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Hungary: Government Spying on Journalists the Latest Step in a Slide to Authoritarianism

‘In December 2019 in Helsinki, five young Hungarian journalists and students interested in journalism took photos with Finnish cartoon characters called Moomins in the Finnish Public Media building, where they discussed, among other things, the differences between the situation of Finnish and Hungarian journalism. But there was another report from the same trip. The Hungarian visitors were also closely followed at the Hungarian Embassy in Helsinki. A diplomatic cable sent by the Hungarian ambassador to Finland to Budapest on 3 June 2020 lists in detail where they went, and even notes that they met a Finnish PhD student who “is critical of the Hungarian government in fundamental ways”’.

This is the opening paragraph of one of the most stunning articles of the year. Direkt36, a Hungarian non-profit investigative journalism centre currently working in collaboration with Telex, have obtained diplomatic cables that, among others, contain evidence about how Hungarian diplomats keep tabs on aspiring journalists travelling across Europe.

I was one of those aspiring journalists. I have been on one of these spied-on trips to Helsinki, The Hague or Warsaw. I have no idea whether I was reported on or not but due to security concerns I will not disclose the name behind this piece.

It is important to note that the reception of the Direkt36’s investigative article was not one of shock or disbelief. It is not the first time the Orbán-government has found independent journalists to be enemies. Last summer, Direkt36 revealed how the Hungarian state used the Israeli spyware Pegasus to target the activities of several journalists and media company owners. An example of how the Pegasus spyware was used is incapsulated in the story of Zoltán Varga, a prominent businessman who has been often attacked by various pro-government figures. In the summer of 2018, he organised a dinner with a group of seven people that gathered at his house. to talk about creation of a new, independent think-tank that was supposed to be researching public interest, among other things. The phone numbers of every single participant in the meeting were selected as targets for the spyware.

More details about the reports and the Pegasus-scandal can be found here and here respectively.

The Bigger Picture

This tracking of young journalists—or the use of spyware—were not isolated cases, or down to the oversight of an overzealous official, but part of a concerted and systematic effort by the Hungarian government to control the Hungarian public sphere. Examples shed light on how a particular system works, but they need to tap into a wider theoretical framework that reveals the internal logic that fuels these systems. In this piece, Several instances of government overreach will be cited to support the claim that independence in any shape or form is not tolerated in Hungary. While certain institutions designed to limit government power formally exist, their independence is gone, and they are completely hollowed out.

Viktor Orbán and the ruling Fidesz-KDNP (NI|EPP) coalition has secured its fourth parliamentary supermajority in a row: a stunning and indisputable electoral feat which was only in doubt because the opposition parties joined forces to defeat Orbán. They did not succeed, Fidesz got north of 50% of the votes and, through some quirks of the electoral system, 135 seats out of 199 in the parliament.

A parliamentary supermajority allows the government to make changes to the country’s constitution and pass important laws without any sort of oversight. Bar a short period between 2015 and 2018, Fidesz has been in possession of this tool since they took power in 2010.

This is important to keep in mind because in the absence of legislative checks and balances, the role of independent institutions—the judiciary, the Constitutional Court, the National Election Office—and the media become more important.

The Issues

The Freedom House democracy index categorises Hungary as ‘partly free’ precisely because of such concerns, downgrade from the topmost ‘free’ category Hungary resided in until 2019. To paraphrase the organisation’s concise summary, the constitution explicitly protects the freedom of the press, but Fidesz has undermined this through parliamentary legislation that has politicised media regulation.

While private and opposition-aligned media outlets do exist, national, regional, and local media are heavily dominated by pro-government outlets, which are often used to spread government propaganda and highlight false accusations. Perhaps the most outrageous example of this is when county-level newspapers publish articles that are exact word-for-word copies of each other.

Government advertising also tends to favour pro-government outlets, leaving independent media organisations in a financially difficult position.

Where subtle methods failed, Fidesz turned to brute force. Widely circulated, independent outlets like Origo (online newspaper), Népszabadság (print) or Klubrádió (radio) were either crushed or forcefully acquired. The culmination of this process was the government takeover of Index, the country’s biggest independent news outlet in 2020. Rather than submitting to government pressure, the journalists and other employees resigned in tandem and founded a new, community-funded newspaper, Telex. It is a stunning example of how independence is considered to be hostile, and how ordinary journalists are required to become quasi-revolutionaries if they intend to continue working in line with their professional values. Today, Index is mainly funded by Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Orbán’s hometown and Hungary’s richest man, and has generally taken a more pro-government turn.

A similar, but less obvious trend can be seen in various state institutions. As opposed to Poland, where the governing PiS party attempted to bend the judiciary to its will as a first step toward authoritarianism, Fidesz has looked elsewhere for easier targets. The Supreme Court was gutted and much of its power was transferred to a newly formed Constitutional Court, filled up with pro-government judges. The National Election Office, although non-partisan in name, almost always rules in favour of Fidesz. The one instance where Fidesz was fined—Orbán campaigned with kids—the prime minister signalled his displeasure in a Facebook video.

Similarly, Fidesz has publicly railed against non-governmental organisations and even forced some of them—chiefly the Central European University—to leave the country. The mantra was always the same: they serve western interests; they are funded by George Soros and are enemies of the Hungarian people. They have also targeted the Hungarian Academy of Sciences MTA, stripping the 200-year-old academy of its network of research institutions in 2019 and handing it over to a new governing body.

Slide to authoritarianism

This a non-exhaustive list of various government practices that, overtly or not, erode the rule of law and the system of checks and balances. In some cases, like state institutions, Fidesz regularly replaces formerly independent overseers with loyal ones. In matters where government interference is more visible, like media outlets, brute force is often used to make life for critical outlets as difficult as possible. The revelation that Fidesz uses state resources to spy on independent journalists is not an isolated incident but just the latest development in Hungary’s long slide into authoritarianism. Standing in the foyer of that Finnish government building, those students could never have known that they were being watched and analysed by the state, monitored for any suggestion of dissent. It is step by step, degree by degree, that the strange-hold is increased and Orban’s grip tightens itself around the checks and balances of the nation, and indeed Hungary’s politics itself.