There is no such a thing as the Ukrainian people and culture, and Ukraine could be split between Russia and “certain NATO member states", an “expert” said during a programme aired on Pesti TV, a privately owned television channel in Hungary, in the wake of the Russian invasion.
He turned out to be a photographer and military engineer rather than an expert on geopolitical issues. But for Pesti TV, a television channel that receives hefty funding from the Hungarian government to wax lyrical about the ruling Fidesz party, and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, such propaganda fodder is its speciality. Since the invasion of Ukraine last month, the channel has been churning out pro-Russian disinformation at a staggering pace.
But Pesti TV is not alone. Similar coverage -- questioning the rights of Ukrainians over their country and overtly promoting Russian aggression -- are being spread incessantly by Hungary’s pro-government media, a dominant force in the country’s media landscape.
Since the early hours of the war, the state television broadcaster MTVA has been inflaming public opinion against Ukraine, according to analysis from Atlatszo, an independent news outlet. Balázs Németh, an MTVA presenter, implied in a Facebook post last month that the capitulation and resignation of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be a wise decision.
In response, media experts called on the Hungarian media regulator, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), to order the state media to stop airing pro-Russian propaganda. But, given that the regulator is packed with pro-Fidesz staff, nothing happened.
The deep cesspool of propaganda generated by the pro-government media in Hungary is at odds with the Hungarian government’s declared support for sanctions against Russia. Why would Orban play this double game: oppose the war in his public speeches while simultaneously ordering his media to praise Russia and disseminate lies?
The answer seems to be twofold: electoral gains and Orban’s fawning admiration of Putin.
Let’s take elections first. Orban’s strategy, in speaking out against the Russian assault on Ukraine appeases the part of the electorate who fear a further escalation of the conflict. It also satisfies his EU peers who have expressed concerns about the eastward drift in his foreign policy and casts him as a peace-loving leader.
At the same time, the war in Ukraine has been swiftly used by Fidesz as a public relations opportunity in preparation for the Hungarian elections slated to take place on 3 April. Almost all MTVA news programmes have reported in recent weeks that opposition politicians want to send troops and weapons to Ukraine, an idea scorned by the majority of Hungarians. Yet, the opposition parties never said that. It was a smear designed to discredit.
The pro-Kremlin campaign run by the Fidesz-captured media, unlike anywhere else in EU’s mainstream media, is designed primarily to generate votes in the upcoming general election in Hungary. This is percolating down to the electorate. Unsurprisingly, in a recent survey conducted by Pulzus Research, a quarter of Orban supporters described the invasion as a “justified war”. Orban and his party can’t afford to alienate those voters less than a month before polling day, which could potentially mean losing his majority.
But there is another more basic reason that triggers the pro-Kremlin propaganda in Fidesz-supporting media: Orban’s allegiance to Putin.
For nearly a decade, especially after he won back the power in the 2010 elections, Orban has built a cosy relationship with the Kremlin and his leader. In 2014, the Hungarian government awarded €12.5bn to Russian-owned Rosatom to renovate the sole nuclear power plant in Hungary. Russia pledged a loan of €10bn to carry out the project (which in the meantime has been blocked by the EU).
Orban has repeatedly praised Russia for its successful “illiberal” society and routinely joined Putin in slamming the European Union and NATO. The media capture model built by Orban in Hungary, which follows Putin’s blueprint, has seen Fidesz-related businesses come to control almost all of the country’s media landscape.
A recent investigation conducted by Direkt36, a Hungary-based media outfit, shows how the prime minister’s communications team tightly controls the news flow in Hungary. Based on a trove of leaked documents, the report describes how the government uses MTI, the state news agency, to shape the media agenda in Hungary.
The war in Ukraine presents a tough test for Orban, who is doing all he can to win re-election without scaring off anti-war Hungarian voters or upsetting the Kremlin. At a time when most of the right-wing leaders across Europe are distancing themselves from Putin, Orban is attempting a daunting balancing act.
Marius Dragomir is the Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) and a Visiting Professor at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest