Leaked documents show how Orbán's circle dictates the news at Hungary's state news agency

March 07. 2022. – 01:12 PM


Leaked documents show how Orbán's circle dictates the news at Hungary's state news agency
Illustration: Somogyi Péter (szarvas) / Telex


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Translation by Direkt36.

In November 2019, Bertalan Havasi, the Prime Minister’s chief of press, sent an email to Zsolt Németh, director of the Hungarian Telegraph Office (MTI), the state news agency which is part of the public media. “Hi! Could you write an article about this, citing me as a source? Thanks!” – Havasi wrote. The instruction was about a letter that a European rabbi sent to PM Viktor Orbán, thanking him for his support.

Later, Havasi also sent a message about what the exact title and introduction should be. The MTI editorial office obeyed and followed the instruction word by word.

This email is part of an extensive collection of MTI’s internal email correspondence and other documents that prove that political interests shape the operation of the state news agency. These show in detail how independent news editing has become impossible for the publicly funded organization and how unambiguously the government’s communication staff interfere with the content.

The interests of government communication overcome journalistic rules in several ways:

  • reporting about Viktor Orbán’s public appearances is carefully planned in advance, detailed questions are prepared and instructions are given about what should be emphasized
  • MTI reporters often receive phone calls from ministry press officers, instructing them how to write an article
  • communiques of government bodies must not be modified, and the same rule applies to the announcements of Opus Global, a corporate group of the pro-government oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros
  • MTI’s collection of press conferences and public events is carefully compiled: government politicians’ public appearances are mostly left out, thus independent media does not know about these.

The work of the state news agency is public service. For decades, TV and radio reporters, online and print media editors, local news outlets have included MTI’s reporting in their content. MTI lost its organizational autonomy in 2015, when it was integrated into a public media holding company. Today, it operates as one of the divisions of public TV channel M1, its reporters are employees of the state-run media company MTVA, which is operating on a budget of 130 billion HUF (about 340 million euros) in 2022.

Although public media should serve the public with accurate and versatile reporting, and according to the law, its independence is “an indispensable condition for the proper functioning of a democratic social order”, documents from the last four years obtained by Direkt36, show otherwise. We are covering these in a two-part series. In this first one we will show how the government is intervening in the work of MTI on a daily basis and how it is distorting the news according to its own political interests. The second part will show how self-censorship works within MTI, and how the news agency, which in theory serves all Hungarians, tries to meet the expectations of the government instead. This is true for a wide variety of topics, including Russia-related news.

Direkt36 sent a set of questions relating to the statements in this article to the public media holding company MTVA, but instead of a detailed reaction, MTVA replied that the publication of internal correspondence is a breach of business secrecy, so they called on Direkt36 not to disclose them, otherwise the public media would seek redress in court.

Bertalan Havasi and the government’s central communication body did not respond to our request.

“This thought of Orbán is very important!”

The news departments of the public media – from TV to radio to the national news agency – have been perfectly subjugated by the government in recent years, with content often aligned with the government’s political interests. This was shown by some previously leaked audio recordings and reports of former employees, covered in detail by for example, Radio Free Europe, but even the British newspaper The Guardian wrote about government propaganda in the Hungarian public media. A National Media Authority investigation was also launched after a leaked recording of a speech by Balázs Bende, one of the main leaders of public media content production. Bende told employees at a 2019 meeting that “this institution does not support the opposition coalition” and “we all work accordingly”. Anyone who doesn’t like this should resign, Bende added.

This attitude is now supported by numerous written documents obtained by Direkt36. This evidence, consisting of internal emails and censored news, helps us show how the government’s political will is enforced in the public media. Accounts of sources familiar with the operation of MTI also attest these. The sources asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliations from the management of the public media.

Several sources have recounted that government communication staff often demands a direct say in their work. In some cases, ministry press officers even dictated over the phone what should be highlighted in the title and introduction of an article, and what should be left out of the coverage of their bosses’ statements. However, the press officers are generally careful not to give instructions in writing, having learned from former leaks. So typically, they tell the reporters by phone what the task is, and then they only send a statement or a sound recording via email.

The public appearances of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are given special priority in MTI – which is only natural, as it is important for a national news agency to have accurate reports on the Hungarian PM’s programmes. However, according to an email from last February, the public media reacts to the prime minister’s public speeches in a very meticulous way.

On February 17, 2021, the above mentioned director Zsolt Németh informed the chief editor of MTI, Sándor Ráthy, about what the public media’s news channel, M1 correspondent would ask Orban at an event in Krakow that day. “This is what Csaba Joó will ask OV! ‘Today you published an article in Hungarian, Slovak and Polish newspapers entitled “Fulfilling our calling”. What do you think the V4 countries need to do in the next 30 years, in order to fulfil their calling?

“This thought is very important!”

Németh added. (Zsolt Németh is commonly referred to as ‘Pitbull’ within state media circles, he is the channel director of M1 and thus the director of MTI.)

In the MTI coverage of the press conference, the news agency reported in accordance with these instructions. The title was “Orbán: We must stick together, this is the secret of the success of V4”, and the beginning of the article reads: “Loyalty and solidarity are needed for the V4 to fulfill its calling in the future – Viktor Orbán highlighted at a press conference, answering a question of the public media service.”

The above quoted email from Bertalan Havasi shows that there are cases when Orbán’s closest associates tell MTI exactly what they should write. Havasi, the PM’s chief press officer and one of his oldest employees wrote the email in question in November 2019.

 Bertalan Havasi's email sent to the national news agency, MTI
Bertalan Havasi's email sent to the national news agency, MTI

It was a forwarded document, a letter to Viktor Orbán, from a rabbi leading a European Jewish umbrella organization. Havasi wrote, “Hi! Could you write an MTI news piece based o this, citing me as a source? Thanks!”

“This should be the title and this the lead please. Thanks!”

He wrote to Németh again an hour later, adding a pre-written title and introduction:

  • [TITLE:] “The European Jewish Association thanked Viktor Orbán for his support for Israel and the Jewry
  • [LEAD:] Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the European Jewish Association (EJA) thanked Viktor Orbán for the Hungarian government’s position on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, for Hungary’s consistent support of Israel and for the comprehensive agreement with the United Hungarian Jewish Community (EMIH), in a letter written to Orbán, Bertalan Havasi, the PM’s chief press officer told MTI on Wednesday afternoon.”

MTI covered the statement accordingly, and the news was published in the government’s official website, Fidesz’s own website and also zsido.com, among others. According to one source, this was not an individual case, they often receive ready-made materials from Havasi that must be published.

Another internal email proves that not only Viktor Orbán’s direct communications staff, but also the Government Communication Center (KTK) which is under the Ministry of Antal Rogán has a role to play in deciding what news MTI reports. On January 4, 2021, one of MTI’s editors asked their boss, Sándor Ráthy, for advice: “The Financial Ministry called and asked whether we are planning to write about minister Varga’s interview [published] on Index,” they wrote in an email. That day, an interview with Minister of Finance, Mihály Varga was published on the news website Index, and the staff of the ministry wanted to know whether MTI would issue a review of the interview. Ráthy replied:

“There has been no order placed yet, they should contact the KTK”

which meant that the Government Information Center would decide whether to order the article from the news agency.

A humble request

It is forbidden to change the title and lead paragraphs of the statements issued by ministries, emails obtained by Direkt36 show.

In 2019, 2020 and 2021, senior editors of the MTI on duty warned about this in an internal letter. In April 2020, for example, one of them, Sándor Ráthy, sent a message to MTI’s internal mailing lists with the subject of a “humble request”, saying that “I apologize to anyone who is tired of hearing this, but for those who haven't managed to remember yet, this is your chance: DO NOT change the title of statements from governmental and pro-government organizations! For example: ITM: and then put the title they gave, word for word .”

“Word for word” is highlighted in red in the email.

(ITM refers to the Ministry of Innovation and Technology.)

 Lead editor Sándor Ráthy after receiving an award on behalf of the entire staff of MTI for quality communication in the "Value and Quality Competition" at the Houses of Parliament on 10 September, 2019. – Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTI
Lead editor Sándor Ráthy after receiving an award on behalf of the entire staff of MTI for quality communication in the "Value and Quality Competition" at the Houses of Parliament on 10 September, 2019. – Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTI

At the end of March 2021, Sándor Ráthy reminded the correspondents and editors in an email again: “It is still valid, do not rewrite the title of the ministerial announcements in the news.”

