Hungarian state media unbalanced in its coverage of teachers’ protests

February 4, 2016

István Hollik accuses "failed left-wing politicians" of being behind Wednesday's protests.
István Hollik (KDNP) accuses “failed left-wing politicians” of being behind Wednesday’s protests.

For years Hungarian teachers and their professional organizations have objected to ill-conceived educational “reforms” imposed by the government following the 2012 nationalization of public schools.  And yet according to state and pro-government media,  Wednesday’s protests were little more than political rallies organized by “failed left-wing politicians” with the help of American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and teachers have no reason to complain because “Hungarian reforms are working.”

Part and parcel of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy has been the systematic takeover of private media outlets by Fidesz oligarchs and of public media by editors and journalists more than happy to toe the government line for a regular paycheck.

Under the second Orbán government (2010-2014) state media rarely resorted to forging the news, preferring instead to be highly selective in its coverage.  The task of discrediting government critics was left to one or more pro-government media outlets owned by Gabor Szeles and Lajos Simicska.  Often the attack was in the form of a television or radio interview subsequently referred to in an op-ed piece which, in turn, was dutifully picked up by pro-government newspapers before being reported by state media and even the Hungarian telegraph service (MTI).

In the months leading up to the general election of 2014, all pretense of impartiality fell by the wayside as state media increasingly reported uncritically the pronouncements of government officials and apologists. Nowadays, even MTI occasionally reports the Facebook posts of government publicists, no matter how libelous or outlandish.

Coverage of Wednesday’s protests is a perfect case in point.

A monstrous lie

In a post to his Facebook page, András Bencsik, Editor-in-Chief of pro-government weekly Demokrata, attacked teachers union president Mrs. István Gálló by claiming that her father was Gábor Péter, the notorious head of the state secret police between 1945 and 1952 who “played an instrumental role in preparing and carrying out the post-1945 show trials.”

Only after scores of media outlets had reported that Gálló’s father was not one of the most notorious communist officials of all time did Bencsik delete his post and apologize for his mistake, by which time the damage to Gálló’s reputation had been done.

A media hatchet job

The day before teachers were scheduled to hold protests in Budapest, Miskolc and ten other cities across Hungary, online pro-government tabloid (for want of a better description) published an article by Szilveszter Szarvas accusing American billionaire hedge fund operator and philanthropist George Soros of being behind the teachers’ protests without offering a shred of evidence.

“George Soros and the NGOs which are locked onto the billionaire speculator’s money fawcet are behind the organizers of the nationwide demonstrations calling people to the streets regarding the state of Hungarian public education,” Szarvas explained.

Without mentioning the teachers’ grievances, or the fact that some 30,000 educators had lent their names to open letters addressed to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán demanding the rollback of educational reforms,  the daily online accused the teachers and their organizations of joining forces with organizations associated with “failed left-wing and liberal politicians.”

Szarvas’ baseless allegations were echoed by Magyar Idők, a pro-government print and online daily owned by the former managing editor of Magyar Nemzet who “crossed over” to the Orbán camp after his boss, Lajos Simicska, publicly broke ranks with the prime minister.

Unbalanced coverage

Readers of state-owned online daily Híradó.hu learned that even as teachers were demonstrating, the government held numerous forums across the country where teachers could speak openly about their problems.  No mention was made of the fact that the forums had been scheduled at the last minute to coincide with the protests. Or that teachers attending the forum held in Budapest’s 6th district were denied the opportunity to speak.  Or that in Dunaújváros representatives of Klik, the central state agency for managing schools, neither answered any questions nor took minutes of the meeting.  Instead, state media reported comments made at a forum in Pecs by deputy undersecretary Mrs. Gábor Pölöskei refuting claims that half of teachers’ time is taken up with pointless administration.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 6.25.25 AM

The deputy undersecretary’s claim that “paperwork had decreased by a third” was echoed by her boss, undersecretary Bence Rétvári, at a press conference held the same day.  State media also dutifully reported Rétvári’s claim that, whereas ten years ago “[former prime minister] Ferenc Gyurcsány had sent mounted police to attack peaceful demonstrators”, the Orbán govenrment was “on the side of the freedom of expression” and that the state assuming responsibility for maintaining schools had come as a relief to many smaller towns and villages.

Had state media been tasked with offering critical coverage, it would have pointed out that the reforms were imposed from above without consulting teachers or their professional organizations, and that many of the local schools that were underfunded prior to their nationalization ended up being turned over to churches to run, often in a segregated manner.

But these days the task of state media is not so much to provide even coverage as to make the government of Viktor Orbán look good by attacking its critics and making sure nothing they do or say reaches the viewing public.

“Government initiated” talks

State media offered ample coverage of Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) MP István Hollik’s Wednesday press conference accusing “failed left-wing politicians” of being behind Wednesday’s protests.  Hollik announced the government had the children’s best interests at heart and called on left-wing parties “not to disrupt governent attempts to engage teachers in dialogue.” Absent from state media coverage of the event was the fact that it was the  teachers and their professional organizations that initiated the talks and not the government.

“Everyone’s invited”

Rather than report teachers’ demands, state media also reported that, in light of the constructive criticism offered at the numerous forums, Minister of Human Resources Zoltan Balog had called together seven-party talks for Tuesday, February 9, to which “everyone was invited.”

It’s all good

State media paid scarce attention to National Teachers’ Faculty president Peter Horvath telling Kossuth Radio on Wednesday that Klik had failed to prove it could perform the task better than the local governments, that education was underfunded, and that schools did not have enough autonomy.

Instead, coverage focused on the teachers’ forums and pending roundtable negotiations, and the evil designs of George Soros and failed left-wing politicians.  Coverage of teachers’ demands or the protests themselves was eclipsed by reports that Hungarians are buying more cars, that meat is cheaper, and that the government had injected HUF 10 billion into public health-care over the past four months.

Clearly, the HUF 80 billion (USD 280 million) the government spends on state media every year is money very well spent.