Will MTI also feature the term “Gypsy crime”?

Published in Hungarian on 9th March 2015
Author: Attila Mong 

 MTI pretends that there are professional arguments that justify its use of the term “economic immigration” (technically, a more accurate but unwieldy translation of the Hungarian phrase “megélhetési bevándorlás” would be “immigration to make a better living”, but it better captures the negative connotation of the term), even as the use of the government-propagated term is a mockery of the press agency’s own ethics code. With this attitude, they might just as well go ahead and open a section entitled “Gypsy crime”, following the far-right’s favour dictum. By Attila Mong

At the 4 February gathering of the governing Fidesz party’s parliamentary caucus in the town of Mezőkövesd, the prime minister spoke of the need to scale back what he termed the process “referred to as economic immigration”. He added that the Hungarian government must take measures to ensure that fewer people who set out only in the hope of making a better living come to the EU via Hungary. The next day, the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, Antal Rogán, discussed the same idea on the morning show of the public radio station Kossuth. From that point on the government and the governing party consistently used this term in their propaganda to refer to practically anyone who immigrates to Hungary, be the person from the Balkans, say Kosovo, or from Syria. For Fidesz, the place of an immigrant’s origins is irrelevant, what matters is the label. Since 4 February, everyone arriving in Hungary, be it persons from war-torn regions or persons who did indeed come in the hopes of a better life, have been labelled “economic immigrants”, obviously as part of a communication strategy designed to score political points. 

Practically the very next day MTI created a so-called slug (technical jargon for a hashtag) for economic immigration. This may be technically justified, but the way the term is used flies in the face of any journalistic or news agency standards. It is justified, of course, because the term used by the prime minister has in itself become the subject of political debate, which is why the inclusion of this slug makes orientation in the news agency’s reports easier for readers. Yet the frequency of its use, and the specific contexts in which it is applied, lacks a foundation in reasonable journalistic practice; indeed, its use suggests what many newspaper articles have since also noted: namely that MTI slavishly follows government spin, the political propaganda line. 

It is difficult to justify on professional grounds why this label has been applied to every news item published since 4 February that is in any way connected to the complex European problem of immigration. It is used not only for articles that address the political debates surrounding the term introduced by the prime minister, but any news item involving illegal border crossings are tagged with this slug. Absurdly, it is even applied to articles concerning the German situation and the German debates, never mind that in Germany the political discourse on this issue is completely different from the domestic context. Shockingly, even “routine” news concerning the seizure of illegal Syrian immigrants who have fled the awful war in their country are assigned this label. If a few Kosovo Albanians are mixed up among a group of immigrants (though even in their context the label “economic immigrant” is also debatable), then the Syrians are also grouped in this category. The news agency’s haziness on this issue was also manifest in a 25 February MTI item on the death of a nine-year-old girl from Kosovo at the Vámosszabadi refugee reception centre, which was given the slug “Hungary-Kosovo-Refugees”, even though on 9 February, when she had crossed the border illegally with her parents, the corresponding news item had been given the slug “Society-Migration-Economic Migration” in MTI’s daily report (of course, this article referred to her only as a member of a larger group that arrived at that time).

This practice by MTI is not merely irresponsible but an open violation of its own code of ethics. 

It is irresponsible because the slug has taken on a life of its own in newsroom practices that have increasingly become copy-paste dependent. A search on GoogleNews reveals that today 2,240 search hits have this slug; a portion of these is of course about the debate surrounding the term, but from the online editions of regional dailies all the way to the websites of various internet portals, the overwhelming majority of items disseminate, as if it were the most natural thing in the word, the label thought up by the government to communicate its view of immigration. We have no doubt that the print press also often uncritically adopts this term. 

Furthermore, it is difficult to pinpoint any segment in the Public Service Code of Ethics whose provisions this practice does not violate. 

The Code mandates that the public media must be independent from parties and political organisations. Elevating a term created by a party to the status of a slug used in the news agency’s terminology clearly violates this principle. By the same logic, MTI should have created a slug for the term “Gypsy crime” that Jobbik likes to use, but our search in the database came up empty. 

The ethics code provides that information disseminated by the public media must be objective, balanced and diverse. Yet the term referred to above is a value judgment, it is not objective. Rather than helping present the issue of immigration from a wide variety of viewpoints, it does the opposite, limiting the debate. At the BBC often cited as a model for public media , which did not even refer to the persons who carried the attack against Charlie Hebdo as terrorists, such a term would obviously not pass. 

The Code expressly makes provisions for the respect of human rights, also adding that the news service must serve social cohesion and integration. It is probably not necessary to explain in detail why the use of such a label contributes to boosting hate against refugees and strengthening exclusion. 

The most stunning aspect of this case is that the news agency not only pretends that the problem does not exist, but in fact claims that its procedure complies in all aspects with international news agency norms, and it is not even willing to enter into a debate about the legitimacy of its practices.