Mérték Media Ombudsman – How the media reacted to Ukrainian language law

On 5 September 2017 the Ukrainian parliament adopted a new education law. Among other things, the act specifies that the language of instruction in schools must be the national language, that is Ukrainian, though some exceptions are allowed. Although in principle the goal is to bolster the position of the Ukrainian language while limiting the use of Russian, the restrictions also afflict other minorities in Ukraine, especially the Hungarian community. In our analysis, we sought to ascertain whether the online media in Hungary helped the public understand the issue, whether their readers or viewers received a comprehensive coverage of the related developments. This is the fourth instalment of our Media Ombudsman series.

With the support of the Google Digital News, Mérték Media Monitor strives to promote the emergence of an online media environment that fosters critical thinking and a desire for objectivity on the part of both media consumers and journalists. One aspect of this project is the creation of a media ombudsman-type platform that publishes critical analyses on the online media’s coverage of certain events, on the reports and editorial contents concerning the given event. Each of the individual instalments in the series will take a detailed look at the way in which the online media present a current issue. The goal is not to evaluate the performance of a particular media outlet or journalist, but to provide the most comprehensive analysis possible of issues that were widely covered in the media.

On 5 September 2017 the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, adopted a new education law. For one, the objective of the law is to improve the quality of education, raising the minimum mandatory education from 11 years to 12 years. At the same, in its article 7 it provides that the national language, that is Ukrainian, must be the language of instruction in schools, though some exceptions are allowed. The goal is to bolster the position of the Ukrainian language, and the most severe restrictions are imposed on the use of Russian – the Russian Federation is currently Ukraine’s war enemy, and Ukrainians are discriminated against in Russia and in the formerly Ukrainian territory of the Crimean Peninsula, which has been annexed by Russia. Nevertheless, the restrictions in the law also affect the other national minorities. This is especially true of the Hungarian minority, which boasts the most extensive vernacular language education system after Russian, even though ethnic Hungarians constitute only the sixth largest minority in Ukraine. As a compromise, the second reading of the bill included a clause that at any level of education, “one or more” subjects could be taught in the official language of EU member states – thus also including Hungarian. Yet the conditions and the rules governing the implementation of this clause have not been clarified; the Ukrainian government wishes to specify these as part of bilateral talks with the “mother countries”.

The following analysis was written by János Széky, section editor at the political and cultural weekly Élet és Irodalom. The analysis covers the period from 6 September to 29 September, and it extended to the items published on 24.hu, 444.hu, 888.hu, alfahir.hu, hvg.hu, index.hu, mno.hu, origo.hu and zoom.hu.

A sensitive issue

On the sites we reviewed, mno.hu was by far the most active in covering the issue. What is nevertheless interesting is that there were no major differences between the rest. This curious and unusual alignment in the coverage of the issue might be explained by the fact that the scenario appears rather obvious: oppressive nationalist Ukrainians vs. their Hungarian victims. Ever since the end of the Kádár regime, the fate of the ethnic Hungarian communities outside the Hungarian borders has consistently elicited strong emotional reactions, indeed, passions, in domestic discourse. It is telling that this might have been the first instance since 1989 when leftwing and liberal parties jointly stepped up on an emphatically national issue and that their reaction was not some sort of response to a “rightwing” initiative. At the same time, because of a combination of factors – the low number of the Hungarian population in the Subcarpathian region and the relatively limited role of the opinion-leading intelligentsia within the minority population, combined with the deficient Russian and especially Ukrainian language skills of Hungarian journalists –, the press outlets in question had few resources at their disposal to dig deeper into the issue and offer a more nuanced coverage, to engage in investigative reporting. In the period under review, only a few articles published on mno.hu, Index and Zoom marked an exception to this trend.

As is generally true for articles about the ethnic Hungarian communities outside the border, the various journalistic genres, i.e. news reports and opinion pieces, differ distinctly. And as always, some type of one-sidedness is typically manifest in all of them. News reports tend to exclusively reflect the Hungarian angle, neglecting the neighbouring country’s internal power, interest and ideological dynamics. In the meanwhile, opinion pieces tend to focus exclusively on Hungarian grievances, which is of course justified in a situation when there is a genuine violation of Hungarian interests, such as restrictions on the right to Hungarian-language education. At the same time, it reflects a constriction in the range of potentially legitimate opinions, including an objective assessment – not to mention potential criticism – of Hungarian diplomatic measures.

Unlike in domestic opinion articles, where a partial (though not necessarily partisan) viewpoint is essentially a fundamental precondition, and unlike in foreign policy op-eds, which cannot be written without some level of knowledge about the affairs of the country in question (though a parallel to Hungary or some relationship thereto is inevitable), opinion pieces on ethno-national politics presuppose neither one nor the other. In the vast majority of cases there was no room for nuance, the viewpoint expressed reflects the interests that are perceived as the presumed Hungarian national interests, and by necessity this does not correspond to the majority interest of the neighbouring country. Hence, the columnist, commentator has broadly two options: She either supports her assumptions based on existing and pre-selected information purportedly showing that the neighbouring country’s majority population and government are anti-Hungarian and “do not belong in Europe”, or they support this claim with their additional personal knowledge. A good illustration of the latter are several op-eds by Albert Gazda on mno.hu (Nyírd a magyart, úgysem számít [Kill the Hungarians, they don’t count anyway], 9 September 2017, Az ukrán nyelv szépségei [The beautiful aspects of the Ukrainian language], 18 September, Józanabb ukránok [The more sober Ukrainians], 29 September). These mix personal experience with a knowledge of current affairs and a lively writing style that is characteristic of opinion pieces – these diverge significantly from the other articles on the subject published elsewhere and/or by other authors.

