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Dec 31, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

Here’s some of the media’s most ridiculous reporting on Hungary in 2020

We may remember 2020 as the annus horribilis for all its misfortune and rightly so. It was also a year of horrible media coverage of Hungary, some of the most ridiculous we’ve seen yet from the mainstream press. Here’s a list that I narrowed to just three storylines – no small task, believe me – where reporters and media outlets with an agenda got their facts completely wrong or purposefully bent the truth.

This year, much like the fake news coverage I highlighted last year, the international media really outdid themselves. The competition was stiff, so I collected them according to story lines. Though they cover different topics, they all have much in common: bias, double standards, ungrounded criticism and contempt.

Sometimes, they’re funny. Other times, not so much. Let’s jump right in.

1. Orbán will abuse the coronavirus crisis to seize “dictatorial powers”

On March 11, one week after Hungary reported its first, confirmed case of coronavirus, the government ordered a state of emergency. On March 30, Hungary’s National Assembly – acting upon the government’s initiative – passed the so-called Coronavirus Protection Act, which gave the government broad powers to protect the lives of our people and the economy – much like measures in other countries.

Never missing an opportunity to go after a conservative government, it didn’t take long for mainstream media outlets to sound the alarm. Writing for The Independent, liberal MEP and long-time Orbán critic Guy Verhofstadt began talking about an “erosion of [Hungarian] democracy” that “could destroy the [EU] bloc from within.” Writing cowardly under the pseudonym “Beda Magyar,” a former Central European University (CEU) professor cried in Die Zeit that PM Orbán would be keeping “Hungarians hostage” as he lets them “suffer and die.”

Meanwhile, the editorial board over at The Guardian wasn’t going to miss out on the action. They published an editorial in which they claimed that PM Orbán would “rule by decree, alone and unchallenged,” as he gained “dictatorial powers” for an “indefinite period” of “one-man rule.” Thank you, Guardian editors.

In mid-April, a certain Pavol Szalai from the Soros-funded Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for a pan-European mobilization to “preserve what’s left of press freedom in Hungary,” as Prime Minister Orbán’s “Orwellian law” introduces a “full-blown information police state in the heart of Europe.” That one had me ROTFL.

Petri Tuomi-Nikula, a former Finnish ambassador to Hungary, was the first of a several officials, including EPP President Donald Tusk, who drew allusions to Hitler. Oh, the drama!

It was all a gross distortion, of course. Even MEP Anna Dónath, from the liberal opposition Momentum party, admitted later that their leaders “knew very well that the Hungarian government didn't receive full powers, or anything of the sort."  Nevertheless, she said that by “joining others in crying 'Dictatorship!', we contributed to spread that fake news all around Europe." And played the media for suckers.

We know today that the Coronavirus Protection Act definitely did not push Hungary into “authoritarian disarray.” It served the country well. It enabled the government to take swift action, closing borders, enacting movement restrictions, slowing the spread of the disease, and procuring the necessary equipment for our national healthcare system and healthcare providers to treat all those who required care.

Despite the alarmist claims, on May 27, at the end of the first wave of the virus, the Hungarian Government handed back the extraordinary powers it had acquired under the state of emergency, making Hungary one of the first countries in Europe to do so. Some of these powers have recently been reinstated to successfully combat the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis. This time around, perhaps shamed by their exaggerations and distortions in the spring, the media has remained mostly silent.

2. “Führerdemocracy,” anti-Semitism and double standards

You thought that anti-Semitism wouldn’t make the list this year? Guess again.

Since Prime Minister Orbán’s government took power in 2010, false allegations of anti-Semitism directed at Hungary have become a persistent theme in the playbook of our left-liberal critics. It was dormant for a while, but this year it saw a comeback.

In August, Germany’s Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth said that the key reason behind launching the so-called Article 7 procedure against Hungary was, wait for it, our growing anti-Semitism. With his baseless claims and false accusations, the minister of state crossed the line.

