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Foreign press under fire

November 11th, 2013

A pro-government weekly carries a long list of baseless allegations about Hungary in the foreign press, while a liberal news outlet criticizes Die Welt for misinterpreting an interview with a Hungarian historian, and failing to provide space for a rebuttal.

A documentary on Hungary broadcast on a cultural programme on Swedish public television sets off wide-ranging protests on the right, as it depicted Hungary as a country where fascism is on the rise and enjoys government connivance. Critics claim that the standard interviewees represent a minority opinion and are all outspoken opponents of the governing coalition. A pro-government journalist sent reports from Stockholm to Magyar Nemzet and to Hungarian public television showing among others that Sweden has failed in its efforts to integrate her Roma community and that more than half of Swedish TV journalists are left-wing, while 80 per cent of cultural programme editors sympathize with the post-Communist party.

Heti Válasz (print edition) runs an interview with István Lovas, the Brussels correspondent of Magyar Nemzet who sent an English language letter to all foreign correspondents in Hungary, addressing them as “f…ing sh..heads”. Lovas acknowledges he had had a few drinks before clicking the ‘send’ button, but explains his anger after reading about Iván Fischer’s new opera dealing with the Tiszaeszlár blood libel, in the New York Times. (See BudaPost November 1). He is fed up, he says, with the foreign press “crying anti-Semitism whenever a centre-right government is in power”. He asks what Belgium would look like to Hungarians if he mentioned in half of his dispatches that anti-Semitism is rising in Belgium while the country is still not ready to face her colonial past, including the killing of millions of Africans in the Congo. Asked whether the Hungarian government had not provided ample ammunition to critics with its media law and the Klubrádió affair (see BudaPost March 8 and throughout 2012), Lovas replies that ‘the introduction of the media law should have been postponed’ until after Hungary stepped down from her half-year spell as President of the European Union, and in any case, there was no need for such a law as left-liberal governments had always managed to purge the media without recourse to new laws.

In the same issue, Bálint Ablonczy scrutinizes the coverage of Hungary and comes to the conclusion that “moderate voices are few and far between”. He provides a list of allegations that keep resurfacing despite having been refuted: that abortion is banned (the constitution does contain the words that the lives of foetuses are protected from the moment of inception but it is “is a codification of the pre-existing regulation”), that citizens of other EU member states cannot buy land (they can if they officially reside in Hungary and are farmers by trade), that the government exercises censorship (“nothing of the sort ever happened”), that Fidesz announced a fight against the Roma and supports the death penalty, Róbert Alföldi was removed from the National Theatre for political reasons (his term expired and the position was filled through a competitive process). Ablonczy think much of the distortion is due to the fact that foreign journalists interview the same people time and again, such as Ágnes Heller, Rudolf Ungváry, András Schiff, Gábor Iványi or György Konrád who tend to describe the government as authoritarian and antidemocratic and often compare it to Hitler’s regime.

Galamus reports the controversy over an interview by Krisztián Ungváry (son of Rudolf Ungváry and a respected historian of twentieth century Hungary) published in Die Welt.  Thomas Schmidt, editorial board member of the Hamburg daily, published a column lashing out at Ungváry for describing interwar Hungarian anti-Semitism as ‘rational’ (in his recent book on the Horthy period) “and thereby justifying it”. György Dalos, a writer and historian born in Hungary but living in Berlin also criticized Ungváry for comparing anti-Semitism with interwar anti-German sentiments and the mass deportation of Hungarian Germans after the war. Both critics accuse Ungváry of occasionally using anti-Semitic language. In the original article (and book) Ungváry emphasized that Hungarian anti-Semitism was actually home-grown and rooted in the perceived injustice of income distribution and the misery of peasants who dealt with mostly Jewish financiers or wholesale traders. Jews were thus identified with capitalism by those at the bottom of the social ladder. In his rebuttal, which Die Welt refused to publish, Ungváry writes that Schmidt misunderstood his central point: that although anti-Semitism “can be explained, it does not mean it can also be justified. ’Rational’ means that it is a phenomenon that can be analyzed and understood”. While Schmidt accused him of a Hungary-centred explanation of the Holocaust, the more common “Germano-centric view”, Ungváry writes, obfuscates the responsibility of those who benefited from the final solution in other countries under Nazi occupation. Hungarians and others try to escape responsibility by blaming their own anti-Semitism on the German occupiers, Ungváry concludes.

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