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How Hungary's State News Agency Whitewashes The News: An RFE/RL Investigation 


The headquarters of Hungary's state TV and radio broadcaster, MTVA, in Budapest

BUDAPEST -- It's a scandal that has made headlines across Europe.

A Hungarian lawmaker known for antigay policies and allied with the country's hard-line prime minister resigns from the ruling party after being caught breaking coronavirus curfew in Brussels by reportedly attending an all-male sex party.

You won't read about it on MTI, Hungary's state news agency, though.

Nor will you read on MTI about the Roman Catholic Church's struggles with priest sex abuse.

Famed opera singer Placido Domingo being hit with accusations of sexual harassment? The news only came out on MTI two months later, well after Domingo gave a concert at an important venue in Hungary.

Editors don't like if we write our own pieces: It could contain something unpleasant to someone 'above.'.... Publishing a statement received directly from [officials] is much safer."
-- Anonymous MTI reporter

Those news stories, covered widely in international news headlines, are among those being censored by MTI, a new investigation by RFE/RL's Hungarian Service found, based on leaked e-mails and interviews with current and former employees.

The findings follow earlier reporting from RFE/RL that found reporters at the state MTVA broadcast group -- which, like the MTI news wire, falls under an entity called Duna Media Service controlled by loyalists to nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- were being explicitly instructed on what to discuss and how.

Overwhelmingly, the guidance appears aimed at pleasing Orban's government, whose policies, and those of the ruling Fidesz party, have limited press freedoms and alarmed media watchdogs.

Over the past 10 years, Orban's government has taken control of most of the country's media outlets, either directly or indirectly.

Orban, whose stated aim has been to transform Hungary into an "illiberal democracy," has enjoyed enduring popularity at home, winning three straight terms and becoming Hungary's longest-serving prime minister. And he has repeatedly shown the ability to bring tens of thousands of supporters into the streets.

RFE/RL's reporting shows how that iron grip on the country's political life extends to how state media report -- or do not report -- on controversial or politically charged issues.

One MTI reporter told RFE/RL that if the Orban government makes an important policy decision, MTI is obliged merely to report it, without any context.

"Today we are only publishing what the government is saying about it. We don't put any background behind what the decision is really about, what it changes, why it might be wrong," the MTI reporter said.

"Editors don't like if we write our own pieces: It could contain something unpleasant to someone 'above,' and only if it gets past the editors will it be published. Publishing a statement received directly from [officials] is much safer," the reporter said.

While the authoritarian policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban get glowing coverage in Hungary's state-dominated media, embarrassing stories are routinely ignored, at MTI and other affiliated outlets.
While the authoritarian policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban get glowing coverage in Hungary's state-dominated media, embarrassing stories are routinely ignored, at MTI and other affiliated outlets.

This person, like others quoted in this story, spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. They fear not only being fired for speaking critically of their supervisors but also longer-term consequences: being unable to get any new job, or being subject to punitive, politically motivated tax audits.

Another person who started working at MTI before 2010 and remains employed there said there was a gradual policy of censorship put in place from 2011 to 2012. The person said he was instructed not to look at what foreign newspapers were reporting about Hungary.

For example, it used to be that an article published in foreign media that was critical of the Orban government would be republished as a single item; later, it was ordered that all such news items should be combined into one single "roundup."

Brussels 'House Party'

While Orban's authoritarian policies get glowing coverage in Hungary's state-dominated media, embarrassing stories are routinely ignored, at MTI and other affiliated outlets.

That includes the story earlier this week about Jozsef Szajer, a Fidesz party lawmaker who quit this week after revelations that he had attended what Belgian media said was an all-male sex party in Brussels held in violation of coronavirus lockdown rules.

Szajer is a founding member of Fidesz, which Orban has used to pass increasingly authoritarian policies in Hungary. The ruling party campaigns for conservative Christian values and rails against LGBT issues.

Szajer is also one of the co-authors of a controversial constitutional amendment in 2010 that defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman.

