Almost exactly a year after the enactment of Hungary’s restrictive media law, a scandal reveals editing techniques in use to manipulate the news reported on the country’s state-operated public television stations. The scandal concerns the manipulation of a television report of a press conference held by Zoltán Lomnici, Chief Judge of the Hungarian Supreme Court between 2002 and 2009.Airbrushing The Chief Justice Of The Supreme Court
For reasons which not many people claim to completely understand, employees of the public television stations are not supposed to show Mr. Lomnici on television. Due to this strange directive, on Dec. 3, when he held a press conference along with colleague László Tőkés, Lomnici appeared this way on public television:
The white blur is Mr. Lomnici, the ex-Chief Justice, talking to a group of men behind Mr. Tőkés. The original interview footage looked like this:
Nothing but an honest mistake, you might say. Weirder things have happened in news rooms.
But reporters working for the newsroom of the public media complain that this incident reveals only the tip of the iceberg of manipulative editing practices used on Hungarian state television stations.
It’s been almost a year ago that Hungarian public television and radio was reorganized under the direct supervision of a new media council. A government appointee leading the council now supervises every single employee of the public media, and has the power to hire and fire anyone, from the janitors to the executive producers. Not surprisingly, therefore, over a thousand public media employees have been let go since the summer; and the firings had a distinct political slant.
The journalists who retained their positions are of course quite tight-lipped about what goes on in their workplace. Anonymously, however, several of them confirmed that there is a directive in the state television “not to show or have Lomnici speak in news shows – unless absolutely necessary.”
It is a curious order, because Mr. Lomnici is neither a central character of Hungarian political life nor your typical political renegade. The press conference at which he spoke was called in support of two Slovakian Hungarians who were stripped of their Slovakian citizenship after having applied for citizenship in Hungary (anyone of Hungarian ethnicity is eligible nowadays for Hungarian citizenship, regardless of their country of residence, due to a measure enacted by the current administration). In other words, at the press conference of which the distorted news were prepared, Lomnici and Tőkés announced a position in support of the Hungarian government’s agenda, and their cause would otherwise have the full support of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But Lomnici and Tőkés have fallen out of favor with Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party. This is despite the fact that they are reliably conservative politicians who advocate on behalf of Hungarians living outside the Hungarian borders. Their organization, the Human Dignity Council publicizes human rights violations and discrimination suffered by Hungarians, and in particular by Hungarians living in other countries, on the basis of national, ethnic or religious background.
According to insiders to the newsroom of Hungarian public media, however, the directive to snub Lomnici has nothing to do with politics. It is most likely based on petty personal jealousy on the part of someone who used to be considered as a candidate for the Chief Supreme Court Justice position, and who happens to be close with a producer in the newsroom.
Inside The State Television’s News Room
There is no doubt that the incident is a petty affair and one that is difficult to sort out. To be sure, Lomnici is not acting in the role of the complainant. He could initiate legal action, both due to the rights violations and the defamation involved. But while he agreed that almost none of his public appearances are reported on television, he was rather conciliatory in his response to the scandal developing around him.
The manipulated footage nevertheless served as a lightning rod for journalists still in the employment of the public media.
After two waves of firing, their number is decreasing sharply. The stress level on the job, on the other hand, is proportionately on the rise. It is a “do as you are told or find yourself on the curb” kind of work environment. Once public media employees are let go, it is only by swearing to secrecy about their job experiences that they can secure a severance package.
With the scandal still loud – five representatives of a professional organization for newsroom employees are on hunger strike – some of the employees no longer working in the state television did come forward with testimonies.
There was no need to bring story ideas to the editorial meeting, one of them said in a collection of interviews recorded by the left-wing daily Népszabadság. The editor arrived with the list of stories to be covered during the day. News reporters are told who they have to interview at a given event, and “what the overall message of the coverage must be,” said another. The journalists of the public media did not have to chase the news. “It was reality that had to be adjusted to the station’s concept,” yet another former employee said.
If you have ever been subjected to these news shows, the aforementioned “concept” is likely to be all too familiar. Based only on the news prepared in the public media’s newsroom, very little happens in Hungary, and what does happen is extremely reassuring. There is no indication of the fact that the country is in turmoil, both economically and politically speaking. Instead, judging by the public media’s reporting, one might even believe that there is an overall state of serenity in domestic affairs. 30-minute prime time news programs prepared for the national audience may linger endlessly on the topic of the consecration of a new church organ (enhanced with religious music), or the posting of a Hungarian flag in a village in Romania.