Some employees responded to this with bitter messages. One of them wrote that “It’s really intolerable for us to throw around headlines that comply with logic and our own rules, not to mention ones that make sense and actually look like headlines.”

Another wrote: “I suggest that we simply copy all statements from the government, Fidesz, and other authorities, then after the first paragraph we just write who sent it, when and to whom, and then after every four or five paragraphs we just write in the word said or told. No extra work, after all we haven’t been journalists for a long time”.

The same rules apply to Opus Global, a company owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, a longtime friend and ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. On April 23, 2021, one of the editors wrote: “In regards to OPUS GLOBAL materials, please make sure that the name of the company is written in all capital letters and that the title and lead of the statement sent to you by the main pipe is also the title and lead of our material. Thanks” (The term “main pipe,” or “chief” in other emails, refers to the lead editor on duty.)

"If a news outlet decides to publish Opus Global's press releases without change, it indicates that it recognizes our company as a credible professional source, and as a result, it exercises its editorial freedom to publish without change" the company told Direkt36 in a written response.

There are three lead editors currently – Sándor Végh, Sándor Ráthy and Mária Rácz -, they alternately supervise the work of the news agency, review the materials before publication and are in constant correspondence with Zsolt Németh at headquarters. Documents obtained by Direkt36 suggest that Németh is the link between the government and the MTI editorial office. There are a total of eight internal emails showing that the senior editors on duty sent him news items for review before they were published, or that he had sent government announcements and other instructions to the MTI editorial office.

Parts of a machinery

In addition to being the news service, MTI also has the important task of publishing a daily list on public events of public figures.

For decades, Hungarian news outlets have relied on this list to decide which events they should cover. In principle, the list known as “Agenda” should include everything from press conferences to ribbon-cutting, but if the programs of government politicians are not listed here, there is a good chance that the independent press will not be aware of them – and their reporters will not be able to ask them questions on the spot.

Direkt36 has obtained several internal emails showing how the MTI Agenda is being prepared today. When senior editors send emails around with the list of the next day’s events, the ones with government politicians often carry the following note: “MTI and M1 correspondent participation” is required, but “don't include it in the agenda."

This means that these events should not be included in the publicly available Agenda, making it hard for independent journalists to find out what events government politicians will be attending.

“This has been a very consistent practice for years, with the aim of preventing the non-pro-government press from preparing for them,” a source explained. The programs of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán do not appear even in these internal lists, because the editors on duty always notify MTI separately and send out a correspondent to cover them. “There was a time when the home affairs desk didn’t know that Viktor Orbán was going abroad and the correspondent was going with him,” the source said.

Based on the documents obtained by Direkt36, the three lead editors of MTI have never questioned the instructions coming from above. They would not have much room for it anyway: the news agency lost its organizational independence in 2015. At that time, the public television, public radio, and MTI were merged to create Duna Médiaszolgáltató (DMSZ), which is officially a public service media content provider. According to the Media Act, this company belongs to a public foundation whose purpose is to “provide public service media and news services, and to protect the independence of the same,” which the law describes as “an indispensable condition for the proper functioning of a democratic social order.”

However, the money and program production are not concentrated at DMSZ, but at another organization, the Media Services Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), from which DMSZ only orders the work. MTVA’s budget for this year is HUF 130 billion (EUR 342 million), higher than ever before, while DMSZ’s budget is HUF 1.8 billion (EUR 4.7 million). MTVA controls all the public service TV channels, radios, and the once independent MTI along with most of its employees; the organization also acts as a trustee, owning all the real estate assets of the public media and overseeing the production of the programs. MTI employees also receive their salaries from MTVA.

The operation of MTVA is supervised by the National Media and Communications Authority (NMHH), whose head is elected by the parliament for nine years. The previous president of NMHH, Mónika Karas, resigned just a few months ago because she was “looking for new challenges.” This made it possible for the governing party to nominate her successor before the elections. The new president is András Koltay, former rector of the University of Public Service. Both leaders were elected by the votes of pro-government MPs alone, with no support from the opposition.

In the cover photo: Viktor Orbán, Bertalan Havasi, Antal Rogán, Zsolt Németh and Sándor Ráthy.

This article is part of Telex's partnership with direkt36.hu.