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Hungarians Lose Faith In Government-Backed Newspapers


President Trump is hosting Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, today at the White House, and these two leaders share a penchant for demonizing the press and slamming critical coverage as, quote, "fake news." Orban has done even more; his government and its allies have now taken control of most media outlets in the country, as NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Pecs is a cobblestone university city in southern Hungary's wine country. It's the hometown of journalist Ferenc Nimmerfroh, and for more than 20 years, he worked at the local newspaper.

FERENC NIMMERFROH: (Through interpreter) I started there when I was 21, and I grew up there. We really took reporting seriously and tried not to take sides.

KAKISSIS: Nimmerfroh rose to managing editor. Then in 2016, a company called MediaWorks took over the newspaper. MediaWorks is close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban and has been accused of turning its newspapers into government mouthpieces. Many of Nimmerfroh's colleagues quit in protest, but he needed the income to support his wife and children. As Christmas approached, he hung on.

NIMMERFROH: (Through interpreter) Those of us who remained expected that the new owners would interfere with our work, so we were trying to figure out what we could do about it. And then in December, they summoned us to Budapest and fired us. I thought I'd never work in journalism again.

KAKISSIS: But journalists who support Viktor Orban's government usually land on their feet. Nimmerfroh's former colleague Mate Boka is now the editor in chief of the newspaper funded by the Pecs municipality. He tells me about his newspaper's mission.

MATE BOKA: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We want to strengthen patriotism," he says, "and improve the economy. We want to show citizens how to contribute to this." Media scholar Marius Dragomir describes state-supported news outlets another way.

MARIUS DRAGOMIR: Very strongly anti-immigration. Very much anti-European Union.

KAKISSIS: In other words, Prime Minister Orban's nativist party line.

DRAGOMIR: People tend to believe many of these things simply because they hear them from so many sources.

KAKISSIS: He explains how, over the last decade, Orban and his supporters have systematically taken control of most of the country's media.

DRAGOMIR: You have media regulators under your control, giving licenses to operate the TV stations that only they want. You have control over a public service and a broadcaster that has nationwide coverage. You have control over money, state advertising money going to media. And you have control over 60%, 70% of the commercial media outlets. Critical coverage is possible but is not impactful.

KAKISSIS: What does make an impact are the messages from state-supported media, which are often used to target government critics, even teenagers like Blanka Nagy. After she spoke at a protest, one newspaper falsely claimed she was a delinquent who was flunking out of school. Several other media outlets reprinted the lie.

BLANKA NAGY: (Through interpreter) You can theoretically ask for a correction. But no one reads those, so the lie just becomes public knowledge.

KAKISSIS: Nagy sued and actually won, although the newspaper is appealing the verdict. Ferenc Nimmerfroh - he's the editor who lost his job after an Orban ally took over his old newspaper - he wants no part of such personal smears. Rather than toe the official line, he and two former colleagues flipped open their laptops and started an online newspaper - Szabad Pec, or Free Pec.

NIMMERFROH: (Through interpreter) We're not trying to topple the government, nothing like that; we just want to report the facts and do it freely, without interference.

KAKISSIS: The three-man team now works in a closet-sized office in downtown Pecs. It's all they can afford on the modest amount they've raised through crowdfunding and some ad revenue from a local hotel.

And you, what are you working on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Nimmerfroh and a colleague tell me that Szabad Pecs reports on local issues, such as defective streetlights, underfunded schools and the increasing use of surveillance cameras. And they say that unlike pro-government media, they press local politicians for answers. But media experts say few Hungarians actually read independent online publications like Free Pecs.


KAKISSIS: How do you get your news here in Pecs? How do you get your news?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I spoke to 10 Hungarians in the city.

Do you know anything about this independent news portal?

Only three had heard of Free Pecs, and none had read it.

TUNDE BATORI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Fifty-six-year-old housewife Tunde Batori says she doesn't read the government-backed newspapers, either. She says she doesn't trust any Hungarian media outlets these days. So she calls her daughter in Ireland to find out what's happening in Hungary. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Pecs, Hungary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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