These editorial selections and the padding of unimportant reports is consciously pushed on the news shows by the supervisors of the news room. They provided paragraphs to be inserted into the reporting, remembered one of the journalists fired who now decided to speak out about his experiences. These had to be included in the reporting, at most one or two words could be changed in it. His peer remembers that Gyurcsány had to be written into every report, regardless of whether he had anything to do with the topic. Ferenc Gyurcsány, Hungary’s previous prime minister is fervently villainized by the current administration: he is respondent in a number of court cases, in proceedings which could eventually result in his imprisonment.
Another person previously employed in the Hungarian state media recalls an incident when a high-ranking supervisor of the public media participated in on an editorial meeting. He sat behind the journalists as they were writing their report. When the production team hit an especially awkward subject, he corrected them. Instead of “austerity measures,” he wanted them to use the term “background reorganization.”
“Often they weren’t even interested in what happened on a given day,” continues the story. “Already in the morning, the central message was ready. We had a meeting when one of the directors present told us never, but never dare to contradict him when shooting during the day. Because, don’t worry, these were the words he used, everything will get back to him anyway.”
Manipulated News, Uninformed Public
Before the reorganization of the public media as a result of Hungary’s new media law, each of the public radio channels and every one of the public television stations had its own news room. With the government’s “reorganization” of the country’s news production, however, one central news room prepares the news for the public media. The national press agency is also under the supervision of the Media Council’s political appointee.
That this system allows for easy manipulation had already been demonstrated by a case widely reported earlier this year. After Daniel Cohn-Bendit – of May 1968 fame, now the French Green Party’s representative in the European Parliament – staged a protest against Hungary’s media law in the European Parliament, telling Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán that “you are on the way to becoming a European Chavez,” the Hungarian state-media knew just exactly how to discredit Orbán’s critic. One of its news editors, Dániel Papp prepared a falsified news report depicting Cohn-Bendit as a pedophile.
Only days later, Papp, the journalist behind the falsified report, was promoted to a higher position. He now heads the state media’s centralized news room.
The manipulation of the news in Hungary, however, is ongoing. Just this week, in relation to the protests against electoral fraud in Russia, the state television reported that a “few dozen” were protesting against Putin. No specific details of the electoral fraud were cited in the reporting. Anti-government protests in Hungary tend to suffer the same fate: instead of pictures of the crowd, the state-media prefers to supply footage of individual protesters, the news agency delays reporting of the event until the crowd is disbanded, and the number of protesters is grossly underestimated.
“Without media freedoms, there can be no democracy,” said Balázs Nagy Navarro, union leader of the public media employees who initiated a hunger strike over the airbrushed news footage. The problem, however, is becoming increasingly acute. A public living in an information vacuum is a public completely unaware of the loss of its most vital democratic entitlement.
Stationed outside the headquarters of the public media, in near-freezing temperatures, the hunger strikers are now threatened with legal action: their strike is illegal, reported the state-owned television, and a violation of Hungary’s strike law – since the strike’s participants failed to enter arbitration seven days prior to their protest. In response, the protesters might say that they are starved just as much as Hungary is starving for media freedom.
Update: On Thursday (Dec. 15), the director of the public televisions News Center, Gábor Élő was fired over the affair. Dániel Papp is no longer editor-in-chief of the newsroom, though he still heads two departments in the newsroom. The journalists continue their hunger strike: they demand the removal of everyone involved in the chain of command. Thursday night, a solidarity protest was held in their support by a number of independent trade unions. There’s been a dispute over the fact that the hunger strike is on private property (i.e. in front of the Hungarian Public Television): the protesters were asked to move, and the property owner (i.e. the Hungarian Public Television) placed a line of human-sized potted cypress trees in front of them to hide them from sight. Nagy Navarro, who’s in the sixth day of his hunger strike is being threatened with termination from his job because he did not show up for his job this week. To this day, there has not been a word of mention in the Hungarian public media about the airbrushing of the news footage or about the hunger strike under way.