If he were concerned with anti-Semitism, Mr. Roth could consider an Article 7 procedure for several other EU Member States. It’s not Hungary where Jews are being murdered on the street in broad daylight. Nor is it Hungary where our Jewish compatriots have to live in fear and synagogues must be guarded by soldiers armed to the teeth.

But Mr. Roth is not alone in throwing ungrounded accusations of anti-Semitism at the Hungarian Government. In the latest extension of his book The Hungarians, Paul Lendvai refers to Hungary’s current political system as “Führerdemocracy.”

Really? It’s particularly low coming from someone, like Lendvai, who is rightfully proud of his Jewish heritage, someone who knows well what Hungary went through in the 20th century. He knows better but just couldn’t resist giving in to sensationalism. Hungary’s Jewish community is, in fact, living a renaissance.

And even if accusations of anti-Semitism are making a comeback, international media turn a blind eye to the real anti-Semitism in Hungary, one that has become synonymous with Hungary’s far-right, anti-Semitic Jobbik party. An October by-election in rural Hungary, particularly its international coverage (or lack thereof), offers a good illustration of what I mean.

Hungary’s self-proclaimed “democratic” opposition rallied behind a far-right member of Jobbik, László Bíró, who is notorious in Hungary for his deeply disturbing anti-Semitic and anti-Roma slurs.

In the past, Bíró had made several racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma comments on social media. Among these, for example, he referred to Budapest as “Judapest,” while on another occasion, he complained that there were too many foreign Jews visiting the spa hotels in his district. And Bíró didn’t simply complain, he did it in a deeply offensive way.

“My dog goes crazy when those with the lice-infested 'sideburns' pass by the house,” László Bíró wrote on social media, referring to the Polish, Russian and Israeli Hasidic Jewish tourists who traditionally grow their sideburns into payot. In Hungarian, Bíró used the highly offensive word “tetűcsúszdások,” a term that includes a reference to lice.

In a series of blog posts on the topic in September (read more here, here and here), I asked: Where is Michael Roth when Hungary’s left-liberals join forces with a clearly anti-Semitic, anti-Roma far-right party? Where is Paul Lendvai? Where is that always concerned POLITICO Europe correspondent?

Fact is, if this had been a candidate and coalition backed by conservatives, they would have been all over the story. But they ignored it, and their silence was an appalling example of the liberal mainstream’s double standards.

3. German public TV goes cra-cra

In early May, I read about disturbing coverage that compared Prime Minister Orbán to fictional, cannibal, serial killer Hannibal Lecter. At first, I thought it was coming from some fringe publication, like The Guardian, but no.It was German public television, ZDF.

On the Friday night Heute Show, host Oliver Welke spoke at length about how Prime Minister Orbán “rules by decree” thanks to a law passed to establish extraordinary measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic and detailed – erroneously – how the law creates sanctions against those who engage in scaremongering or the spreading of false information.

Funnyman Welke then went on to compare the Hungarian prime minister to the cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. Cue the laugh track. What a comedian!

“Saw your portrayal of our prime minister,” I tweeted to the Heute Show. “Next time maybe consider this: If you’re covering monsters, it seems Germany has plenty of its own that you could focus on. Hit me up if you need some ideas...”

Some cried foul, that I had gone too far. Apparently, it’s ok to disparage an entire country and its popular prime minister.

In November, Heute Show took things even further, as Mr. Welke went out of his way to denigrate Hungary and PM Orbán, along with Poland and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki, by calling the Hungarian prime minister an “idiot” (roughly translated), proposing to set up an EU “without the stupid Hungarians and Poles,” and blaming Hungary and Poland for vetoing the EU’s budgetary legislation. Yes, all of this on German state television.

Although the debate around the EU budget and recovery fund, along with the Hungarian and Polish veto, is now settled and common sense prevailed, facts remain that you simply would never have learned from the likes of Oliver Welke.

With the arrival in Hungary of the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine a few days ago, we have reason to be optimistic about our health and economy in the coming year. Will 2021 also bring fairer, more objective, fact-based coverage of Hungary?  One can always hope…

Goodbye to 2020. Here’s wishing you a happy New Year and good health in 2021!