How the migration crisis put Hungary in the international media spotlight in 2015

I took part in a panel discussion recently about international media coverage of Hungary. The panel was part of an event announcing the release of the latest edition of an analysis published every year by Nézőpont Intézet, a think tank in Budapest.

The conversation was insightful, thanks in no small part to the other panelists, Nick Thorpe, a BBC correspondent covering central Europe, and Boris Kálnoky, a Hungarian-born correspondent for Die Welt.

First, a quick rundown of the numbers from the Nézőpont analysis (available here in Hungarian): They monitored 99 media outlets in 14 countries. In 2015, the number of articles about Hungary rose significantly to 12,503 from 7,462. The percentage of positive articles remained at 4 percent, the percentage of neutral pieces shrank to 66 percent from the previous year’s 71 percent and the negative coverage rose to 30 percent from 25 percent. Not surprisingly, the most significant portion of these negative articles – 46 percent – dealt with the migration crisis. It’s important to note here that the analysis examines media content from international sources, not public opinion in those countries.

The negative nature of the coverage could have been easily predicted. The more interesting dimension was the depth and intensity of these articles. The press, notably, portrayed the Hungarian government as playing a key role in the international debate, due to its proactive part in confronting the migration crisis. Compared to previous years, when the main issue was the explanation of reforms initiated by the government, in 2015, Hungary was less reactive. Many would predict that this year the migration crisis will continue to dominate international press on the region, and the nature and tone of the coverage will sound similar.

No surprise really in the high number of negative articles on Hungary and particularly on the topic of the migration crisis. Die Welt correspondent, Boris Kálnoky, offered an explanation for the negative tone of the article on Hungary, particularly on the migration topic. According to Kálnoky, the interests of Germany and Hungary collide on this topic, and, he added, journalism remains a predominantly liberal profession. Hungary and the Orbán Government, he said, have become favorite targets of the press because they have spoken out so frankly about Hungary’s national interest in keeping mass migration out of Europe. Germany’s national interest, as Kálnoky sees it, is to let them in and this conflict of interest played a defining role in the media’s coverage. While he said that public opinion in Germany appears to be softening on the issue, the political and media establishment have not reflected these changes.

Sounds reasonable enough. Although it doesn’t necessarily entirely explain some of the gross distortions and factual errors we read in coverage of Hungary over the past year. Recall, for example, that time an illegal migrant pulled a fellow migrant, a woman and her child, onto train tracks and the Hungarian policemen, who were trying to help the woman and her child, were presented in many reports as if the officers had pushed them there. Then there was that other incident when a group of migrants violently attacked a border crossing, like a veritable mob similar to the incident we saw recently in the border crossing attack in Macedonia – because they lost their patience. Regardless of the fact that the mob was almost entirely men, the international media coverage spoke of women and children, who were in fact just a small minority in the crowd.

On a brighter note, most of the positive articles appeared in January. Back then, the most popular topic was the Hungarian government’s well-timed move to phase out the foreign currency-denominated (mostly Swiss franc-denominated) loans. That move saved many Hungarian households from a terrible financial burden.

Generally speaking, Hungary and the Hungarian government were more visible in the international press last year. Similar to previous years, the greatest volume of coverage of Hungarian issues was found in German-language media outlets in Germany and Austria, followed by English-language media coverage.

We’re only a couple of months into the year 2016, but it looks like it’s going to be a busy one.