Hungary: Draconian measures implemented at state TV channel

The Hungarian presidency of the EU ended on 30th June and life is supposed to be getting back to normal all over the country.  Or is it? The population of Hungary, that elected the right-wing FIDESZ/KDNP government just over a year ago with a two thirds majority, very soon discovered what such a government really meant.

There was no slow, tactical changeover in parliament. The ideologues of FIDESZ hit the ground running.  An ambitious legislative programme was devised which included writing a new Constitution, giving the vote to ethnic Hungarians in the surrounding countries and devising a new Media Law which was designed to redress the balance of the press, radio and television in its reporting coverage.

Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, was the darling of the new, rebellious youth in the days of the twilight of Stalinism and he made his name by giving fiery speeches on demonstrations calling for freedom and independence for Hungary.  His government between 1998 and 2002 had already dented that reputation when his regime became known for its public expenditure cuts and increasing levels of corruption.

However, not even the most fervent FIDESZ supporter imagined the depths of jingoistic, chauvinistic, populist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic, sabre rattling that he and his cronies are currently burying Hungary under. The country knew that the real attack on living standards, press freedom, public services, wages and working conditions would only start after the handing over of the presidency of the EU, as foreign criticism – in spite of his bravado of insisting to the contrary – touches even the great Leader’s sensitivities.

To provide an idea of what the situation in Hungary is like, we are providing an English translation of an article which appeared on 16th July 2011 in the Internet edition of Népszabadság, the successor of the old CP daily and probably the only remaining daily paper in Hungary with a reasonable level of journalism and political balance left. Although we do not take any responsibility for all the opinions expressed, it does provide an interesting insight into recent events at the public radio and television service. In a series of interviews with workers sacked from the state media, it reveals the brutal and crude nature of the political elite which now dominates Hungary. It should also act as a call to fight back by ordinary Hungarians who want a decent life, a job, good public services, freedom of speech and a future. Capitalism rather than solving any of the problems of ordinary Hungarian working people, has created a growing social polarisation that sooner or later is going to lead to social explosions.

Their heads are on the castle gate

Within a few days 500 employees of the state media received their dismissal letters from their bosses. We have no idea whether their decision was made based on the professional competence of these workers, but we are sure that age and living conditions did not figure amongst the criteria.

A woman bringing up her child on her own found herself on the street, together with another who had put in 30 years in public service broadcasting and was due to retire within the year.  Others included one with a Pulitzer memorial prize, a journalist with a Quality Prize and one of the best known news editors. Our interviewees must remain anonymous as they are under a virtual gagging order.  They are still formally employed by the Media Service support and Goods Control Fund.  For many of them the only straw they can clutch at prior to certain unemployment is their redundancy payment, and this is only payable if they do not give interviews without permission. 

REMOVED MIRRORS: “There were all sorts of rumours about a sacking list, but lobbying of FIDESZ friends and members of parliament was considered worth it as the list is changing all the time, some names are added, others are removed. I knew that it had nothing to do with the quality of your work. There was someone amongst us who wanted to prove to the new bosses that while originally he was a political journalist he could give it up and in a multifunctional mode of operation he can do anything, in any sphere, playing any role, at a high level. He was taken off the screen, he didn’t take offence.  He was given work in the most idiotic programmes; they squeezed every drop of blood out of him. He could have stayed, he was no longer a political “risk”, but he had to suffer for his old “sins” and had to go. Others made different compromises in the last few months. Accepted without a word when the dictates came from on high and somebody re-edited their programmes, accepted the political dictates which made it clear what topic can and cannot be covered, who can appear and who cannot, and what needs falsifying or missing out altogether. None of them enjoyed doing this; they were forced to di it in order to feed their families.  One of them took all the mirrors off the walls at home.”

SUPPORTED FACES: “In the months before the sackings everyone was in total paranoia. Most people only dared speak in the corridors in whispers. It was widely believed that we were being watched to see who talks to whom. It was not very good to talk to me because it was widely believed I would be sacked. Once a colleague was approaching me in the corridor, but then suddenly turned back so that he would not have to talk to me. They were also watching whether you were eating in the buffet or outside in the cafe. Those eating outside were under suspicion. They interfered even with the programmes that had nothing to do with politics – based on reasoning derived from political stances and cliques. Often some programmes were criticised for not showing certain artists or public figures. These people were clearly those that were openly supporting the current government and were promoting their good relationship with the government.  They prepared a list, so as to make sure every editor knows who the supported faces are. You were told off if your programme had too many participants with supposedly liberal views. The switching of the elite was the conception. But I also heard criticism about too many Jews in the programmes.”

