The attack on Ukraine has led to a widespread outrage in Hungary. However, the deep polarisation that divides Hungarian society was also manifest in the public reactions to the war. Most people unequivocally condemn the Russian aggression and profess solidarity with Ukraine, and as the first refugees began to arrive, both civil society and the state extended aid. Nevertheless, there is also another narrative spreading through Hungarian social media, with many commenters clearly disseminating Kremlin propaganda and relativising the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Unfortunately, this narrative is also amplified by the pro-government media, including the public service media.
By Ágnes Urbán
It is obvious that the Russian war against Ukraine has caught the Hungarian government, and hence also the government’s propaganda machine, off guard. Even as the independent media in Hungary were already intensely following and covering international developments as it became apparent that a Russian invasion was imminent, for quite a while the pro-Fidesz media did not focus much on the situation unfolding in Ukraine. Strikingly, several prominent commentators with ties to the government made statements that labelled the series of news warning of an impending war as histrionics (links lead to Hungarian language articles).
When the invasion was ultimately launched on 24 February, this led to palpable confusion in the pro-government media. The reaction of the public service media is especially outrageous, as its coverage is strongly reminiscent of the Soviet style propaganda media associated with the period before Hungary freed itself from the yoke of communism. The news site 444 compiled a summary of the shocking comments uttered by prominent pro-government commentators in the public media shows.
The most stunning pronouncements came from a so-called national security expert, George Spöttle, a former German police officer. Spöttle is a fixture as an analyst in the public service media public affairs shows. He is also known for publicly sharing that he had been kidnapped by UFOs who ultimately returned him to Earth. In the municipal elections of 2019, he ran as a Fidesz candidate. In the video found by 444, Spöttle made the following astounding comments (starting at the 2:13 minute mark in the video):
“What President Vladimir Zelensky said yesterday – the idea that anyone who can hold a gun should report to the army or the police and should be given a firearm – is very dangerous. This could mean that psychopaths or organised criminals will turn up and they will be furnished with, say, AK47 Kalashnikovs, and if they fire at Russian soldiers with those, they will obviously fire back, so civilians could die there. Or the weapons could be sold by organised crime gangs, for example in France, to terrorists, who could then use them to carry out attacks on civilians. So, it’s a very poor decision. The last time we saw such madness was in the final days of World War II when Hitler used the Volkssturm…”.
“What could be their goal [of Russia]?
Clearly, to end the war militarily, to remove the current Ukrainian leadership and to leave Russia with a neighbour that does not want to join NATO and is neutral towards Russia. I would like to point out that since the creation of Ukraine in 1991, the Ukrainian leadership has been either pro-Russian or pro-Western, neither of which was very fortunate. I have never seen a truly pro-Ukrainian leadership.”
György Nógrádi’s media appearances are not limited to the public service media, he was also featured on the television channel owned by the pro-Fidesz Central European Press and Media Foundation, arguing that “Zelensky was never fit to serve as a head of state.”
In an article written for Media1, the former foreign affairs journalist László Kulcsár highlights the role of the language used by the state news agency. A screenshot from 26 February, the third day of the war, shows clearly that the news agency avoided the word “war” and instead resorted to the far more neutral term “military operation”, which is far removed from the reality of what is actually happening in Ukraine. It is important to note that unusually in international comparison, the Hungarian news agency is part of the public media institution system. That their choice of words is deliberate is also reflected in the fact that the public service media television shows – including even sports coverage – consistently use the term “Ukrainian-Russian conflict” rather than war, thereby massively distorting reality. It was only after articles were published about this in the Hungarian press when the public media began to use the word “war” – on the fifth day of the war.
As the days go by, it is apparent that the Hungarian public service media are increasingly uncertain as to how they should cover the war. In the Saturday evening news, new issues moved to the foreground, such as the refugee question and the comments by the Hungarian foreign minister, who offered Budapest as a venue for the peace talks between the warring parties. An interesting development is that the government’s communication, followed as always by the pro-government media, continuously stresses that the Hungarian government does not stand in the way of EU sanctions. That is all the more interesting since several diplomats and journalists report that Hungary does not support the sanctions and tries to soften them. In the meanwhile, the communication aimed at the domestic audience stresses how supportive the government is of the EU sanctions.
This kind of doublespeak is part of the new normal, but its overall direction has now been reversed: in recent years, we often saw situations in which the government voted for a decision within the EU but then went on to paint the same decision critically in its communication with the domestic public, portraying its course as a maverick policy of sorts. It seems that this approach has been turned on its head now: even as the government impedes joint EU action, in its communication with the Hungarian public it claims that it is entirely constructive. Fidesz seems to be aware that domestic public opinion supports the Ukrainians, and the official communication cannot afford to go against this by supporting Russia a mere few weeks before the election.
In the context of the war coverage, a new guest was added to the list of the established speakers, and she pushed a strongly pro-Russian narrative. One odd development concerning her appearance was that for a few hours the video footage disappeared from the public service media’s online video archive. At the time, the URL led to an article about the collection of charitable donations. Then, on the next day, the original video was available once again. The commentator in question, Ágnes Bernek Daunerné, was not previously known in mainstream media.
In the short interview with her she blamed NATO for the situation in Ukraine. It was striking to see how the public service media reporter did not even attempt to soften or to add nuance to the commentator’s claims (starting at 6:32 in the video).
“Guest: Russia has these security concerns. We also saw that they expended major diplomatic efforts to make NATO somehow accept Russia’s security concerns. (….) Not only did not NATO fail to take these into consideration, it failed to even appreciate the idea that Russia could have any concerns worth taking into consideration.
Reporter: Yes, the Anglo-Saxon world has repeatedly made this mistake of maybe not being able to approach their partners with sufficient empathy.
Guest: Yes, yes, yes. They don’t get it, and I often feel they don’t even want to understand these concerns of the Russians.”
Another interesting aspect of the interview is that even though it was conducted during the fourth day of the war, there was no discussion of the dramatic situation unfolding in Ukraine at the time. Even as people were dying in a neighbouring country, and people all across the world were expressing their sympathies, the guest raises a stunning aspect of the war (starting at 10:25)
“I think that from our perspective, this war is a major catastrophe, right at the time when the Hungarian-Russian relations had just started to improve, when we finally made some progress in thinking a little differently about Russia.”
The editorial practices of the public service media raise very serious questions about accountability. The opposition politician Péter Ungár filed a police report against the public media for disseminating propaganda, while Gábor Polyák, the head of the opposition’s media policy cabinet, wrote an open letter to the president of the Media Council, András Koltay. In his letter, Polyák stressed that the responsibility for recalling the CEO of the public media falls within Koltay’s remit, and in the event of his failure to do so, he himself becomes responsible for the dissemination of propaganda.*
This is not the first time that we have to point out that the international professional and political community, too, bears some responsibility for the way the Hungarian public service media operate. Together with Klubrádió and the then-MEP Benedek Jávor, Mérték filed a complaint with the European Commission in 2016 concerning the operations of the Hungarian public service media. It is also worth noting that both the Duna Médiaszolgáltató Inc. and the holding organisation of the Hungarian public service media, the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), are members of the highly prestigious EBU, the European public service media umbrella organisation.
* Disclaimer: Gábor Polyák is the founder of Mérték Media Monitor. Since accepting his appointment to lead the opposition’s media cabinet, he has suspended his activities with Mérték.