in the hunger strike? And of those people, how many are journalists and how many outside supporters?

BN: At the beginning I declared this hunger strike with my colleague Aranka Szávuly. She is also a journalist, a reporter on public TV, and she is another vice president of our trade union. Two days later another technical assistant joined us and the president of another trade union, Péter Virág—so at that time we were four from the public media, two who are journalists and two from the technical and production side. And later people from civil society joined us, people from organizations like Solidarity, a new movement, and another organization called “One Million for Democracy.” Then another Hungarian media celebrity also joined us, a soap opera star from commercial television who has until recently been working at Duna TV as a newscaster. He was actually fired yesterday. [His name is Sorel-Arthur Kembe.] We are four journalists and two from civil society.

JB: How has the regime responded to the hunger strike, beyond scapegoating those three employees for the blurred face and blaring Christmas music? [By this point in the interview, “O Come All Ye Faithful” was being played for the third time.]

BN: At the beginning, before the hunger strike, I held a press conference in front of the television building and declared that there would be an investigation [into the blurred image scandal] or I would start a hunger strike. Colleagues of mine came down from the newsroom, editors and reporters, and they asked me to say in the press conference that, in a show of solidarity with their colleagues who were called as scapegoats, they [refused] to put their names on [their work]. But just half an hour after the press conference they were called into the offices of the bosses and told that they would be fired, all of them, if they continued to refuse to put their names on their material. By law, all journalists have the right to refuse to put their names on materials that they think are against the law or against professional, ethical standards.

Where we are protesting, there are cameras. And according to our knowledge, they check the images to see who is there, who is showing up. Most journalists who work in the building just say hello, they don’t dare to show support. But there are some that go to us. Most of them might be in a position where they are leaving the company or they don’t care too much. But there are some colleagues asking us how we feel, what we need. They bring us tea.

JB: Has your group been harassed by the police, or any other security forces? Or counter protestors?

BN: Not so far. There have not been counter protestors. Only [a few] anti-incidents. Most people are supportive, honking from their cars. There are other groups, other trade unions, that show solidarity. One of the trade unions organized a protest in front of the public media building last Thursday. It was a trade union that has nothing to do with the media, the chemical workers. We had support messages from the steelworkers trade union and the teachers union. We also got support from the European Federation of Journalists.

JB: How has the Hungarian media covered your hunger strike?

BN: Only the left-liberal side of the media has been covering this. I don’t know of any rightist, or even close to the right, media outlets that have reported on this so far. Not even about the blurring scandal…

At this point the phone connection died and I was unable to reach Navarro again. Subsequent attempts to contact him have proved fruitless. I had planned to ask him about the rallies that had unfolded earlier that day in reaction to the revelation that the Media Council, in the words of the New York Times, “intended to throw an independent, opposition-aligned radio station, Klubradio, off the air.” The Friday before Christmas protests were held in front of parliament. At least one of the hunger strikers was arrested, along with twenty-six other activists (including MPs of the green-liberal and Socialist parties, for blocking access to the parliamentary parking lot). In the meantime, the hunger strikers’ encampment has been fenced in, although Navarro and his fellows were able to maintain an exit. The sound box has been raised higher, to protect it from tampering from below, and spotlights have been installed as well.

I will try to write an update once I get in touch with Navarro again.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter-researcher based out of Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.