PROFESSIONAL NOBODIES FLYING: “A reduction in staff numbers was necessary, but there are other considerations here. In the last few months not only the 'comrades' became important people, occasionally mere lack of talent was enough for a flying career. From professional nobody to manager in no time. These people are obviously going to be grateful to anybody who has made them into 'somebody'. None of us knew when the sackings would start. I have a colleague, whom they mucked about for weeks, not allowing him to go on holiday. He worked it out from this that he is for the chop. I was rung up by a secretary the day before my dismissal whose job was to post the summonses.”

IT’S SHAMEFUL IF YOU STAY: “I wasn’t asking any questions because I was sure that I was going to be sacked. I went to work with the confidence of those sentenced to death. Eventually I wasn’t sacked and that makes me feel really bad.  I had nobody lobbying for me from any party, but I still carry the stigma. I did nothing to escape the sack. The best journalists have still been sacked. Who is going to make the programmes from now on? I don’t know, but they have started talking about who might get the vacant posts. My favourite is the 'secretary with the big boobs', who is reputed to be heading for an editor’s chair straight from the telephone exchange. Of course, we have seen in the past workers from the canning factory becoming factory directors.”

THEY WERE TOO LIBERAL: “The entire staff of 'Kultúrház' (a cultural programme) was let go. Peter Galambos has had no work for the last two years; perhaps his crime was that he agreed to commenta on an SZDSZ (Liberal Party) campaign film. Cultural programmes have all had the chop; the entire staff from both the Duna and MTVchannels has been sacked. The Kikötő (The Port) and Kultúrház (Culture House) was too liberal and progressive.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO AND WHAT YOU CAN’T: “When the new bosses arrived, we decided to play a waiting game. We knew where they came from and we harboured some prejudices towards them. They interfered with editing, they wrote stuff straight into the programmes. Gave us instructions, what topics have to be covered, and what topics have to be left out. They forced us to make banal changes and falsehoods. First of all we were convinced that they were joking, when, for example, in the report about the missing children ordered us to leave out the plazas and game halls, because those do not fit into the idea of family. They weren’t joking. Never before had I experienced, and I have worked in commercial television as well, that somebody tells you in your face what you can and cannot do. The Stockholm story has also betrayed the fact that professionally speaking this place is finished.  (The Stockholm PEN Klub invited the journalist György Bolgár, so that he could give an analysis of the internal political situation in Hungary after the new Media Law. The public state media sent a separate team to emphasise the government’s statement, that the Hungarian left-wing and liberal intelligentsia is ruining the reputation of the country abroad.)  The journalists get their instruction on how to adjust their material to the ideology of the government and what is the message that has to be put across in their reports.”

DROID TV: “Many were afraid of Gábor Élő. When he sat in on meetings, we could see that his jaws were moving, as if he was chewing gum with a shut mouth, there was so much anger in him. We truly believed that he would explode any minute. As far as I could see, when they sacked the cameramen, film editors, technicians the counter-selection was not as obvious, as it was with the journalists. But I have no idea who is going to fill their work with meaning now. The management of the public TV wants droids. They kept a few people, so as to escape from the accusations of political clearout, but they are only the fig leaves.”

KULTURKAMPF IN THE CORRIDOR: “As I was reading that all the best reporters of 'Szempont' (Viewpoint) and 'Az Este' (The Evening) got sacked, I knew that I would be next. I asked them on what basis did they dismiss me because I would like to learn from it, professionally develop.  They said nothing. I have registered this, that it was not the TV that got rid of me, but a team that invaded the public television service. Until now I have only ever read about 'kulturkampf', now I met it in the corridor.”

DIDN’T DARE TELL THEM AT HOME: “I heard that one of the redundant radio reporters was seen lurking outside the Radio building in the early hours of the day after he got the sack. He didn’t dare tell his family about it. Many people close to retirement were sacked. Many will be crippled by this. What can a 55 year old lighting technician do? Or a 50 year old production manager? I don’t think it will be long before one of them will give up the ghost. The new bosses are like wolves even to each other; this system is sentenced to death.”

