The current COVID-19 pandemic fully illustrates where Hungary has moved under Viktor Orbán over the last decade. It shows how independent Hungarian media do not have access to official information, how military uniforms have become the norm in the country, and also how little Hungarians are interested in the issue of increasing Chinese influence.
“The militarisation of Hungarian society is growing. Orbán’s view of the soldiers is that they should create a sense of security among people,” explains Márton Gergely, deputy editor-in-chief of the Hungarian independent weekly HVG.
According to him, military patrols in Budapest with camouflage uniforms and machine guns began after the terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years.
Added to this was the migration crisis in 2015, which put certain areas of Hungary in a state of emergency, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and allowed the border army to patrol alongside the police.
Anything can happen
Soldiers on the streets of Hungary were noticed by Europe recently when the Hungarian army “visited” some large Hungarian companies due to the pandemic.
“In one drug factory, the soldiers checked in, inquired about the situation and asked how they could help with the delivery or transport of drugs or devices. So mainly logistic assistance, which had not been possible yet. The question, of course, is whether the military itself will take over the management of the business and whether it goes beyond fighting the pandemic,” says Gergely.
He admits, however, that the Enabling Bill, passed a few days ago by the Fidesz-dominated parliament, opens room for intervention by the state or even soldiers under the heading of “stabilising the Hungarian economy”.
“Anything can happen since the Enabling Act has been adopted. It is also possible that the management of various companies, including the media, will change.”
One of the risks according to Gergely is that under the pretext of fighting the pandemic, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will be able to enforce completely different, fundamental measures for his own benefit, such as in the area of justice.
“Perhaps the controversial reform of the judiciary, which Orbán withdrew a year ago – probably because unlike he had imagined, he failed in the elections. There is now a risk that the emergency measures will bring these reforms after all. And that the rules for the appointment of judges will change right away, which would break down one of the last obstacles facing Orbán today, that is the middle class of the Hungarian judiciary so to speak, ” warns Gergely.
The “right” questions
As a journalist from independent media, he represents a minority in Hungary. And it is difficult to get information from the Hungarian government or other authorities.
“In early March, the government introduced a daily briefing with police officers, epidemiologists and members of the government. The independent media was also there, but interestingly, the pro-government media sometimes asked important and relevant questions. The Hungarian government initially failed in ‘message control’ and the government media did not know what the ‘right questions’ were, and thus simply asked normal journalistic questions,” says Gergely.
Even the Orbán administration, which already dominated most Hungarian media, did not manage communication about COVID-19 flawlessly.
“There was also an incident where the arrogant government spokesman Zoltán Kovács shouted to a 444.hu editor, who wanted to know how one government member had been tested twice for COVID-19, although he had no symptoms, while many Hungarians had real cause for concern. They could get infected in Italy, but would not get the test, ” as an example that Márton Gergely recalls.
Subsequent press conferences were only broadcast online, and journalists had to send questions no later than two hours before the start. The government justified restrictions for media access because of the risk of contagion.
According to Márton Gergely, however, the practice is that spokespersons select only some of the questions and combine more of those questions on the same subject, such as how many tests have been carried out in the country.
“But the original question might have been quite different: “‘There are so many confirmed cases of contagion, but there has been no testing at all, how is it possible?’ So the resulting answer may be useless,” the HVG reporter replied.
Not only did he receive – officially unconfirmed – information from health professionals, according to which the Hungarian health service can handle only a tenth of what a pandemic can cause in a country such as Hungary with its capacity to fight COVID-19.
“That’s strong coffee, but how do you write it? The second source of the report is missing, and I cannot verify it with the authorities. I have no way to ask.”
Gergely describes a dead-end into which the Hungarian independent media are repeatedly entering.
Supplies of protective equipment from China are currently heading to Hungary. “In the last issue of our weekly, we have an article about how the state buys protective equipment and tests from China for millions of euros through a Hungarian-Chinese company that nobody knew before last year and which belongs to Chinese living in Hungary,” says Gergely. Hungarians are not very interested.
The Hungarian government, like the Czech one, presents Chinese aid as something exceptional.
“Orbán himself welcomed a plane with assistance supplies from China at the airport and took a picture of how he is talking to Chinese pilots without a respirator,” he describes scenes similar to those from the airport in Prague.
Chaos in health care
In Hungary, in addition to militarising or restricting media freedom, COVID-19 has revived Orbán’s traditional theme of migration. An Iranian student was among the first confirmed cases in Hungary, and the prime minister identified migration as the culprit for the spread of the pandemic.
Subsequently, a group of Iranian students who were to be deported were taken into custody.
Serious doubts about how the Hungarian government handles the management of the fight against the pandemic are also raised because of fresh material from the investigative journalism of Direkt36 and the website 444.hu.
Reporters recalled that over the past fifteen years or so, the Hungarian health sector has undergone repeated restructuring, with aims that often were contradicting each other.
Epidemiology has also been severely affected by the departure of a number of experts. This weakens the country’s ability to face a pandemic.
According to the findings of both websites, few tests for COVID-19 were carried out, in March, and the authorities also refused to publish at least basic data on infected people – their age, gender or the territorial spread of the disease throughout Hungary.
All investigative documentation is also characteristic of contemporary Hungary in the way Hungarian politicians and officials – both former and contemporary – deal with journalists’ questions.
Nobody answered their questions.