“Please, don’t report about this at all! Thanks!” – How the state news agency withholds news which are unpleasant for the government
March 08. 2022. – 01:01 PM
Direkt36 received a collection of documents showing that for years, one of the most important parts of the public news service, the Hungarian Telegraph Office (MTI) has been clearly serving the government’s political interests by manipulating or withholding important news. The documents contain extensive collections of internal emails and news reports which were never published. Translation by Andrea Horváth Kávai
In our previous article we showed how the various ministries and the prime minister’s communications team dictate to MTI. The collection also shows that any – even remotely – politically sensitive content is tightly controlled by the management of the public media services and its presentation is shaped based on the government’s current position.
Journalists are to consult about certain topics, while other topics are off limits. Many news pieces are simply thrown out – or as they say at MTI: “it bled out” or “it fell”. There is virtually no room for editorial or journalistic freedom.
The management of MTI is exercising strong self-censorship despite the fact that their news service is used by almost the entire Hungarian media, and their task should be to provide accurate, impartial and multi-faceted information to all Hungarians. According to the Code of Civil Service, the public media is “to present individual dissenting opinions, to provide a platform for debating issues which are present in the community, and to contribute to the free forming of opinions based on reliable information.”
By contrast, the documents in possession of Direkt36, show that
- in the past few years, some of the news related to the Covid pandemic were censored and manipulated
- information questioning the effectiveness of the Russian and Chinese vaccines could not be published
- news about Putin being quarantined or the loan Hungary took for building the Paks 2 nuclear plant have been filtered
- coordinating with the top management of MTI on news related to the rule of law debate, the child protection law, migration, or churches has been mandatory
- it is forbidden to review foreign press articles critical of the Hungarian government
- writing about the deteriorating condition of the freedom of press in Hungary, as well as about human rights organizations is out of question
- Using the expression “far right” was not allowed, and instead of referring to “the unified opposition”, the term “the left” is to be used
- when Donald Trump lost the elections, this could not be published for weeks
- the news agency staff were repeatedly and clearly instructed to publish news contrary to professional standards
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.
“Hi! This piece fell. No need to pay any attention to it.”
The internal documents which were provided for Direkt36 reveal a well-established mechanism for controlling the news and self-censorship at MTI. These documents (all dated after the 2018 elections) show that the key figures within the system are 3 so-called “managing editors, responsible for the entire publication”, who work in shifts in an on-call system, as well as the senior executives with whom they are in regular contact: Zsolt Németh (referred to as “Pitbull” in-house), who is the director of the M1 channel, or for instance Balázs Bende, who is a leading news editor.
The documents and sources familiar with the internal workings of MTI’s system both confirm the modus operandi of the system: before publication, the on-call managing editors show the sensitive materials to Németh or Bende – as they are the ones in contact with the government’s communication team. They sometimes make corrections, or simply decide that a certain piece will not be published, and at times send notes about something that is mandatory to cover. Their decisions are never justified to the journalists.
An early example of banning happened in 2018 when one day after the Hungarian elections, quoting articles from the German conservative newspaper, Die Welt was prohibited. That day, the German newspaper wrote about Fidesz’ latest two-thirds win with the title “ The threatening Orbanisation of Europe”. In the afternoon, MTI quoted a few lines from this article as part of its press review. At half past six that evening, the on-call managing editor Sándor Végh sent a group email saying that articles from Die Welt are not to be included in the press reviews in the future. Later on, the press reviews were stopped entirely:
“Until further notice, we will not be making any more reviews on “The foreign Press on Hungary”. Thank you for your work on this in the past! VS”
- Végh wrote in March of 2019, but did not give a reason for this decision. The archives of MTI show that in the years before this, MTI used to publish such a review every three to four days, but since then, none have been done.
This decision is just one of many which blacklisted certain topics or threw already finished reports in the trash without publication.
Such is – for example – the condition of the freedom of press. In April 2018, Végh informed the foreign policy department that Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO fighting for the freedom of press would be publishing its annual “World Press Freedom Index” the following day. “We will not be covering this. Greetings, VS” – he wrote.
Although an MTI staff member wrote a piece on them, two other press freedom rankings of the same organisation in 2021 were also not allowed to be published – both of which featured Hungary and Viktor Orbán himself in a bad light. “Please, don’t write about this at all! Thanks!” – this was the message an MTI staff member received from Sándor Ráthy, the on-call managing editor.
The leaders also did not like reports about the activities of NGOs. One example is from November 2019, when the on-call managing editor sent a group email that read: “Balázs Bende informed me that we are not to publish materials from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI). Please, proceed accordingly!”