DESTROYING TO MUSIC: “After Such and Kerényi everybody was waiting for the horror. We’ve heard that a former journalist from the Magyar Hírlap will be the chief broadcasting editor and one from Lánchíd Rádió the president. 5 or 6 people arrived from Lánchíd to run Krónika (Chronicles). Everything started to change. One of them from Lánchíd regularly told anti-Semitic jokes. We started to attend FIDESZ press conferences and quoting their press releases. In the past journalists brought their own stories, and these were discussed at the meetings. The 'Krónika' journalists always brought 2-3 stories of their own from public life. Then came the West Balkán tragedy. My editor instructed one of my roma colleagues to find out if the young girls were not trampled to death in the panic but were knifed to death by some roma. I told him that several independent sources, including the Police, the Fire Service and the Ambulance Service stated that there were no signs of any knife wounds on the girls. But he kept insisting, that he read on Facebook that it was a case of gypsy knifing.  The Cohn-Bendit (criticising Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament) case was also a warning. Government communications have arrived in the Radio and the editors were faced with the case that no long established journalist was prepared to read it.  The chief editor of  Krónika ordered an intern to read it and she was too afraid to refuse. Thus that despicable material was broadcast once. We formed a crisis committee and the vast majority of the editors understood our outrage. There was no more broadcasting of the material during the day. However, as soon as our working hours were over at 10pm and we went home, it was broadcast again. The chief news editor then stood up and resigned. It was then that it became clear that there was no need for us to stay. They called me in and told me that the news centre does not need my work any more and recommended that I try to get some other job in house. This is how I, along with some others, ended up in the 'Közelről' (Close up) programme, under the wings of Sándor Szénási, László Szente, Attila Rovó, who had been banished to this editorial office earlier.  We did what we fancied as long as we left politics out of all the material. The final drop that caused my resignation seems totally unimportant. I prepared material about how the churches address young people. I also asked some followers of Hare Krishna. This bit was cut as according to the editor, the followers of Hare Krishna are an anti-family sect, which 'isolates young people from their families'.  This was the regime in the Kossuth Rádió...”

THIS LOT MEAN BUSINESS: “I don’t even know whether I want to stay here.  This lot mean business. You think that you can keep yourself independent by withdrawing and hiding under the cover of a peripheral programme. Then you realise that they had executed you long ago and currently they are draining your blood.”

MY HEAD IS OUT ON THE CASTLE GATE: “I’ve known for ages that they would sack me. For a long while now there has been the same regime as in the days of Csúcs and Kondor. The new  arrivals do not care for the profession, for knowledge and the expertise necessary for good journalism. Loyalty is the only decider. We, the old ones, are dangerous, you see, we have a past, we are fussy. Not so long ago Sándor Lezsák and Ernő Raffai tried to wheedle themselves into my circle. I said that that is out of the question.  It is unavoidable that these things would cause conflict. When I went in front of the sacking committee I knew exactly that I was considered one of those with his head already out on the castle gate. I made no effort. What I was expecting to happen, happened.”

IT WAS PROMISED TO SOMEBODY: “Nobody knows where the list of those to be sacked was written, but one thing is sure, it was not in house. The conspiracy was pretty good. Even the bosses didn’t know in advance who they were sacking. Now they are running around like headless chickens because even the planned programmes can’t be made without journalists. By the way, from the fact that they sacked a large number of cultural journalists, it follows that the whole section has been promised to somebody.”

THEY PROVIDE THE PSYCHOLOGIST: “We were called in five at a time. The sacking committee consisted of three people, and Ferenc Gazsó L. (the intendant of MR1-Kossuth Rádió) was the spokesman. He hummed and aahed: now everybody is mentioning sackings, but that’s not what we are talking about. What are we talking about then? I asked very calmly, without any emotion. The history of public broadcasting is at a turning point, carried on Gazsó L. It stands before an enormous renewal and they waited until now to decide who from amongst the existing staff they want to have along for this renewal. There are two groups, one and the other, he said. You belong to the other, those that cannot stay. OK, I answered, I had enough of the official text. They would have carried on. There was a legal woman there from the Media Service support and Goods Control Fund, shuffling and reshuffling her papers. I suggested we should not waste each other’s time. Give me the letter; believe me I will read it, I said. They offered that if I think it necessary, they can 'secure' me a psychologist.  I do not need one, I answered. Then they put the information about the various modes of redundancy in a large envelope.”

