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Dec 31, 2019 - Zoltán Kovács

Fake news: The mainstream media’s five most ridiculous story lines about Hungary in 2019

It’s been quite a year for Hungary in the international media. While the country saw record-low unemployment, growing foreign investment, EU-leading GDP growth and signs of growing prosperity on many fronts – we also enjoyed some, well, truly exceptional media coverage.

It was no small challenge to reduce this list to five. The press corps really outdid itself this year, so the competition was stiff. There are so many who deserve mention, for their shameless disregard for facts and balanced sources. Who’s going to hold them to some standards of fairness and accuracy anyway? You know, because illiberal. Because Orbán.

But they made my job a little easier by plying some of the same narratives over and over and over again. So, without further ado, here they are: the five most ridiculous story lines about Hungary in 2019 as reported by international media.

1. It’s about Hungary, so nobody’s going to mind if you just make it up

Sometimes journalists just make stuff up. Because this is Hungary and a man named Viktor Orbán is the prime minister, some think, it seems, they can get away with it. Like I said, who’s going to call them on it, right?

Just a few days ago, a columnist at Newsweek posted a Tweet that apparently attributes to US Ambassador David Cornstein a quote calling Hungary “a dystopic hellscape of repression, fear, and racism.” Wow, now that’s a sensational quote! Problem is, Ambassador Cornstein never said anything like it. In fact, in an interview with CNN a few days ago, the ambassador said, “My view of this country first of all, I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in Europe.” Well done, Mr. Newsweek Columnist.

In November, the AFP correspondent in Budapest tweeted a quote from a Hungarian news outlet that relied on unnamed sources who “hint” that the real reason Hungary pulled out of the Eurovision song contest is because it’s “too gay.” What a story! It proved irresistible to several other outlets, including the The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, who jumped on the bandwagon without bothering to check.

The truth was, the Hungarian state news agency had decided to “reshuffle resources previously dedicated to the Eurovision song selection process in a way that directly supports the careers of rising, Hungarian pop artists.” Never mind. The fictional version sounds so much better, and the biased, fake news champions were off and running.

2. That anti-Semitic Hungarian government

This one is an old favorite among critics of Orbán and Hungary, and coverage in 2019 ensured that it retained its rank among this year’s greatest hits.

A Berlin-based correspondent for the The Times filed a piece in April under the headline, “Jews scared to speak out as anti-Semitism haunts Hungary.” The storyline: Anti-Semitism haunts Hungary. Growing problem. Why? Because Viktor Orbán. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial in May claiming that the “Orbán government has also systematically attempted to whitewash Hungary’s anti-Semitic past.” The Daily Telegraph featured a three-part series in August on anti-Semitism in Europe that kicked off with a focus on Hungary, describing a Budapest where “the rising sense of fear is echoed” on the streets.

There were more, of course. But what they all have in common is that none of them bother to engage the facts of what the Orbán Governments have done on the issue, a long list that includes constitutional protections for the Hungarian Jewish community in the Fundamental Law, tougher laws against hate crimes, Holocaust education in the national curriculum, and Viktor Orbán being the first Hungarian prime minister to speak about Hungary’s guilt in failing to protects its Jewish community during the Holocaust.

Two, poignant exceptions strike a sharp contrast to the rest of the coverage. One appeared in the Financial Times in May under the headline, “Jewish life in Budapest is enjoying a renaissance.” The other was published by the Washington Times in December, “Setting the record straight on Hungarian anti-Semitism.” Both describe a Hungary where the Jewish community is thriving, where its members feel safe and secure.

The difference? Both of these authors have lived in Budapest (the author of the FT article has lived here many years) and know the situation first-hand.

But never mind. If the past nine years are any indication, we’ll have more stories about anti-Semitism on the rise in Orbán’s Hungary in 2020.

