How Orban’s media empire is smearing Atlatszo

Vsquare founding member Atlatszo, a non-profit investigative journalism outlet became the latest target of government propaganda in Hungary. Atlatszo revealed last week that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban used a private jet to travel to Bulgaria for a soccer match and that the government’s business and political elite are using a luxury yacht for holidays. Atlatszo followed up its story with another about a recent trip of the private jet to London.

Since its publication, government officials have been trying to frame the story as a defamation attempt that is part of the campaign for next year’s European elections. Four days after the publication of the story Orban himself addressed the issue. At the same time, the government-aligned propaganda outlets, working in unison, launched an attack against Atlatszo and its editor, Tamas Bodoky. This is a perfect case study of how Hungarian government propaganda works. This is a case study of how Orban’s propaganda machine works.

The official response to the story about the luxury jet and the yacht came from prime minister Orban’s spokesman, Bertalan Havasi. He said that businessman István Garancsi, whose company Market Zrt. is winning public tenders worth billions of Hungarian forints, was the one who invited Orban to Bulgaria on board the private jet OE-LEM. 

However, Hungarian law strictly limits what kind of gifts politicians can accept. Therefore, it was not long before István Hollik, spokesman of the Fidesz caucus, stated that the flight was in fact ’not a gift.’ He offered no alternative explanation. Hollik went as far as to claim that the flight that Orban was given as a gift was worth nothing because the ’plane would have taken off anyway’, with or without Orban on board.

Government propaganda media launch an attack

Soon after Hollik’s words, another message started to be pushed by the propaganda media: stories claiming that Atlatszo was a ’Soros-puppet’ that was ’promoting migration.’ These stories also asked why Atlatszo was not investigating luxury trips of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

These stories lack one thing: any hard evidence that refutes our claims about the private jet and the yacht used by the Hungarian governing elite, including Orban himself. Many of these stories did not even mention the luxury jet; they were only smearing Atlatszo.

It was the website origo.hu that published its first story about Atlatszo one and a half days after the first story about the luxury vacations. The headline said ’George Soros is using drones to have people close to the government watched.’ The story said nothing about the yacht or the jet. Origo published another story about Atlatszo a day later, but it was practically the same text with a different headline. A third story followed, questioning why Atlatszo was not writing about similar affairs of opposition politicians.

This was when the coordinated effort started. Origo published the second and the third stories on Wednesday at 11 a. m. By noon, the website of pro-government daily Lokál already published a story, citing origo, titled: ’Opposition media is attacking the government using Soros’s money.’ Not long after that conservative political analyst and pollster Ágoston Sámuel Mráz was on news channel Hír TV, explaining that our story marks the beginning of the European election campaign.

After that most of the outlets of the propaganda machine ran the same story: 888.hu, the public service channels, Echo TV and TV2 all covered it. All of them were pushing the same content, either citing Origo’s story about Soros or quoting what Mráz said at HírTV.

Orban threatens journalists

Friday morning, four days after his use of a private jet was revealed, Orban himself addressed the issue. His words were a thinly veiled threat to journalists.

’If someone hits us, we will respond. What goes around, comes around,’ Orban said.

’We are not scared. There are countries in Europe, I will not name them, where politicians are scared to represent the opinion of the majority of the people. This is not us, and if we are attacked, everyone can be sure that we will answer with the appropriate weight, and not only because it is in our own interest, even though we are also human beings. We are not just answering the attacks to protect our honor – though that is important as well – but for the sake of the entire country,’ Orban said.

’Thus, we need to make it clear that if someone hits us, they can expect an answer: what goes around, comes around’ he said.

Conspiracy theories spread by pro-govt media

The most ferocious attack came from pro-government channel Echo TV, where József Horváth claimed that conducting such an investigation – taking photos and drone videos – can most probably only be the work of intelligence agencies.

Horváth was introduced as a ’national security expert’ by the anchor. Horváth was working for the Hungarian civilian intelligence agency until 2002, when the newly formed left-wing government fired him. After that, he was the CEO of UD Zrt, a private security firm that was involved in a high-profile wiretapping scandal that involved now-defunct conservative party, MDF.

UD Zrt was nicknamed ‘Fidesz’s private security firm’ by Orban’s left-wing opposition. Horváth was appointed deputy chief of the military intelligence agency in 2010; he was removed from this position in 2013.

Horváth also claimed that it posed a security risk that someone was able to take a photo of Viktor Orban arriving at Budapest Airport and leaving in the jet posed a security risk. Horváth claims that Orban is a ’valuable target’ to organized crime, ’hostile intelligence services’ and terrorists. He also said that anyone ’trading in’ such information is ’committing a crime.’

It was also a show on Echo TV where, at the weekend, four pro-government pundits talked for more than ten minutes about Atlatszo’s story. They claimed that a story that has drone footage of a yacht can only be the work of an intelligence agency, and they also said that all journalists who worked on the story were criminals. 

They also tried to downplay the significance of the story: they said it revealed nothing else but that Lőrinc Mészáros went on a holiday in Croatia. 

It is important to note here that Echo TV is owned by Lőrinc Mészáros himself. 

Atlatszo’s editor becomes origo.hu’s top story

Since Friday the attacks have become personal: Atlatszo’s editor Tamás Bodoky has become the subject of a coordinated character assassination attempt.

The attack is based on a photo that Bodoky posted on his public Facebook page last Thursday. He was in Brussels, attending a conference when he saw MEP Judith Sargentini in the corridor. He greeted her and asked to take a photo with her, which she agreed to. The Dutch MEP did not know who Bodoky was.

Sargentini authored a report about Hungary that pushed the European Parliament to consider applying Article 7 procedures against Hungary, which means taking the country’s voting rights away. The European Parliament voted in favor of triggering Article 7 in September. MEP Sargentini has been a target of Hungarian government propaganda ever since, calling her report the ‘fake Soros-Sargentini report.’

Origo saw the selfie taken by Bodoky with Sargentini and quickly wrote a story saying: ’Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of Atlatszo, a website that always lies about being independent, ran to Brussels the other day to say thanks to Judith Sargentini for writing the fake Soros-Sargentini report, and he even posted a photo about this on his Facebook. So, even if you had any doubts that Sargentini is working in the interest of Hungarian Soros-kids or doubted that she is working for the Soros empire, or if you doubted that Atlatszo was watching Hungarians considered enemies by the orders of Soros, then, looking at this picture you will have no more doubts.’

The propaganda machine was again working like a well-oiled machine and within a few hours all of them picked up origo.hu’s story about Bodoky. The ’story’ ran at three pro-Orban TV channels (TV2, HírTV, Echo TV), it was published by three pro-government newspapers (Magyar Idők, Magyar Hírlap, Lokál) and by two other propaganda websites (888.hu, pestisracok.hu). 

Bodoky’s photo with Judith Sargentini was treated as a top story: it was on the front page of free city paper Lokál at the beginning of this week, and it was also the top story on the evening newscast of TV2 channel. 

Anita Komuves

Hungarian journalist, works with the investigative outlet Atlatszo. She won the Junior Prima Prize in 2012. Former  Fulbright/Humphrey Fellow. Based in Budapest.