Pushing back on fake news

Some media outlets seem to think that their proper role is not simply to report the news but to exert influence over public life by driving a political agenda. Perhaps all media organizations reflect a bias, but when a political agenda so dominates the media’s decision about what to cover and how to cover it that it completely undermines all objectivity and journalistic integrity, then we have a problem.

The Hungarian government’s fight against the spread of fictitious information driven by political interests through the media is not some kind of crackdown on media freedom. These outlets that propagate this brand of ‘fake news’ typically have no popular mandate and have no accountability to the people – and, yes, some are foreign-funded – and they’re trying to exert influence on public discourse. Our struggle against this kind of news is, in fact, a fight for the people’s right to access valid information.

In July, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in his annual speech at the Summer University of Baile Tusnad (also fondly known as Tusványos), elaborated on the future of Hungary and Europe with a big-picture look at recent events. Among his points, the prime minister highlighted the persistent challenge confronting Hungary and many others coming from the concerted dissemination of misinformation by political interests.

Time and again, Hungary has been subject to condescending and insulting rhetoric that creates a distorted picture of events. In the prime minister’s own words:

“I should also say a few words about our opponents, because this time our real opponents will not be the domestic opposition parties. Everyone can see that in recent years a strong and determined unity on national affairs has been forged; in the sophisticated language of politics, we’ve called it the “central field of power”. The opposition parties don’t know how to cope with this field of power, with this national unity. In the campaign facing us, we’ll primarily have to stand our ground against external forces. In the next nine months, we’ll have to stand our ground (emphasis added) against Soros’s mafia network and the Brussels bureaucrats, and the media operated by them. We know their methods, and in this they can’t have too many surprises in store for us: financial blackmail, political threats, this report and that report, media campaigns, smear campaigns, infringement procedures, this article and that article.”

This was not the main point of the speech, but this remark was picked up and, in typical fashion, taken out of context and twisted to fit another narrative.

A few days ago, standing next to Minister János Lázár during our usual Thursday afternoon press briefing, I encountered again just how distorted it sometimes becomes. Minister Lázár took the following question from a journalist from Index, a popular online news site:

“Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in Baile Tusnád that in the next nine months, the Soros-mafia network, the Brussels bureaucrats and the media operated by them have to be fought. Do you agree with this statement?”

Index is frequently critical of the Orbán Government in its coverage and with its sensationalism is considered a sort of pioneer in the spreading of fake news in Hungary. In this context, note the significant difference between “stand our ground” and “fight”.

Things like this happen every day, everywhere. Remember my previous post on the ethical hacker story? Similarly, as Yahoo News, recently reported, the FBI is investigating Russia-owned news agency Sputnik “as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).”

The Hungarian government would not necessarily go as far as the US government has by sending a government agency to investigate journalists, but this example shows how the issue – media with an agenda becoming a real political actor – has become a serious matter of concern.

This problem is not just among our domestic media. We see similar kinds of coverage – reliance on a conspicuously limited group of sources, omission of key details – coming from prominent international media outlets. Facts and balanced reporting seem to be of little importance when it comes to Hungary and the Orbán Government. Badmouthing the government and our political process, even if it means using sloppy journalism and fake news, has become a regular form of “reporting.”

The government of Hungary does not target the media or the freedom of press and it never will. Spreading fake news, misleading the public and limiting the people’s access to real information is, however, something that we should and will stand against.