And while we’re on the subject of anti-Semitism…

3. Jobbik is a far-right, anti-Semitic party that hasn’t purged itself of its extremists…

No, wait. Scratch that. Nobody in the mainstream, international media wrote about that. Jobbik’s goose-stepping para-military organization and its proposals to draw up lists of Jewish members of parliament (watch the video here) were once a favorite story of the liberal, international media. Not least because some critics saw it as a way to smear Hungary under an Orbán Government, wonderfully creative in their efforts to conjure up some sort of association between the government and the far-right.

But nobody’s covering the story these days. Now that Hungary’s leftists, liberals and socialists are in a de facto coalition with the far-right, somehow Jobbik’s extremists are no longer a story.

4. The war on women

The Orbán Government, according to this narrative, is dividing society with its oppressive image of women and its policies that ‘reek of the 1930s’.

This government has made families a priority, and we’ve put in place some of the most ambitious programs in all of Europe, providing subsidies, grants, low-interest loans and tax breaks to families who want to have children.

Why? First of all, because research shows that most Hungarian couples would like to have more children, and they’re not having as many as they would like because of financial reasons. Plus, we’re facing – in fact, most of Europe is facing – a demographic crisis, and we’re optimistic we can turn that around in Hungary.

But when we announced these programs, the liberal, mainstream media freaked out.

That’s “controlling women’s bodies” and amounts to “coercive reproduction,” claimed a columnist at The Guardian, who went on to compare it to "The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 novel that imagines the institutionalization of fertile women as ‘handmaids’, for impregnation by the elite. If you read that twice because it sounds so crazy you can’t believe that someone actually wrote that, you’re not alone.

A writer at the Frankfurter Rundschau, upset at these policies, asserted that “The right-wing conservative government of Hungary wants to split society with its image of women.”

The government of Sweden went even further. The Social Democratic Social Affairs Minister Annika Strandhäll posted to Twitter that Prime Minister Viktor Orban's seven-point family planning policy "reeks of the 1930s" and that "what is happening in Hungary is alarming".

Meanwhile, Hungary’s marriage rate and birth rate are on the rise. Whatever. Why would anyone write a story on that?

5. Authoritarianism, dictatorship, offenses against the rule of law, a dying democracy and, yes, fascism

So many of the indicators of a country’s well-being, point to a prospering Hungary. It’s not just the basic economic figures – like unemployment, wages, GDP, debt – that are headed in the right direction. It’s so many other things as well: home ownership up, consumer confidence up, business confidence up, emigration down, divorce rate down, marriage rate up, fertility rate up, and more.

But you won’t get any of that from the liberal media’s coverage of Hungary. Instead, they conjure a dreary picture out of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Sometimes the coverage was downright laughable.

One of my favorites, the Guardian columnist Bernard-Henri Lévy, who acquires his deep knowledge of what’s going on in Hungary based on a chat in a bar with one of the founders of the liberal and now defunct SZDSZ – no kidding, see here – wrote about us a lot this year. PM Orbán, according to BHL, is a “most obnoxious bastard,” who is “building an authoritarian rule in Hungary.” Hungary, according to Lévy, is “no longer a democracy” and has become a “tragedy in the heart of Europe.

A Project Syndicate author went so far as to claim that President Trump has learned a great deal from Orbán about “racist immigration policies” or “how to destroy a democracy”. Another correspondent compared PM Orbán to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and Der Spiegel referred to the prime minister as “The Viktator.” The New Statesman frets about “incipient fascism.”

The chair of the US Helsinki Commission, a liberal senator, followed suit by claiming that Hungary has become a “one-party state.”

Meanwhile opposition parties won in Budapest in October and several other municipalities. Hungary’s National Assembly has six opposition parties and voter turnout in the most recent parliamentary elections was higher in Hungary than in the UK, far higher than the last US presidential elections. Weird for a country that is “no longer a democracy.”

Oh, yeah, and did I mention that Hungary’s GDP growth ranks among the EU’s leaders, projected at 4.8 percent for 2019, unemployment lists among the EU’s lowest at 3.5 percent, public debt is falling, FDI is rising and real wages are climbing?

So much winning. Here’s looking forward to a happy New Year and an even more lively and prosperous 2020!