(Budapest) – A smear campaign by a major pro-government newspaper against independent journalists and activists is poisoning political and public debate in the run-up to national elections on April 3, 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. Video clips recorded without the subjects’ consent and out-of-context quotes aim to cast civil society activists and independent journalists in a negative light, and are part of an effort to discredit critical voices in Hungary .
“Journalists and activists in Hungary who thought they were speaking in private are finding themselves smeared by the media with their distorted and taken-out-of-context responses,” said Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human. RightsWatch. “This is the latest in a long line of attacks on critics in Hungary based on dubious information ahead of the election and at other times convenient to the ruling party.”
The pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet published the first in a series of articles on February 2 alleging that civil society activists and independent journalists were plotting to control international media coverage of Hungary. The latest was released on March 2. Magyar Nemzet based her articles on documents she says were sent to the newspaper anonymously containing secretly recorded video clips of activists and journalists. The clips apparently come from fake job interviews in the summer and fall of 2020, presumably offered to trick activists and journalists into making dubious statements.
Human Rights Watch spoke with five people targeted by the fake interviews, four of whom were featured in the articles and a fifth person whose interview has not yet been published.
In a few hours of Magyar Nemzet publishing the first article in the series, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs posted lengthy blogs about them on the government website. The message and others after the newspaper published later articles in the series included videos of the interviews that had been posted on the government’s YouTube channel, suggesting coordination between the newspaper and the government.
Shortly after the first publication, government officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban, publicly endorsed the paper’s false conclusions without questioning how the information was obtained or the misleading manner in which it was presented. Tamas Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament from the ruling Fidesz party, circulated a letter on February 16 to other members of the European Parliament referring to the articles.
Magyar Nemzet, which publishes in Hungarian, translated the articles and subtitled the videos in English, German and French. The journal publishes a limited selection of its content in English and rarely publishes articles in German or French.
The smear campaign recalls a similar scheme in 2018, when an alleged foreign security firm approached organizations working on migration and asylum and was approached by a foreigner trying to trick activists into admitting conduct criminal. This also follows revelations of three cases of Pegasus spyware installations in Hungary in November 2021, including on a Hungarian journalist’s phone. The same journalist was also directly targeted by those responsible for the fake job interviews.
Four of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they responded to a job posting on LinkedIn in which an anonymous investor claiming to use a London-based recruitment firm was looking to start a small non-governmental group focused on rights abuses. humans in Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Respondents said that during the process they had one or two video or phone calls in English with someone claiming to work in human resources, asking general questions about the political climate in Hungary, relations between groups NGOs and the media, and the ability of these groups to influence the media.
Three of the targets then had a video call with someone claiming to be the anonymous wealthy investor, in which one said the investor asked him “Can you bribe journalists?” Two of the interviewees said that some of the questions seemed geared and for information-gathering purposes rather than based on their suitability for the advertised position, but warranted answering due to the alleged investor’s apparently rudimentary knowledge of Hungarian politics. .
The five people said they were never told the interviews would be recorded or asked to consent to the publication of their statements. They did not say that the music videos were manipulated, but that the accompanying articles misrepresented what they were saying and that their quotes were sometimes taken out of context. They said that Magyar Nemzet did not ask them for comment before publication, which good journalistic practice would require.
In one Magyar Nemzet article published on February 23 Orsolya Jeney, former director of Amnesty Hungary, is misquoted in several places in the accompanying article. Other quotes attributed to him do not appear in the released music videos. Jeney provided Human Rights Watch with line-by-line commentary on the Magyar Nemzet article in which it appeared, indicating where the quotes had been misinterpreted, exaggerated or fabricated.
Similarly, a person speaking in the leaked video about how non-governmental groups speak to trusted journalist contacts and recommend other sources to them is misquoted. The article also claimed that the person held a much higher position than them. In an interview published on February 3, featuring independent journalist Kalman Matyas, the headline reads: “NGOs control foreign media”, while in the video, Matyas explains how groups have contact with trusted journalists and refer them to other people or interest groups.
Respondents said the articles had harmed them more broadly. One person, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I feel violated and scared. I immediately closed my Facebook account. It might prevent me from getting a job in the future because I can’t escape it because it’s everywhere.
Jeney said that in addition to making those quoted feel humiliated and deceived, out-of-context posts could have a chilling effect on other activists and journalists. Marton Asboth, staff member of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said: “I will be much more careful in the future.”
In addition to those featured in the published videos, Human Rights Watch is aware of several other activists and journalists who were approached by email or LinkedIn in very similar circumstances, suggesting a carefully orchestrated scheme to entrap and then discredit the government critics. They did not participate in the interviews.
The Fidesz government has a long track record of trying to silence critics, including criminalizing civil society activities related to migration, requiring foreign-funded organizations to register as foreign-funded, and through pro-government media demonizing and defaming members of civil society and the independent press. The government should refrain from engaging in or amplifying unfounded criticism of civil society and independent journalists, Human Rights Watch said.
“The release of these attack pieces by a pro-government spokesperson just two months before the national election raises serious questions about who benefits and who the responsible parties are,” Gall said. “Deliberately saluting and intimidating critics into silence has no place in an EU member state.”