Hungarian state media bosses told staff they need permission to report on Greta Thunberg and EU politics, and banned coverage of reports from leading human rights organizations, according to internal emails obtained by POLITICO.
Editors working in state media are provided with lists of sensitive topics, and any coverage related to the issues mentioned requires staff to send draft content for approval from higher up, the internal correspondence shows. In the case of Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, journalists were told they need permission before they even start writing, according to one email.
Journalists do not know who ultimately green-lights the articles whose subject matter is on the list, said one state media employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal. When something gets rejected by the unknown decision-makers, senior editors sometimes euphemistically refer to it as reporting that "fell in battle," the employee said.
Hungary is currently subject to the EU's Article 7 censure procedure, triggered when the bloc's fundamental values are considered at risk in a member country. The European Parliament launched the procedure in 2018, citing media freedom as one of many issues that gave cause for alarm. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government has dismissed such concerns.
Screenshots of the internal emails detailing instructions to state media staff, all dating from the second half of 2019, were sent anonymously to POLITICO. The state media employee confirmed their authenticity.
The emails come from senior editors who work for an organization with responsibility for state media outlets such as the state news agency MTI and multiple television and radio stations. The emails appear to focus particularly on the news wire's coverage.
A list of political issues requiring special consent ahead of publication includes “migration, European terror, Brussels, church issues” and parliamentary, presidential and local elections in the “EU+” — a category covering European and some neighboring countries — according to an October email signed by senior editor Sándor Végh.
Ad-hoc instructions are also sometimes emailed to staffers. Last summer, Sándor Ráthy, another senior editor, circulated a short email with the simple subject line of "greta."
"Before writing the Greta Thunberg materials," staffers need to seek consent from the editor-in-chief's office, he wrote. The email was sent on August 14, the day the teen activist set sail from the U.K. to New York to speak at the United Nations. The wire ultimately did not publish news of Thunberg's trip, according to its articles database.
The emails also confirm that, as reported previously by Hungarian daily Népszava, an explicit order was issued preventing state media employees from mentioning reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their coverage.
“I have been informed by [state television foreign desk lead staffer] Balázs Bende that we do not publish Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s materials,” senior editor Tamás Pintér wrote in a November 8 email to his colleagues.
A day earlier, Amnesty International's Hungarian chapter organized a demonstration against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was visiting Hungary. Hours before the email was sent, Human Rights Watch published a video of its Budapest-based senior researcher Lydia Gall presenting footage of what the organization described as illegal pushbacks of migrants from Croatia to Bosnia. Pushbacks are a sensitive topic in Hungary: Watchdogs have raised concerns about reports of Hungarian police illegally and at times violently moving migrants across borders. The Hungarian authorities have denied any wrongdoing.
Civil society groups expressed outrage at the state media restrictions.
"This is another example of the Hungarian government undermining media freedom and attempting to silence and interfere with the vital work of civil society organizations," said Gall.
Hungarian journalists have long raised concerns that some politically sensitive issues are absent from the news coverage of state-owned television channels and wire reports.
"This is censorship — pure and simple," Julie Majerczak, head of the Brussels office of media freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders, said in reaction to the leaked emails. "It is unacceptable and very worrying. Public media are not the spokespersons of the government, they should be neutral and independent."
State-owned entities play a big role in the Hungarian media scene, but critics say their structure and governance is opaque.
Editorial responsibility for state media formally rests with an organization called the Duna Media Service Provider, said Ágnes Urbán, an expert at Mérték Media Monitor, a Hungarian NGO that campaigns for media freedom.
But, Urbán noted, that body has "minimal" budget and staff. It is overseen by another organization, the Public Service Foundation, whose board consists of three members delegated by the ruling Fidesz party in parliament, three by opposition parties and one by the Media Council — a body dominated by allies of Fidesz. The Media Council also appoints the board's president.
In practice, yet another body, the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), wields significant influence over media content — under a structure that international media watchdogs have criticized as lacking in transparency.
Neither Duna nor MTVA responded to questions submitted to them for this article several days before publication. The editors who sent the emails did not respond to requests for comment or referred questions to MTVA.