Indeed, the names of HRW and AI appear much less since 2019 in MTI’s archive: while a search for the three years prior to 2019, results in 783 hits, since 2019 until today, we can find only 128 hits.
According to the documents, MTI’s reporting on foreign criticism of the Hungarian government has been very heavily filtered. The adoption of the Hungarian Child Protection Act in 2021, for example, provoked strong criticism in the EU. According to the Hungarian government’s narrative, the law was designed to combat paedophiles and LGBTQ propaganda that threatens children, but its critics see it as homophobic.
MTI's staff wrote several reports on this, but none of them were ever published. Such was the fate of the report which quoted Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian conservative politician and former leader of the CSU who said that “Orbán had gone too far” and that “the law is a violation of the core values of the EU”, and as such “we cannot and will not accept it”. The news article quoting the French State Secretary for European issues was also thrown out. Clément Beaune had said that he hoped the EU would sanction Hungary, and that the so-called child protection law is a “scandal”.
Direkt36 sources familiar with the inner workings of MTI who had asked to remain anonymous said that there was only one way for topics which are considered unpleasant by the government to get into the news stream at MTI: if a government politician reacted to them. On such occasions, only the government representative’s statement was quoted.
There have also been several cases when news embarrassing to Viktor Orbán's foreign allies or ideologically close leaders could not be published. For example, on 26 October 2021 a news piece was thrown out because it reported about a video by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro which was removed from YouTube and his account was suspended because in the video Bolsonaro claimed that people who have received two Covid vaccines are more likely to get HIV. In reference to this, editor Sándor Végh simply said in a group email: “Hi! This piece fell. No need to bother with it.”
“Professional? :D :D :D :D :D :D”
The tight control of Covid-related news began very early on. This is evidenced by the fact that the first group email from Sándor Végh arrived to the MTI mailing lists on 4 March 2021 – which was just a few days after the first confirmed case of Covid in the country: “Please, forward all coronavirus-related news to the main pipe!”. This means that before they could be published, any news about the pandemic had to be sent to the on-call managing editor for review. Our sources familiar with MTI have confirmed that this rule is still valid today.
The picture emerging from the documents is that the news which might cast a shadow on the government’s management of the pandemic are also stopped by the filtering system. Thus, the government’s efforts to strongly filter the information about their handling of the pandemic and to simply withhold news which are not pleasant for them can be seen very clearly in the way the news agency has covered this issue.
For example, at the end of July 2021, the information that the Delta variant was identified in a soccer fan who had previously visited Hungary was simply thrown out. Shortly before this, a Portugal-France soccer match was held in Budapest, and it was documented that 9 fans were infected there (the number of fans attending soccer matches at the championship was not limited).
These are some of the news not published by MTI:
- that Open Societies Foundation, started by George Soros had donated one million euros to the city of Budapest for fighting the pandemic (the only reason Zsolt Németh gave for this was: “Not needed.”),
- or that three vaccinated health workers in Russia had been infected with Covid (“The material about the Russian health workers did not go out, but thanks for working on it”).
- In October 2021, the state news agency did not report on the Romanian Covid-patient who died in the ambulance while being transported to Szeged and whose treatment had been taken over by Hungary to ease the pressure on the heavily burdened Romanian medical system. (In spite of this, part of the Hungarian press reported on this, referencing Romanian press sources.)
- MTI did not report on the European Medicine Agency launching an ethics investigation into the Sputnik V vaccine
- it also failed to publish the news that the experts of the WHO do not trust the Chinese authorities’ data published about Sinopharm.
In the above listed cases, the employees of MTI did write up the news, but – due to decisions of upper management – these were never published.
There were also examples of domestic data on the coronavirus having to be published without acknowledging the source, which is against the most basic rules of news reporting. A blatant example – according to our sources – of this happened in May 2021, when Zsolt Németh, the director of channel M1 sent an already written text to Tamás Pintér who was the on-call managing editor at the time.
The news said that “According to information acquired by MTI, the number of those aged between 16-18 years of age who have registered to be vaccinated is more than 84000.” Németh did not reference the source of this information, but instead added a “Pleeeeaaase!” Pintér forwarded the letter to the MTI editor working at the time, who resisted by saying:
“This goes against all professional criteria! What is our source for the numbers of those registered, and since when can a piece of news start like this?” Pintér simply responded with: “Professional? :D :D :D :D :D D
Russian-related news have also been filtered
Among the never-published MTI news, we can also find dozens of those which show that the news agency has also been filtering news relating to Russia.
