Hungarians revive the Samizdat tradition to break Viktor Orbán’s grip on the media, as a press crackdown continues following his threats of postelection “revenge”.
Not everyone in Hungary is happy to receive a copy of Nyomtass Te Is, a free weekly newsletter created to counter Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s domination of the country’s regional media.
“One guy just saw a headline on the front page and immediately ripped it up, threw it on the ground and stamped on it,” Kornel Klopfstein-Laszlo recalled of an encounter in the southern town of Kaposvár. “The article was about a corruption case involving Orbán’s son-in-law.”
Klopfstein-Laszlo and fellow volunteers launched Nyomtass Te Is last summer, as three businessmen friendly to Orbán completed deals to secure control of all 18 of Hungary’s regional newspapers.
Many of these sell more copies than national dailies, and the government line now booms through provincial media and public broadcasters, pushing Orbán’s key message as he starts a third straight term in power: that Hungary faces mortal danger from migrants, the European Union and liberal philanthropist George Soros.
Nyomtass Te Is aims to break into the rural “information ghetto” created by the ruling Fidesz party and air critical stories that pro-Orbán media ignore, Klopfstein-Laszlo says.Three of each newsletter’s four pages carry edited versions of articles from online publications and national newspapers, with an emphasis on investigative reports and key issues such as health care and education; the last page of every issue is devoted to local news.
Distributed by Volunteers
Nyomtass Te Is – pronounced “Nyomtash Tey Ish” – is made and distributed by volunteers in six regions around Hungary, and readers are encouraged to do as the title suggests: “Print it Yourself” and give copies to friends.
Their inspiration was Samizdat, the underground publications of communist times. And while in Budapest anti-government views are common, in small villages the paper may help “to show that people don’t have to be afraid” to voice their criticism of Orbán, Klopfstein-Laszlo says.
They particularly want “to counteract the brainwashing on the migration issue,” he says. “It is creating hate, aggression and xenophobia, which could easily turn on to the Roma or other marginalized groups.”
The rising pressure on media critical of Orbán has been noted abroad, and last November the U.S. state department announced a $700,000 program to fund regional press in Hungary.
“There are still independent and opposition media outlets here,” said David Kostelancik, the U.S. chargé d’affaires to Hungary. However, their numbers are dwindling.
“They face pressure and intimidation . . . as a result, fewer and fewer Hungarians are exposed to the robust debate … fundamental to a representative democracy.”
The April 8 parliamentary election was a turning point, following Orbán’s threats that a crackdown on critics would follow his likely election victory.
“We will take moral, legal and political revenge after the elections,” he declared in March, claiming that opponents were part of a conspiracy between Soros and the EU to oust him and flood Hungary with migrants.
“If you want to know Orbán’s type of revenge, you just have to look at what happened to Népszabadság,” says Márton Gergely, the paper’s former deputy editor in chief. Népszabadság was Hungary’s best-selling broadsheet and a sharp critic of the government until its sudden closure in October 2016. Over a weekend, Gergely and colleagues found their computer systems locked and the 60-year-old newspaper “suspended.” Népszabadság was not economically viable, according to its owner Mediaworks.
Days later, Mediaworks and its portfolio of regionals was bought by Lőrinc Mészáros, a former gas fitter and childhood friend of Orbán. He is now mayor of their hometown and one of Hungary’s richest businessmen.
Two days after Orbán’s victory in April, taking more that 2/3 of the seats in Parliament, the last major independent national daily, Magyar Nemzet, was closed for “financial reasons,” in what staffers described as an advertising market increasingly controlled by those close to the prime minister.
Away from the relentless pro-Orbán coverage of Hungary’s public broadcasters, critical views are still found on television, at newsstands and online.
Direkt36 is one of several investigative news portals that dig into Fidesz’s affairs, examining alleged corruption among officials and Orbán’s relatives, and Hungary’s growing political and business links with Russia.
Andras Petho co-founded Direkt36 after his coverage of Orbán’s chief of staff led to the takeover of the Origo website by Orbán loyalists. Investigative journalism has “definitely got harder,” says Petho.
“They took over public media quite quickly and turned it into a quite disciplined propaganda machine. Then they went after private media companies.
”By shrinking the crucial space for critical voices and depicting them as foreign-funded enemies of Hungary, Orbán’s opponents say he also diminishes his government’s accountability – no senior Fidesz politician has been fired, let alone prosecuted, for corruption despite a growing swirl of scandal.
“For [Orbán] to let any of these people fall would be a sign of weakness,” says Petho. “He sees these stories as attacks. I don’t think he truly believes in independent journalism.”