After this article was published, MTVA portrayed state media’s decisions on coverage as part of a normal editorial process.
The question of "which issue, in which form, on what scale and in which area of the state media" is published is a matter of editorial decision-making, "just like every other editorial office in the world,” a statement said.
It described questions submitted by independent Hungarian media outlets as a result of POLITICO’s reporting as “coordinated attacks” intended to exact “revenge” on state media.
MTVA also said that Hungarian state media follows the standards of the BBC.
Radio Free Europe plans to resume its Hungarian-language service later this year in an effort to boost independent reporting and fight disinformation.
Hungary's new patriotic education meets resistance
There is growing opposition in Hungary to the government's modified national curriculum, which aims to instil a spirit of national pride in school pupils.
Critics - including many schools and teachers' organisations - draw parallels with the Communist period, when the governing party imposed its own ideology.
Szilard Demeter is a key figure in Prime Minister Viktor Orban's "culture war" on liberalism.
He is studying a big, dark cloth-bound volume when I enter his office at the Petöfi Literary Museum in Budapest - a book of essays celebrating the 80th birthday of the national conservative playwright, Ferenc Herczeg, in 1943.
The handwritten dedication at the front is from Hungary's nationalist wartime leader, Miklos Horthy, who led Hungary into an alliance with Nazi Germany.
Admiral Horthy wrote: "I give thanks to the Almighty that he gave Ferenc Herczeg to our nation, and preserved him in all his creative power."
Herczeg, alongside other nationalist-minded authors from the 1930s, has just been made compulsory reading in the new national curriculum, to be taught from September.
Mr Demeter says he was not consulted on the curriculum, but broadly approves of it.
"We must be able to hand our heritage on to future generations. If we have a clear idea of what we mean by family, work, respect, love of the homeland, then we're duty-bound to transmit that. That's what public education is about."
The same point is made, less poetically, by government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs.
"There's no such thing as a neutral education. Educational systems are about values… about teaching what we think are the values of Hungarian society. And among the values we very much adore are those heroes who helped us survive the centuries behind us."
The teaching of history and literature are at the epicentre of the dispute.
Rival online petitions have been launched, for and against the new curriculum. Currently opponents are narrowly ahead, with 24,011 signatures against, while 23,010 are in favour.
At the Politechnikum Alternative Secondary School, in Budapest's 9th district, I visited a history class for 17-year-olds. It began with a quiz about the early Middle Ages in Hungary. Twenty students competed enthusiastically to answer rapid-fire questions on their mobile phones.
"What I'm missing most in the new curriculum is critical thinking," teacher Erika Erdei told me, in a break. "The students are told 'believe the teacher', instead of encouraging them to question and think for themselves."
One of her colleagues, Kata Szasz, pointed to another problem.
"Only Hungarian history will be taught in a continuous form - global history only in a fragmentary way, insofar as it affected Hungary."
In his office near the National Museum, the President of the Association of Hungarian History Teachers, Laszlo Miklosi, is one of those organising resistance to the new curriculum.
"Those who wrote this curriculum, and no doubt also those who commissioned it from them, set out to praise the glorious past… they want us to re-touch the past, to make it better than it was. That is a distortion of history."
He is particularly offended by the suggestion that victorious battles should be emphasised, while defeats are downplayed.
"Is it not possible to learn just as much from defeat?" he asks, wistfully.
Opponents argue that the modifications should be withdrawn immediately, because they "damage national unity and culture, students and teachers, and poison public thinking".
Supporters are asked to back the new curriculum simply because "children must be brought up to love their country".
In a state-of-the-nation speech on 16 February, Prime Minister Orban put national pride centre-stage.
"The key to upward progress is the restoration of national self-esteem. So, in 2010 we set ourselves the goal of proving to ourselves - and, of course, to the world - that we are still somebody, and not the people we seemed to be, anxiously cowering as we pleaded for IMF loans and EU money.
"The programme was simple. It was to reveal who we really are, to show that we are the Hungarians: with one thousand years of Christian statehood, monumental cultural achievements, a dozen Nobel prizes, 177 Olympic gold medals, a sublimely beautiful capital city, superb technical and IT professionals, and a rural Hungary blessed with agrarian genius."