TALENT IS DANGEROUS: “They used this renewal text while sacking men with three children or those whose jobs, due to their age or their position in the union, should have been safeguarded. Above the age of 58 people can only be made redundant with exceptional justification. The old radio journalists will, in all probability, be suing them. I think I should take the matter to court also, because the leader of the Media Service support and Goods Control Fund, László Szabó, declared that all sackings were made on the basis of whether people were good at their jobs or not. Now, obviously those that handed me all my awards and prizes in the past, didn’t know that I was a bad worker. By the way, I was watching the other day an interview with Anna Jókai. This is the future. This discussion no longer has any connection with journalism. This is what hurts the most. That the counter-selection has now arrived at its final phase.  The talentless careerist will always find the caressing political hand.  While that young colleague who was conducing interviews in several languages, for whom we only recently succeeded in getting a post, will find herself on the street and starving.”

THE SERMON BY RISKÓ: “I was called in for midday, I was hanging around in the corridor, I put in more than 10 years at the TV, while many times I could have left for other places, but they wouldn’t let me, insisting that I was needed too much, so I shouldn’t jump about, they said.  This was inhuman. Looking at Riskó, the chief sports editor, it was obvious that he was enjoying this sacking lark. He was shuffling the papers. I knew that those who can stay will only be given one piece of paper; while those on the skids will get many. Riskó started the sermon which he must have learnt the day before: workplace rationalisation, renewal, etc, he had to go through it all. Finally he spat it out that they do not need my work any more. The HR guy put together my stuff, we had finished, I was preparing to leave. However, at this point Riskó turned to me to ask if I had any questions. I got angry and mentioned that why wasn’t this done by my immediate superior at the TV? Answer: I have no idea, this is how the papers worked out. OK. Then I turned to him and asked if any of them have any criticisms of my work.  No.  And in relation to my person could there be any questions that anybody in the room could answer? No, there is nobody here like that, he said with a straight face. Obviously, there couldn’t be any as we only met 3 minutes ago.”

THE GREAT LIQUIDATOR: “There was a 'voluntary' leaving period last autumn, because by then it became obvious that the values of the FIDESZ revolution and its ideology would become dominant.  Ferenc Gazsó L. arrived as the big boss in December and started to impose his ideas on us at meetings, which bore a clear resemblance to government communications. After February 2011 not only Gazsó L., but the chief editor delegated by the Media Service support and Goods Control Fund attended all our editorial meetings. For the benefit of the journalists now employed by the Media Service support and Goods Control Fund he 'translated' Gazsó L.’s ideas.  This formula was further complicated at the beginning of April when the Hungarian Press Agency’s News Centre delegated a further chief editor, thus creating a situation which was becoming more and more comical. Many old editors and reporters were banned from the “Krónika” or the “180 minutes” programmes. By this time the new boss, who has arrived from Lánchíd Rádió, regularly arrived for work wearing national colours, the fate of Attila Mong and Zsolt Bogár, who have protested against the Media Law silently was decided and the banned dozens worked where they could. They worked on some stories for the Saturday magazine programmes and just hung around. I handed in my notice in April, I got fed up with this circus. In the last months I only went to my place of work to have a good laugh.  We were actually told by the new management taking over the Radio, that everybody should start looking for new work for themselves. It was without doubt that when the redundancies would come, the list would include everybody who had independent ideas, those who could not keep their mouths shut, those who would stand up against being servile and definitely those who often said no. The Kossuth Rádió –as so often after 1990 – is buried under the system of counter-selection.”

Exclusion and brutality

“After the media battle of 1994 the next battle was at the turn of 2001–2002”, quoted the previous skirmishes György Bolgár the leader of the popular programme “Let’s talk it over!”, broadcast by Klubrádió (previously by the Kossuth Rádió).

In those days politicians were more refined in dealing with the media and rather than sacking journalists they just cancelled their programme. This was the usual practice by then. They realised that if they wanted to make somebody less popular they did not have to sack them, it was enough to change the structure of their programme. Then they added to the “common agreement” another condition, such as where you cannot work.  This is not classed as being made redundant; this is a process of exclusion.  However, what is now happening in the state media is brutal.

When one third of the state media staff is being made redundant that needs some justification. But there is no rational justification for this. That is why they do not give any justification! Because then they would have to say that in the future the bulk of the work would be outsourced. Tibor Navracsics minister of public order and justice argued in parliament that the BBC is doing exactly the same.  Well, not quite! There they reported that they would carry out three thousand redundancies out of a staff of 23 thousand.  But not all at once.  It will take years... gradually.

Source: Népszabadság