50 Shades of Media Violence

Published in Hungarian on 25th February 2015

Author: Attila Mong

The pronouncements of government politicians on the work of journalists are disconcertingly unisonous: media BDSM going from verbal violence over intimidation all the way to harassment by the authorities. By Attila Mong. 

“You were maltreated by the police? Oh, do you now how often I’ve been asked by the police to produce my ID, and yet, I am still here?” this was the rather cynical reaction by Tibor Navracsics, the EU Commissioner, straight from Brussels, the heart of Europe. Navracsics was in Veszprém in western Hungary, when the former Fidesz MP and minister of justice was confronted by journalists from the Hungarian daily Népszabadság with a sad fact: Someone, presumably affiliated with the party’s Managing Director Gábor Kubatov, had called the town’s police chief who sent two patrolmen to force the journalists to identify themselves. This happened after video reporters followed Kubatov around on the day of a by-election, asked him questions and failed to back off even when Kubatov who is indisputably a public figure did not respond to their questions. The video recording of the incident reveals unequivocally that the patrolmen freely admit that had they sought out the reporters in response to a corresponding order by a superior officer. Harassment by the authorities as a result of political pressure? That’s exactly what this looks like. 

Nor was this type of pushy reporting appreciated when the reporter of an internet news portal – as the article on the website Átlátszó reveals refused to let the issue at hand go when Fidesz’s parliamentary leader was bullshitting at a press conference. The journalist kept pushing and wanted to find out more about the affair in question, to wit the counterfeiting of euro banknotes that the leader of the party’s youth wing was involved in, which had proved embarrassing for the ruling party. It was his bad luck that Rogán’s press conference, held jointly with the vice president of the Hungarian National Bank (MNB), occurred just at the time when numerous articles were published that reported on the ties between the MNB’s president and the owners of VS.hu, where the journalist was employed. As the portal’s subsequent statement explained, there had been numerous “behavioural problems” with the reporter in question, but strangely these only reached a level that could no longer be tolerated a few days after the aforementioned press conference; he was let go. Fired in response to political pressure? (Just as in the case of Origo.hu’s editor-in-chief last year?) That’s very much what it looks like. 

“Are you pulling at my arms?” asked HVG.hu’s video reporter last year, when a Fidesz MP became visibly enraged in Parliament after the reporter tried to get him to respond to questions and followed him around with a camera, refusing to give up. It is readily apparent from the video recording that the MP is beside himself and grabs the hand of the video reporter incidentally, a woman in a fit. “I don’t want to exaggerate the drama of this situation or to present it as more than it actually was. It didn’t hurt much, but at the same time I find it unacceptable that someone would grab and pull me around. Even the fact that he touched me was strange said HVG.hu’s journalist. And she was totally right, of course let us imagine what would have happened if the journalist had grabbed the politician’s arm after he refused to answer her questions. Physical violence against journalists? That’s very much what it looks like. 

These are not isolated cases, they’re part of a dangerous trend. Journalists being subjected to open verbal intimidation has become a nigh everyday phenomenon. In none of the above cited cases did the reporters do anything that was professionally or ethically uncalled for, or which could be construed as falling outside the pale of acceptable human behaviour. Journalists elsewhere are incomparably more aggressive; just watch any American press conference for comparison. 

We are at a point, however, where people don’t even notice verbal threats. Nor do professional organisations complain about them because, unfortunately, such situations have become commonplace. When the speaker of Parliament, László Kövér, referred to the journalists who had exposed the plagiarism of former President of the Republic László Schmitt as “good-for-nothing terrorists”, this had still elicited some voices of protests. But when government politician László L. Simon threatened a reporter of Hír TV by telling him that life at the TV channel would soon become difficult, the reactions were limited to smiles. 

And then we are surprised that the executives of media corporations feel that their lives are threatened in Hungary? That is what the CEO of RTL Klub said, and strange as that may sound Lajos Simicskas casual remark to the same effect still aroused a significant outcry, but who knows a year or two from now such comments may pass as acceptable and natural.

My goal is not to exaggerate these cases as HVG’s reporter said and I do not even claim that there were no antecedents to the current government party politicians’ actions under previous governments. All I am saying is that there is a dangerous trend emerging. These cases are namely all registered justifiably so, I may add in the international database that lists manifestations of legal, official, verbal and physical violence against journalists. Precisely because the international examples also show that verbal violence against journalists can easily lead to actual physical violence. 

The question is whether we want to progress more in the direction of Vienna or Moscow, or, in terms of time as the journalist András B. Vágvölgyi, who is currently in a lawsuit with the President of the Republic because of a Facebook post, observed regress back to 1978?