BUDAPEST -- Ahead of European Parliament elections in Hungary in 2019, editors sat down with reporters at the state MTVA broadcast group -- which includes television channels, the MTI news wire, and radio stations -- to discuss not only what to cover, but how.
In one recording, the voice of Balazs Bende, a senior MTVA editor, can be heard telling reporters, "I'm sure no one will be surprised to hear that it is not the opposition's list that enjoys the support of this institution," in a recording obtained by RFE/RL. "Whoever is in charge must produce content according to the appropriate narrative, method, and direction, mostly about migrants and Brussels."
"If anyone is not prepared to work under these conditions, he is free to file his resignation immediately," Bende concludes.
RFE/RL's Hungarian Service has obtained leaked audio recordings, journalists' testimony, and internal e-mails that show how editors at MTVA instructed reporters on what should be reported and how the story should be told, apparently with an eye to pleasing the government of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
That material shows reporters were instructed to take a critical stance in reporting on migrants, LGBT issues, climate change, and other issues.
For years, media watchdogs both in Hungary and abroad have warned of efforts by the government of Orban and his ruling Fidesz party to limit press freedom. Over the past 10 years, his 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," He has denied these accusations.
He has nonetheless enjoyed enduring popularity at home, winning three straight terms and becoming Hungary's longest-serving postcommunist leader. And he has repeatedly shown his ability to bring tens of thousands of supporters into the streets.
The Hungarian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, closed after the Cold War ended, was relaunched on September 8 in response to the country's steep decline in media freedom.
Hungary suffered a 16-point plunge, to 89th place, in Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
The 'Appropriate Narrative'
Leaked MTVA e-mails show that coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic also came under strict guidelines to make Hungary's handling of the virus stand out internationally.
"The purpose of the whole theater is to make it seem as though we don't have as much trouble as anywhere else," editor Miklos Beregnyei wrote in an internal directive on virus coverage.
Zsolt Nemeth, editor-in-chief of MTVA, earned the nickname "Pitbull" from employees for his Machiavellian management style, reporters told RFE/RL. Nemeth was known to meticulously monitor TV newscasts.
Coverage demands made by Nemeth, the reporters said, were jokingly referred to in the newsroom as "audience requests," not editorial demands.
Among the "requests" ordered by Nemeth were that when a left-wing European politician was embroiled in a scandal, "left-wing" always had to be used, while right-wing politicians were not identified as such. Nemeth, in an e-mail sent to the entire newsroom, ordered that French President Emmanuel Macron not be described as centrist, but as a "former socialist minister."
Ahead of the April 8, 2018, Hungarian parliamentary elections, journalists were told that at least one "migration story" was needed every day, according to a reporter working there at the time who, like other colleagues, spoke to RFE/RL under condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
But beyond the migrant-story quota, journalists at MTVA were told what tone these stories should take. "For sure, the story had to be done so that viewers would form a negative image of foreigners," the reporter said.
The journalist explained the template reporters at MTVA were supposed to use to cover the migrant crisis.
"You have to start with the most brutal visuals," he told RFE/RL. "For example, a migrant who stabs, kills, or screams 'Allahu Akbar.' Afterward, you had to tell the story, adding how many million migrants arrived in Europe and that there are millions more on the Balkan route, all of whom will be knocking at Hungary's borders. This was the pattern."
"We were instructed not to use the word 'refugee' in any context," another unidentified reporter said. "Even among people who were officially granted refugee status, we talked about them as migrants."
Orban, one of the most vocal opponents of immigration into Europe, won a third term in 2018 on a strong anti-immigration platform that he has pushed ever since the 2015 migration crisis.
Also singled out was George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist. He was often portrayed as a foreign meddler, playing a key role in fueling the migrant crisis in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.
"There was a time when we were told to find countries where people were protesting against George Soros," yet another reporter said. "A film crew went to North Macedonia and Bulgaria and they, in fact, portrayed this huge problem there and reported that groups had arisen to stop the 'George Soros army.'"
"Later, of course, it was revealed that these organizations had been created just a few weeks before and had a few members," he added.
And Then Came Trump
Journalists at MTVA said that before 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, foreign affairs were largely ignored at the state-run media giant.
"We were also following the mainstream," one journalist said. "We didn’t take Donald Trump seriously. Then it dawned on someone at some ministry how similar Trump's and Orban's policies were and afterward we had to adjust to that.”
"That is when they may have decided that the foreign-affairs section can't be left alone, either," he added.
Soon after Trump's election, stories on the United States and, in particular, about Trump, had to be cleared by a senior editor.
MTVA journalists who spoke to RFE/RL described a "mafia-like" atmosphere of intimidation at the broadcaster. "It's awful when people pick up a phone call from a superior with trembling hands," one said.
Tony Wesolowsky contributed to this report from Prague