This is significant in light of Russia’s recent attack on Ukraine, especially because the opposition has strongly criticized the public media service because – according to them – it has been reporting on the war in the spirit of Russian propaganda. Even days after the war broke out, MTI was still referring to the events as “the Russian operation” which is very similar to Russia’s official communication about it: Vladimir Putin referred to the attack done by the Russian troops as a “special military operation”.
The Hungarian opposition turned to OSCE and demanded the replacement of the head of MTVA. In response to this, Dániel Papp and Menyhért Dobos, the leaders of MTVA and Duna Médiaszolgáltató (in other words: the two companies operating the public media services) submitted a complaint with the Media Authority and the National Election Committee claiming that the opposition is attempting “to exercise political influence”, when in their opinion
“the only thing determining what is published (and how) in the news of the Hungarian public media services is editorial freedom”.
In fact, the package of documents obtained by Direkt36 shows the restriction of editorial freedom at MTI regarding certain news concerning Russia. There were several reports that the European approval of the Sputnik vaccine had stalled, but these could not be published. For example, this happened to the news from May 2021, which was a review of the news published by the German Das Bild. They reported that the German purchase of Sputnik-V got stuck because the Russians had difficulties with transportation and obtaining a European license for the vaccine. Zsolt Németh, the on-call managing editor, simply wrote “Not needed.” regarding this material.
Last fall, when – at a public event – Putin mentioned that he might need to be quarantined, this was not allowed to be reported. On the next day, however, once the Kreml officially announced this, explaining that a number of those in the president’s circle had tested positive, MTI did publish a brief piece about it.
A number of news reports related to the Paks 2 project and the Russian loan making it possible were not allowed to be published. The Paks 2 project will cost 12,5 billion euros, and Hungary signed a 10 billion-euro loan contract with Russia in 2014 to cover the cost of expanding the already existing plant. The deadline for using this money has been extended to 2030. Since a reason was never provided, it is not clear why reports about the Russian vaccine, Putin’ quarantine, or Paks 2 were withheld.
Donald Trump can not lose
Then-US president, Donald Trump’s loss at the November 2020 elections was also a sensitive subject. At the elections held on 3 November, Democratic candidate Joe Biden won 51,3 percent of the votes and the majority of the electoral votes as well, but Donald Trump was reluctant to concede defeat and – although he was never able to provide proof – claimed multiple times that the election was stolen via the mail-in votes. The documents provided for Direkt36 show that similarly to the Hungarian government, state media was also unwilling to accept Joe Biden’s victory.
A week after Trump’s defeat (and days after the result had become obvious), leading news editor, Balázs Bende wrote a nervous letter to Tamás Pintér, the on-call managing editor at MTI who had sent him a report to be checked: it was about French President Emmanuel Macron having called Joe Biden on the phone. Bende’s response was:
“ONCE AGAIN I marked the changes with an asterisk that he is not the president-elect, he has not won until there is an official result. It would be great if for once, the editors in your department were doing their job, and I didn’t have to write the same thing over and over again. I don’t think that this should be too hard to comprehend for your department. And I really don’t care who likes this and who doesn’t! Thanks!”
In the news report, Biden’s title had to be changed from “president-elect” to “the Democratic party’s presidential candidate”. This is how the following sentence was born: “On Saturday, the French president had already congratulated the Democratic Party’s candidate Joe Biden on Twitter” – but the part that said “for winning the presidential elections” had to be removed.
On the same day there was another similar news piece saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken on the phone with Biden. In this case they solved the problem by violating a fundamental rule of news agency work: they left out Joe Biden’s title. It was also a strange solution when they reported that former American president, the Republican George W. Bush congratulated “Democratic candidate” Joe Biden on his “success” at the presidential elections. In this case, since Biden could not be referred to as an “elected candidate”, he simply remained a “candidate”, and since mentioning “victory” or “won” were out of the question, they went with “the success he achieved”.
Even later on, Bende insisted that Joe Biden’s victory can not be acknowledged. Accoding to an email written on 15 November, Bende gave directions to throw out a short news piece published by MTI which reported that Donald Trump had acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory for the first time on Twitter (although later on he changed the word “won” to “he only won in the eyes of the fake news press”)
The explanation Bende gave to the on-call managing editor was that “Trump did not acknowledge anything”. He forwarded this message to the journalist working on the piece, who responded by saying “Perhaps we should notify President János Áder that he was a bit too hasty with congratulating Biden? And we might as well inform all the leading politicians of the world… :(” The boss’ answer was simple: “I am sure you are not actually asking this. :)”
The unified opposition doesn’t exist – there are only those on the left
The rules on how political parties were to be referred to also had to be changed based on orders from above. In this case too, the words and adjectives used by MTI had to be completely in sync with government communication. An email from April 2019 attests to the fact that they started completely avoiding the expression “far-right” when referring to those foreign political parties which Fidesz considers potential allies.