As far as reports and news items are concerned, the flaws that emanate from such a grievance-centred approach are best illustrated by the absence of something: although both ideological sides prominently covered Péter Szijjártó’s comments on the issue – which were, for diplomatic standards, unusual in terms of their explicit hostility towards Ukraine (“Ukraine stabbed Hungary in the back”) and in terms of the threats (“this will hurt”, blocking and veto) they proffered – neither side subjected any of his statements to any sort of critical scrutiny.

None of the articles pointed out that the idyllic picture of Hungary helping Ukraine is only one side of the story, for the relationship between the two countries has been strained for a long time. In autumn 2014, for example – following a visit by Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller – Hungary halted reverse gas shipments going to the Ukraine and – presumably – only turned these back on under American pressure (this puts Szijjártó’s claim that “we deliver gas to Ukraine through Hungary” into perspective). They also failed to mention that the “2600 Ukrainian children” mentioned by Szijjártó, who had vacationed in Hungary, where ethnic Hungarians from the Sub-Carpathian region. In the second case, when the minister promised to block and veto any steps that serve to promote Ukraine’s western integration, no doubts were raised as to the efficacy of such tactics, even as the other affected “mother countries”, including the seriously offended Romania, engaged in negotiations seeking some type of agreement with Ukraine, and did so successfully. The media also failed to note the obvious fact that blocking the western integration of Ukraine coincides with Russia’s interests, no matter how large the grievance is that the Hungarian government wishes to remedy by using this tactic.

This type of imperceptiveness may also be fuelled by the general lack of knowledge in Hungary about international affairs. Although the articles reviewed typically did not say this explicitly, in online discussions the argument was repeatedly raised that the Hungarian government’s tactics would likely succeed because the Ukrainians have greater need of us due to our EU and NATO membership than we of them. This fails to consider the fact, however, that at present the international organisations tend to be more forgiving of the transgressions against fundamental rights by Ukraine – which is considered a victim of aggression – while as far as Hungarian grievances are concerned, and especially the question of how these justify such drastic steps, in the absence of the relevant historic background knowledge westerners simply don’t understand them. In fact, this counterproductive impact of the government’s threats became subsequently apparent, after the media monitoring in this project had ended. The argument that the restrictions on Hungarian education cannot be attributed to anything but anti-Hungarian or anti-minority attitudes in general is not a result of lacking information but of a stubborn insistence on prejudices. If one applied any common sense to the assessment of this situation, it would be obvious that the Ukrainian government, which is striving towards integration – and is in midst of a war – cannot be reasonably interested in incurring the wrath of its EU and NATO neighbours. The explanation that they are simply unaware of why and how important the full range of Hungarian education is to the ethnic Hungarian community in Ukraine makes a lot more sense, especially so since the education networks of the other minority communities that are ethnically affiliated with EU members states – i.e. the Romanians, Bulgarians or the Poles – are far less developed than that of the Hungarians.

This touches on the third deficiency in the media coverage. Neither side mentioned that there were no Hungarian diplomatic measures whatsoever – at least in public – to protect the education rights of ethnic Hungarians before the act was adopted. This was only mentioned by the Jobbik-affiliated Alfahír when it reported about a parliamentary question by Jobbik MP István Szávay.

These deficiencies show that in this case the media was dependent on the government’s own filtering of the relevant information and on the propaganda disseminated by the latter, even though such a dependence was by no means inevitable. This may increase the suspicion that some measure of manipulation was used by the government in terms of how it released or held back information, and the media, which succumbed completely to the narrative of nationalist grievances, failed to take notice of this.

So how can information work here?

What was apparent from the 136 articles: When faced with a topic that simultaneously requires knowledge of nationality/ethnicity politics and foreign policy, the entirety of the Hungarian online press – with a few respectable exceptions – works in a very flawed manner. In the present case, the relationship between the Ukrainian majority and the Hungarian minority is just one of the elements in the complex system of ethnic relations in Ukraine, which even by conservative estimates involves eight national and “indigenous” minorities. Moreover, the “motherland” of the largest of these minorities, i.e. Russia, is engaged in an undeclared war with Ukraine – and it was this very war that triggered an intensification in Ukrainian national consciousness, which is not entirely free of elements that more fortunate nationalities have managed to shed over time.

The reactions of the Hungarian media – more specifically the lack of an open-minded and empathetic reaction that could simultaneously also promote Hungary’s actual national interests – at the same time exemplified the traditional lack of interest in foreign policy, the tendency towards simplification stemming from a grievance-centred nationalism, and the distorting impact of the intense Russian propaganda of the past few years. The performance of the media is flawed not only in the sense that its coverage is biased and selective, but also in the sense that an overwhelming portion of the articles simply lacks creativity, even any genuine journalistic effort – they often just copy the statements by the official Hungarian news agency MTI, without even the hint of doubt, critical assessment or emotion. For the most part, it does not make sense to analyse their journalistic tools, because they don’t use their own tools. Their emotions and passions were only reflective of the domestic policy events that responded to the Ukrainian language law, and these reactions were also of a knee-jerk nature.

This general dreariness is only punctuated by the individual conscientiousness and intellectual investment of a few journalists. There is no dialogue at all to speak of, just as it is lacking in the political reactions to the issue. It’s as if for readers and journalists alike there is only a single conceivable version of the truth on this issue.

The full analysis is available on Mérték’s website (in Hungarian).