Climate Change, Environment, Human Rights, Information & Communication, Populism

Human rights and Greta on Hungarian state media watch list

Mar 2 2020

By Lili Bayer – POLITICO

Activists condemn ‘censorship’ revealed in leaked emails.

Hungarian journalists working for state media were told they need permission before they even start writing about sensitive topics such as Greta Thunberg

Hungarian state media bosses told staff they need permission to report on Greta Thunberg and EU politics, and banned coverage of reports from leading human rights organizations, according to internal emails obtained by POLITICO.

Editors working in state media are provided with lists of sensitive topics, and any coverage related to the issues mentioned requires staff to send draft content for approval from higher up, the internal correspondence shows. In the case of Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, journalists were told they need permission before they even start writing, according to one email.

Journalists do not know who ultimately green-lights the articles whose subject matter is on the list, said one state media employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal. When something gets rejected by the unknown decision-makers, senior editors sometimes euphemistically refer to it as reporting that “fell in battle,” the employee said.

Hungary is currently subject to the EU’s Article 7 censure procedure, triggered when the bloc’s fundamental values are considered at risk in a member country. The European Parliament launched the procedure in 2018, citing media freedom as one of many issues that gave cause for alarm. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has dismissed such concerns.

Screenshots of the internal emails detailing instructions to state media staff, all dating from the second half of 2019, were sent anonymously to POLITICO. The state media employee confirmed their authenticity.

Hungarian journalists have long raised concerns that some politically sensitive issues are absent from the news coverage of state-owned television channels.

The emails come from senior editors who work for an organization with responsibility for state media outlets such as the state news agency MTI and multiple television and radio stations. The emails appear to focus particularly on the news wire’s coverage.

A list of political issues requiring special consent ahead of publication includes “migration, European terror, Brussels, church issues” and parliamentary, presidential and local elections in the “EU+” — a category covering European and some neighboring countries — according to an October email signed by senior editor Sándor Végh.

Ad-hoc instructions are also sometimes emailed to staffers. Last summer, Sándor Ráthy, another senior editor, circulated a short email with the simple subject line of “greta.”

“Before writing the Greta Thunberg materials,” staffers need to seek consent from the editor-in-chief’s office, he wrote. The email was sent on August 14, the day the teen activist set sail from the U.K. to New York to speak at the United Nations. The wire ultimately did not publish news of Thunberg’s trip, according to its articles database.

The emails also confirm that, as reported previously by Hungarian daily Népszava, an explicit order was issued preventing state media employees from mentioning reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their coverage.

“I have been informed by [state television foreign desk lead staffer] Balázs Bende that we do not publish Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s materials,” senior editor Tamás Pintér wrote in a November 8 email to his colleagues.

A day earlier, Amnesty International’s Hungarian chapter organized a demonstration against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who was visiting Hungary. Hours before the email was sent, Human Rights Watch published a video of its Budapest-based senior researcher Lydia Gall presenting footage of what the organization described as illegal pushbacks of migrants from Croatia to Bosnia. Pushbacks are a sensitive topic in Hungary: Watchdogs have raised concerns about reports of Hungarian police illegally and at times violently moving migrants across borders. The Hungarian authorities have denied any wrongdoing.

Civil society groups expressed outrage at the state media restrictions.

“This is another example of the Hungarian government undermining media freedom and attempting to silence and interfere with the vital work of civil society organizations,” said Gall.

State-owned entities play a big role in the Hungarian media scene, but critics say their structure and governance is opaque.

Hungarian journalists have long raised concerns that some politically sensitive issues are absent from the news coverage of state-owned television channels and wire reports.

“This is censorship — pure and simple,” Julie Majerczak, head of the Brussels office of media freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders, said in reaction to the leaked emails. “It is unacceptable and very worrying. Public media are not the spokespersons of the government, they should be neutral and independent.”

State-owned entities play a big role in the Hungarian media scene, but critics say their structure and governance is opaque.

Editorial responsibility for state media formally rests with an organization called the Duna Media Service Provider, said Ágnes Urbán, an expert at Mérték Media Monitor, a Hungarian NGO that campaigns for media freedom.

But, Urbán noted, that body has “minimal” budget and staff. It is overseen by another organization, the Public Service Foundation, whose board consists of three members delegated by the ruling Fidesz party in parliament, three by opposition parties and one by the Media Council — a body dominated by allies of Fidesz. The Media Council also appoints the board’s president.

In practice, yet another body, the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), wields significant influence over media content — under a structure that international media watchdogs have criticized as lacking in transparency.

Neither Duna nor MTVA responded to questions submitted to them for this article. The editors who sent the emails did not respond to requests for comment or referred questions to MTVA.

Last year, U.S.-based think tank Freedom House ranked Hungary as “partly free” for the first time since the fall of communism. Radio Free Europe plans to resume its Hungarian-language service later this year in an effort to boost independent reporting and fight disinformation.

In late 2018, thousands of anti-government protesters rallied outside MTVA’s headquarters calling for objective public media.


Two annexes (for background on the lack of democracy in Hungary):

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