State Secretary for International Communication Zoltán Kovács has a notorious reputation for settling accounts with the world's major media. His aim, however, is not to win argumentative battles but to expand the Hungarian agenda abroad. The Czech Republic is one of the obvious targets.
Zoltán Kovács is well known by foreign journalists. He is the one who maintains the link between the outside world and the political machinery of the Hungarian prime minister. This is also reflected in his – unusual – function: government spokesman for international communication.
The deployment and rhetoric Kovács uses against the critics of Hungary in many ways are a reminder of the Czech spokesman of the Castle, Jiří Ovčáček.
Both Zoltán Kovács and Jiří Ovčáček have Twitter as their main communication platform. However, their “firepower” is significantly different – Ovčáček has 54,000 followers on Twitter, Kovács just over ten thousand. However, this does not prevent him from being a global celebrity.
There is a significant difference in the audience to which both speakers are pointing their messages. While Zeman’s Ovčáček tweets almost exclusively in Czech, his status subsequently circulates mainly in Czech social networks and websites, and from time to time also resonates in the Russian media, Orbán’s Kovács turns mainly to the West.
This has its logic. Hungary is criticised mainly abroad. Orbán has decimated the domestic opposition, both political and media, for the past ten years.
English from Soros
Orbán’s spokesman for foreign countries settles accounts in perfect English with the world’s major media – the Guardian, the New York Times, or CNN. Occasionally, he also gives them an interview.
He speaks smoothly but uncompromisingly. Hungary is a misunderstood country in his interpretation, the new border fence against migrants is “a guarantee of freedom gained 30 years ago” and the Orbán government is definitely not “going to leave the path of democracy.” Like Jiří Ovčáček, he defines himself against the Western media, arguing that they are “left-wing”.
— Zoltan Kovacs (@zoltanspox) December 12, 2019
Kovács has a doctorate in history and like Orbán he owes his education and fluency in English to billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, who also funded his scholarship at Oxford University.
In the framework of propaganda, the Hungarian government has made Soros the arch-enemy of the state in recent years. According to Orbán’s party, Fidesz, there is a “Soros plan” according to which hundreds of thousands of millions of migrants are to flood Europe.
Mainly keep the battle
With Jiří Ovčáček it is sometimes unclear whether he writes his emotional statuses or utterances for himself or for the president, while Kovács clearly is a loyal interpreter of Orbán’s messages.
Unlike Ovčáček, who is at least formally an ordinary civil servant, Kovács is closer to active politics – he holds the post of State Secretary for International Communication and is a member of Orbán’s Fidesz Party.
“He may seem to have some freedom, but in fact, he is really under control. The government has a strict communication policy with the exact phrases and terms it uses. This is controlled by both the prime minister’s office and the pro-government media, which are to use specific manoeuvres that were previously tried and tested by the government,” comments on Kovács’s public speeches, Pál Dániel Rényi, a reporter for one of Hungary’s last major independent news portals 444.hu.
According to Rényi, Kovács’ statements are well prepared: “Kovács is far from influencing the government’s decisions. Not a chance,” says the journalist.
He also says that the communication strategy of the Hungarian cabinet is effective. “It creates an atmosphere of constant battle. Among the media, political parties, ideologies and the like. This helps Fidesz mobilise voters and activists. It also includes answering to international critics,” adds Rényi.
Tweet like a submachine gun
This is exactly what Kovács does in all available ways – sometimes beyond diplomatic and other conventions. Two weeks ago he was criticised for tweeting from a closed meeting in Brussels where EU ministers discussed the rule of law violation in Hungary.
Journalists calculated that in two and a half hours Kovács sent 74 tweets including photos. He also addressed some of them to European Commissioner Věra Jourová, who, according to him, belongs to the “Soros Orchestra”.
Then Kovács had to leave the room for violating EU rules on the confidentiality of such negotiations. The Finnish EU Presidency called on the Hungarian Government to apologise for the behaviour of its spokesperson.
While foreign journalists with Zoltán Kovács seem to be arguing endlessly, independent Hungarian media have little access to information from the government in Budapest.
“We hardly get answers to questions from ministries or politicians. The only hope is the application under the Informations Act, which, however, must be formulated legally and precisely or otherwise it will be rejected. It is thin ice, and even if they answer, it sometimes takes four to six weeks,” Pál Dániel Rényi describes his daily reality.
Government: Journalists are activists
Even Czech President Milos Zeman and his spokesman have their favourite among journalists. For example, Zeman’s exclusive interviews to Parliamentary Letters, Frequency 1 and TV Barrandov show this.
The rest of the Czech media often gets insults from Jiří Ovčáček, instead of answering questions. He repeatedly uses the phrase “Bolshevik cadre” to communicate with journalists, or he has to settle for a mandatory “no comment”. It is still a better situation than in Hungary.
Over the past few years, the Hungarian prime minister and his related business community have, with a few exceptions, completely dominated the Hungarian media scene – both public and commercial.
In the Hungarian countryside, large groups of people do not have access to critical information, only pro-government stations are broadcast and only pro-government newspapers are available.
Last year’s merger of more than four hundred media titles into a new “foundation” under the control of the government facilitates the machinery of government propaganda. Orbán’s cabinet effectively can send his messages in hundreds of different ways. The rest of the independent media have been kept in check by the government also economically – only authorised editors can obtain lucrative advertising revenues. The critical ones get little or nothing.
How does spokesman Zoltán Kovács himself see journalists? Recently, he indicated in an interview with representatives of European journalist organisations who were on Hungary’s media freedom monitoring mission:
“Spokesman Kovács denied problems with media freedom and pluralism. He stated that it was not the role of the media to control government power and described independent journalists as political activists.”
Signal for the Czech Republic
According to Pál Dániel Rényi, a 444.hu journalist, the main goal of the government spokesman and his twitter whirlwind is not so much to win an argumentative battle with prestigious media like Der Spiegel or the Guardian, but something else.
“Since the government launched an aggressive anti-immigration campaign, they want to expand this agenda abroad, especially to the V4 countries and the Balkans, to form a Central European alliance against Brussels. So it is mainly a signal about this alliance and that Hungary is leading it,” says Rényi.
It is not difficult to guess that the Czech Republic is one of the target states of this campaign. The Hungarian prime minister has a number of prominent fans in the Czech Republic – Prime Minister Andrej Babiš admired Orbán years ago and the spokesman Jiří Ovčáček also repeatedly praises Orbán on his Twitter.
For example, Ovčáček commented this on a photo from this May of a meeting between Zeman and Orbán: a meeting of brave statesmen.