Sándor Végh asked his colleagues at MTI “to avoid using the expression far-right when referring to parties within Parliament! It can be right-wing or radical, etc instead. Only use “far-right” when referring to small Nazi groups holding a street demonstration” – he wrote.
The references to the government’s opposition have also not been too colourful. A group email sent by Tamás Pintér dated 7 February 2020 states:
“There’s a new ban: when referring to mayors, do not use “opposition” or “united opposition” as an adjective for them. Instead use “left-wing”. If the person was also supported by right-wing organisations, then we put the organisations which supported them in parentheses, and just refer to them as “mayor so-and-so.”
Writing about the disagreement with the EU relating to matters of rule-of-law is also not possible without limitations at MTI. At the heart of the debate is a new EU procedure that would allow the EU to punish member states which violate the rule of law, even by withdrawing EU funds. The Hungarian and the Polish governments opposed this, and attacked the regulation at the European Court of Justice.
Sándor Végh was the one who informed the MTI staff about the guidelines by adding: “Please, pay attention to the post scriptum!” And the text was this: “The EU will keep bringing up “the rule of law conditions” in their haggling. These are in fact political conditions: they will give us cash if…so, let’s NOT use this expression please! Instead, simply write “subject to political conditions” Thanks!”
But news about sensitive topics always had to be shown to the leaders before publication anyways. These are referred to as topics which are “subject to consultation”. According to an email from 2019, such was for example “migration, terror attacks in Europe, Brussels, church-related issues”, but temporarily, certain current events also fell into this category.
According to a group email sent by Tamás Pintér in September 2019, “the Israeli elections have grown to be subject to consultation”.
At the end of March 2020, Sándor Réthy informed those working on foreign policy and economic news that “reports about financial decisions of the EU must first be seen by the chiefs. (The chiefs are the ones also referred to as “main pipes”, lead editors or on-call managing editors.)
Pro-immigration intergovernmental organisation
The reporters also did not have it easy when it came to the subject of immigration, especially not during the time when the governing parties’ communication was built on stopping migration.
This is clearly seen in how a tragic piece of news in July 2019 was handled: In the German city of Frankfurt, a man pushed a mother and her young son in front of an arriving train. MTI’s first report bore the title of: “A Swiss father of three pushed a woman and her child in front of an arriving train in Frankfurt”.
However, this title was not popular with the leadership, so the next day Sándor Ráthy sent directions in a group email:
“Hi! When writing about the German train murder case, please start both the text and the title with stating that the man is from Eritrea and not that he had been living in Switzerland. Later on, it’s okay to mention in the text that he is an Eritrean who had been living in Switzerland, etc. Thanks! Sándor.”
The next MTI report about the murder case was already worded in line with these directions.
According to the documents sent to Direkt36, several pieces of news about refugees didn’t make it past the filters either. This happened for example to the material from September 2021 entitled “Illegal migration – relief organizations criticize the conditions in Greek refugee camps”
It was also emphasized that the UN’s IOM should always be referred to as “an intergovernmental pro-immigration organization”, and all materials about them are to be approved by one of the bosses before publication. Hungary is also a member of this international organization, and as a matter of fact, its statute became part of Hungarian law in 2013, when Viktor Orbán was already prime minister.
In spite of all this, according to a group email sent out in the fall of 2020, the following rule was to be applied at the Hungarian national news agency when reporting on this organization: “Dear foreign policy desk! Any time you write down the name IOM, the following indicative structure should always follow: The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an INTERGOVERNMENTAL, PRO-IMMIGRATION ORGANIZATION….And then in each case this sentence must be added right after: ACCORDING TO THIS ORGANIZATION’S BASIC BELIEF, GLOBAL MIGRATION IS USEFUL BOTH FOR THE MIGRANTS AND FOR SOCIETY AS A WHOLE, SO IT SHOULD NOT BE STOPPED, BUT RATHER MAINTAINED AND MANAGED THROUGH GLOBAL COOPERATION. Thanks!”
The cover photo shows Balázs Bende. This article is the result of cooperation between Telex and Direkt36.hu.