Inside Hungary’s post-truth laboratory
A cultural counter-revolution is under way in Hungary. And one of its nerve centres is an unassuming apartment on the west side of Budapest, where youthful keyboard crusaders rattle out lurid tales of migrant miscreants and liberal lunatics, apparently straining at the fenced-off borders for an opportunity to destroy the country.
Two snappily dressed young men peer suspiciously from the doorway. ‘How did you find us?’ asks one. ‘Who gave you our address?’
Welcome to the world of 888.hu, hidden, yet hungry for a fight. Official permission is required to enter the improvised newsroom, which may have served as a living room back in 1989, when Hungary tore through the Iron Curtain, bringing four decades of dictatorship to an end.
Hungarians have vague recollections of the stubble-chinned young democrat who crashed onto the national consciousness that year with a courageous anti-Soviet speech, a man called... Viktor Orbán.
Today, as Hungary’s prime minister, Orbán is a transformed political animal, reigning supreme over what some term a ‘mafia state’, dismantling the democratic checks and balances of the post-communist era, while enriching a coterie of oligarchs loyal to his Fidesz Party – a few of whom now control the very media outlets that would otherwise be holding him to account.
Some are big household names, like television channel TV2 and online giant Origo, once independent, now serving up Soviet-style propaganda with a dollop of internet-era sensationalism. And, on the sidelines of this parallel world, are newcomers with an alt-right, Breitbart feel, like 888, which is owned by Árpád Habony, aka Orbán’s secret spinmeister.
The website presents itself as the vanguard of the counter-revolution, Orbán’s mission to subvert the EU liberal mainstream. Following his third straight election victory, won with a state-aided mastery over the message, it’s shaping up to be a fight to the death against mass migration, multiculturalism and practically every other politically correct ‘ism’ that comes to mind.
And it cuts to the heart of what we regard as ‘truth’. For the counter-revolution requires a narrative that maintains a sense of being at war with the world.
Lóránt Sümeghi, one of 888’s editors, leads the way through the bunkers, quietly satisfied at Orbán’s thumping victory, which locks opposition parties out of the country’s governance for the next four years. There’s an unmistakable whiff of guerilla-style student activism about the place, unsurprising given that most of the writers are recent politics graduates in their mid-twenties.
Highly eloquent, Sümeghi valiantly defends 888’s right to tell it like he thinks it is. ‘It should be natural for a journalist to state his beliefs and not be crucified,’ he says. ‘If what we offer isn’t good enough, there’s free choice.’
Some might dispute that assertion. On the newsroom wall is an editorial from the final edition of Magyar Nemzet, the country’s last truly critical daily, shut down three days after the election, crushed by a government boycott that starved it of valuable state advertising money reserved instead for Fidesz-friendly media. According to foreign correspondent Csaba Lukács, neither would private advertisers touch the newspaper, fearful of punishment meted out via the country’s tax authorities. In the end, this 80-year-old national institution was almost entirely dependent on Google ads.
At the centre of what some describe as a mafia turf war, Magyar Nemzet was not a straightforward victim. Owned by oligarch Lajos Simicska, one-time mastermind of the Fidesz machine, who had a very public falling-out with Orbán, it had long been faithful to the party. It was only after the spat, which saw Simicska back far-right rival party Jobbik, that the newspaper turned critical. But historian Gábor Zoltán, who has tracked Magyar Nemzet’s bumpy trajectory, believes that, freed from the shackles of Fidesz control, journalists managed to resist political pressures and regain credibility, uncovering some of the biggest corruption scandals to hit the regime.
Asked for his thoughts on the demise of a newspaper that survived the Nazi occupation and four decades of communism, Sümeghi shrugs. ‘Market forces,’ he says.
Big bucks propaganda
With friends in high places, 888 has been spared the chill winds of competition over its three years of existence. Take last year’s €40 million ($46.8m) propaganda campaign against George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist whose Open Society Foundations donates to rights groups and independent media in the country. According to investigative journalism website Átlátszó.hu, taxpayers’ money was divvied up among Fidesz-friendly organizations like Habony’s Modern Media Group, which includes 888.
Nearly a third of the €40 million anti-Soros budget went to Orbán’s childhood friend, Lörinc Mészáros, once a gas pipe fitter, now one of the wealthiest men in the country.1 Mészáros’s sprawling business empire includes Echo TV, a stable of influential regional newspapers and companies in sectors like construction and tourism. Átlátszó calculates that, between 2010 and 2017, nine of his family’s 203 companies won public tenders worth €1.5 billion ($1.75bn), 83 per cent of which came from EU sources.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Ágnes Urbán, a researcher at Budapest-based Mérték Média Monitor, Soros-funded and therefore the enemy. Indirectly, Orbán’s propaganda is funded with EU money.
On the other side of the media war, it’s a different world. Certainly, there’s still an illusion of the ‘free choice’ alluded to by Sümeghi, a handful of independent outlets battling it out in a shrinking advertising market, their dogged investigations into state corruption failing to resonate in the regions, where people are less likely to consume news online. As Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of Átlátszó, puts it: ‘The pro-government media is effectively dominating the media-scape. We can’t reach people.’
Not content with market manipulation, the regime doesn’t hesitate to get personal. Freelance journalist Dan Nolan, who writes for The Guardian and al-Jazeera, came under fire this year after exposing Fidesz’s direct editorial control of state and pro-government media. Clutching leaked editorial directives designed for cut-and-paste character assassinations of regime opponents, he asked for an official comment at a press conference in parliament. Government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács threatened to have him escorted out of the room by guards. The incident was followed up with a blog post on the government’s website, in which Kovács accused Nolan of being a ‘partisan activist’.
While the regime is capable of making journalists’ lives a misery, not many believe that the regime wants to eradicate what remains of independent journalism, a low-yield move that would play badly on the international stage. Deep down, Kovács likes the fight, says Nolan. ‘The Joker doesn’t kill Batman because he’s too much fun.’
Social psychologist Péter Krekó, of Budapest-based thinktank Political Capital, says that Hungary is turning into a ‘laboratory of post-truth, a government-created virtual reality’. Fake news and conspiracy theories are now mainstream, he says. ‘The official government ideology is a conspiracy narrative, that international organizations want to suppress Hungary and defeat the nation-state.’
There is a ‘triumphalist sentiment’ of vindication in the Fidesz camp, says Krekó, a sense of boundless possibility now that voters have backed the regime in its fight against enemies of the state. In the battle for the nation’s soul, the forces of the counter-revolution seem to be winning.
It could happen anywhere, warns Gábor Miklósi, of Index.hu, an independent website, struggling despite high ratings and thought to be next on the government’s takeover hitlist. ‘If you have no inhibitions about exploiting crises for political purposes and spending public funds recklessly on propaganda, you can change how people view what’s going on. It’s quite easy for a government to use its tools to strangle independent media,’ he says.
‘Journalism is a delicate business.’
Lorraine Mallinder is a UK-based freelance journalist. She tweets @lormallinder
Homepage banner image, right side: current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. Photo credit: European People's Party (CC 2.0).
*Note: The original version of the article mistakenly said that Dan Nolan's quote referred to Viktor Orbán. It referred to government spokesman Zoltán Kovács. This has been corrected to reflect this.