I am certain that most people who consume news media on a regular basis have come across the occasional story which jumped out as factually incorrect, or distorted. Political speeches are full of these inaccuracies as well. What makes the story of Hungary and its Prime Minister Viktor Orban different is that in this case there is a definite pattern of willful disinformation, which transcends borders as well as political and ideological inclination. It is to be found in the Western mainstream media, as well as among political elites.
The intensity and duration of this wide-spread campaign of disinformation is also something that sets this apart. It started five years ago, almost as soon as Viktor Orban became prime-minister. At first, there was a media barrage using quotes made by distinguished Hungarian citizens who declared that Hungary was turned into an autocracy, which were combined with valid examples of measures which to some extent did curtail media freedom, or the separation of powers of the state. Then came political attacks mounted mainly by the EU left, such as the Tavares report, which singled out Hungary as a state which gravely violates media freedom standards and human rights. It was voted in the EU parliament largely along ideological lines, but with a few members of parliament on the right joining in with the left.
Since then, there were countless meetings in the EU on the state of Hungary’s democracy. There was even a recent one in the US, where the Republican Party pushed back, pointing out that Hungary is being singled out, even though it is no different from other EU and NATO members such as Romania and Bulgaria. This pushback was in fact a rare occurrence, which had nothing to do with any sense of fairness, but rather a desire to expose flawed policies pursued by the current US presidency. After all, the argument is correct, because Romania and Bulgaria along with other EU members such as Greece and Croatia do in fact score bellow Hungary when it comes to media freedom and other relevant measures.
Freedomhouse ranks Hungary as a free country, although one would not know it from the constant barrage of claims that state otherwise. Ironically, one can find these claims even in a place like Romania, among political elites and in its mainstream media outlets, despite that Romania ranks lower than Hungary on a number of critical measures, including media freedom. This leaves us with the dilemma of trying to understand the source of the constant campaign against Hungary’s current Prime Minister. He has been labeled a fascist dictator by high-ranking political elites such as Senator John McCain and compared to Musolini, Putin and other genuine past and current authoritarian figures in the Western mainstream media. Paul Krugman has made it a point to give a platform to Kim Lane Scheppele, which has been on a personal crusade against Hungary’s current government, even going as far as denouncing the state of US democracy, simply because there was some Republican pushback on this issue at a recent sub-committee hearing. She started a recent article by saying “Usually, I write about the dismal state of Hungarian democracy. But today, I will write about the dismal state of American democracy.” As I said, it transcends borders, political ideology and it endures, despite the obvious disconnect from Hungary’s reality.
There are of course some legitimate factors which we can point to as a trigger of the “Viktator” campaign. First and foremost, some of the measures taken by the current Orban Government are in fact a step back in terms of overall freedom and democracy, although the trend is yet to cause Hungary to be an outlier, as I pointed out. Then there is the fact that he tends to be overly outspoken. For instance, he made a speech in Romania pointing out that more authoritarian states such as Turkey, Russia and China have had more economic success lately, avoiding the stagnation that has gripped the Western world, and especially the EU. The media and Western elites automatically jumped to attack him, which should be expected given that Orban in fact questioned the viability of our Western foundational principles. It is very probable that many of our elected elites in fact think about these things on occasion; after all, when things do go wrong as they did economically speaking, especially in the EU, which has seen zero yearly economic growth on average since 2007, inevitably questions and doubts arise. Problem with Orban has been that he doesn’t only think them but also voices them.
The fact that Orban has also been among the EU leaders, which went along with the confrontational approach towards Russia more hesitantly and again voiced support for pragmatism, urging the EU to keep in mind its economic interests, also provided more ammunition against Orban. More comparisons surfaced, equating Orban with Putin, in an attempt to argue that Orban supports a softer line because he is as authoritarian as Putin, therefore there is a natural desire to associate with him. At this point Orban became an obvious target for anti-Russia hawks, given the already well-established but false perception of Viktor Orban being a tyrant. The fact that many EU political and business elites were never on board with the sanctions, did not prevent Hungary’s position from being singled out, despite the fact that it has been by no means the only voice of doubt in regards to current EU policy in this regard.
Summing up the situation, we can conclude that at the root of the five year old “Viktator” campaign, we have the vicious nature of Hungarian politics, with opposing parties willing to drag the reputation of Hungary down, at the expense of its interests, in the hope of indirectly tarnishing the reputation of the ruling party. Orban can be said to have been guilty of it to some extent while his party was in opposition. It seems the former ruling establishment has decided to raise it to a new level and there seems to be definite support on behalf of the Western ideological left for this campaign against Hungary’s current government.
There is of course another possible explanation for this seemingly bizarre situation where we have very strong, sustained rhetoric in regards to Hungary, which does not correspond to actual facts, yet it seems it never gets seriously challenged despite the factual deficiencies. The fact that this campaign against Orban and his government started in the fall of 2010, when Hungary decided against renewing its IMF deal and going alone instead cannot be ignored. It goes without saying that attacking Orban directly would have been inconvenient for any ideological camp. On the right, they would have been seen as supporters of global finance, which since 2008 is equivalent to political suicide, especially on the right, which is already seen as being more pro-business. On the left, which has been the most active in this bizarrely aggressive campaign, it would be even harder to justify. Hungary’s current government is in fact the only one in the Western World to actually do more than just pay lip-service to the mass demands to let financial institutions share in the pain of the financial crisis. Instead of implementing IMF-prescribed austerity measures which as we can see with Greece, not only it led to widespread misery but also failed to re-balance the economy,
Hungary decided to plug fiscal holes through taxing the banks. Hungary also decided to let the banks swallow some losses on the FX mortgage and other consumer loans on their books, in order to bring the consumer back to relative health. Worst, of all from the perspective of global financial interests, Hungary emerged from being one of Europe’s economic basket cases at the beginning of the crisis in 2008, to becoming an example of relative economic stability. The FX consumer loan pile problem, which was among the worst in Europe was largely solved, with the loans being converted to forints just before the Swiss Franc was allowed to appreciate, sending Global finances into turmoil and renewing worries of consumer defaults in central Europe, where many people still have franc-denominated debt.
Hungary’s debt/GDP ratio has been on a gradual declining trend, which is important given that it entered the 2008 crisis as the most indebted country in the region. Economic growth has been significantly outpacing the EU average since 2013. More importantly, this was all done without implementing significant new austerity measures since Orban’s government came to power in 2010, which spared Hungary’s population from even worse suffering than it had to endure in the past few years.
This is something that Mr. Krugman or President Obama most certainly cannot openly criticize, without some serious backlash from their base. The right cannot openly criticize these measures either, because it would only reinforce the stereotype of the heartless ideology. Nevertheless, it seems there has been a great deal of desire to denigrate Hungary and its government in the past years, so it seems the left and the right went along with the theory that if it is repeated often enough…..
Given that now we have major political parties elsewhere, such as in Poland advocating for similar measures taken in Hungary by the current government in regards to bank taxation and FX loan conversion, it is understandable why much discontent would be present among certain elites. Perhaps the worst fear was that “Orbanomics” will actually show some results and others may be tempted to emulate those policies. Regardless of what the reasons are for this huge discrepancy between facts and rhetoric on the situation in Hungary, which has been going on for five years now, there is one indisputable conclusion that we can draw, namely that the Western mainstream media and our elites are just as capable of disinformation, as the elites of societies we criticize for lack of freedom, such as Russia and China. We should not take it for granted that we are always better informed than people living under authoritarian regimes.