Szajer's resignation, and statement, have been covered by MTI and other state media. But the sex party, which has been widely reported in Belgian and international media, is instead referred to as a "house party" by MTI.

Belgian police, who reportedly stopped Szajer after he left the party by scaling down a drainpipe, have said that illegal drugs were allegedly found in the backpack he was carrying. The statement released by Szajer, and published by MTI, only mention drugs allegedly being found at the party.

Orban's statement on Szajer's resignation from Fidesz was also published in full -- with no mention or context of what prompted it.

Forbidden Topics

MTI, whose letters translate from the Hungarian as Hungarian Telegraphic Office, is the main state news wire in Hungary, distributing Hungarian language news to virtually every media outlet in the country. It is one of several public media organizations in the country, along with the state TV and radio broadcaster, MTVA.

In 2015, MTI, MTVA, and the other components were merged into a single entity, Duna Media Service. The board overseeing Duna is majority-controlled by Fidesz members.

Hungary also has a government-appointed council called Mediatanacs that oversees all public media. All its members are appointed by Fidesz.

Another MTI reporter told RFE/RL that when the European Parliament is debating matters critical of the Orban government, MTI only accepts comments from those who are "out of the picture and saying nonsense" or who support Hungarian government policies.

For example, when the European People's Party voted to exclude Fidesz last March, MTI correspondents in Brussels wrote a news article about it, but it was never published by MTI. Instead, reporters were ordered to use a news item from Origo, a widely read online news outlet that is seen as a government mouthpiece.

"Then came the instruction to take [the news] from Origo that Fidesz itself had suspended its membership," the reporter said, calling the story absurd.

An e-mail shared with RFE/RL stated that MTI reporters were not allowed to report on statements or reports by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Leaked recordings showed that the order was issued by Balazs Bende, the senior editor at MTVA.

The news of opera star Placido Domingo being hit with accusations of sexual harassment only came out on MTI two months later, well after he'd given a concert at an important venue in Hungary.
The news of opera star Placido Domingo being hit with accusations of sexual harassment only came out on MTI two months later, well after he'd given a concert at an important venue in Hungary.

When several women accused Domingo of sexual harassment in 2019, MTI's deputy editor in chief, Sandor Rathy, sent an e-mail to staff dated August 14, 2019, stating that editors were "not asking for materials related to the harassment yet."

There was no specific explanation for the message to avoid the scandal, but it was widely believed to be connected to a concert that Domingo was scheduled to give at the grand opening of a new stadium in Szeged that is owned by the Hungarian Catholic Church.

The concert was held just two weeks after the accusations were first publicized.

Janos Karpati, who worked for MTI for years under communism and was MTI's Brussels correspondent from 2007 to 2015, told RFE/RL that he recalled no blanket ban on subjects during that time.

"Because it was quite obvious that if, for example, an infringement procedure was initiated against Hungary in the European Union, it wasn't possible to ignore it. For a long time, I felt that they actually needed a mirror of what critics were saying about the government abroad. There was no need for cosmetics," Karpati said.

Karpati said that prior to 2015, the year he was fired, none of his articles had ever been altered or watered down.

That has since changed, according to two current MTI employees, who told RFE/RL about additional editorial scrutiny being put on all “sensitive” news stories -- stories that had the potential to be politically embarrassing or contrary to government policy. Some news items are shortened, others have new paragraphs added, they said. One person said there were other examples of articles being written and submitted, but then ignored. The process was limited only to particular articles.

In 2015, Karpati's career with MTI ended when he asked Orban a question about the death penalty in Hungary after an event in Brussels. Orban had been criticized in the European Parliament for his support of capital punishment.

"The apparatus couldn't bear that I asked the question. Yet it was never said that certain questions needed to be agreed on in advance," he told RFE/RL.

Written in Prague by Mike Eckel, based on reporting in Budapest by Hungarian Service correspondent Akos Keller-Alant
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