Exploiting the Closest “Enemy”: How Hungary’s State Media Takeover Paved the Way for One of the Most Extreme Perpetrators of Islamophobia

15 October 2019

Country: Hungary

By: Mikhail Yakovlev

Screen_Shot_2019-10-15_at_3.29.11_PMStuck behind the Iron Curtain for the better part of the latter half of the twentieth century, Hungary’s population was able to stay largely white and Christian for many decades. While countries with former colonies like France and the United Kingdom were forced to reckon with immigration and integration, issues of race and religion remained largely absent from Hungarian media and popular discourse.

In 2015, everything changed. Suddenly, Hungary became one of the key ‘transit countries’ for refugees bound for Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of Western Europe. Hungary almost immediately became one of the most aggressively anti-refugee countries, erecting a security border fence, mobilizing anti-migrant sentiment in the media and pushing most migrants to cross through Croatia or Slovenia instead. Now, a combination of Hungary’s hostile reputation and the crackdown on refugees across Europe means that almost no refugees are entering Hungary—and even fewer are staying. However, toxic media narratives linger. Why?

In order to understand this, we must first examine how and why the Hungarian media pushes Islamophobic narratives. According to Dr. Zsuzsanna Vidra, a research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies at the Central European University (Hungary) it started with two dominant Islamophobic narratives that emerged in the wake of the refugee crisis: the “physical security frame” and the “symbolic security frame.”

“The main components of the physical security frame – concerned with security issues, terrorism, and migration – made fewer and less direct references to Islam. In certain political communications (such as the government anti-immigrant campaigns) there was no direct mention of Islam or Muslims.”

“In the media, however, the link between Islamic terrorism and physical security was made explicit.”

By contrast, the symbolic security frame has explicit anti-Muslim sentiments in both the media and political narratives. Muslims were portrayed as radically different, rejecting cultural norms and incapable of integration.

“Migration was seen as Islamisation of Europe which constituted a threat to European civilization and Christianity and eventually to Hungarian identity,” Vidra explains, emphasizing that Hungarian media often makes use of both frames at the same time.

But what pushed the Hungarian media to adopt such an Islamophobic narrative in the first place? According to a 2018 report by Article 19 titled Hungary: Responding to Hate Speech, the rise of prejudice and intolerance in Hungarian society can be closely linked to the Hungarian government’s own policies and communications strategies.

One of the first instances of this came in 2015, with the National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism, part of a campaign for a national referendum which would decide whether or not the country should accept the EU’s refugee quota. As part of the consultation, all Hungarian citizens received a number of questions through the post, all of which were openly biased in their framing.

At the same time, the government ran an anti-immigration billboard campaign. These were rip-offs of UKIP’s notorious campaign ads for the UK’s 2016 Referendum on Leaving the European Union.

The Hungarian government used the National Consultation and the billboard campaign to the same end – to stir up anti-refugee hatred in preparation for a binding referendum on whether to accept the EU’s refugee quota. Held shortly after the Brexit vote and costing over 20 million EUR, the referendum was constitutionally invalid due to turnout dipping below 50%  required for validity.

However, of those who voted, 92 percent sided with the Hungarian government, enabling Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to proclaim it an unprecedented success. Ultimately, the vote is evidence that Orban had succeeded in mobilizing most of the Hungarian population against migrants.

Hungarian media went into overdrive, amplifying this message.

Why weren’t they more critical?

Again, the answer is simple. When Nepszabadsag Hungary’s last independent daily suddenly closed after a hostile takeover by an Orban ally, the government achieved an almost complete hold on the country’s media. Now, roughly 90% of Hungarian media is owned by the government or people close to Orban’s regime.

But, why is Orban intent on attacking the refugees?

Observers (here, here and here) agree that Orban’s initial decision to target refugees was simple political expediency. Eastern Europe’s arch-conservative saw an opportunity to exploit refugees fleeing from Muslim-majority countries in order to boost his party’s grip on power.

Bea Bodrogi, a leading Hungarian human rights lawyer says that refugees were the most convenient enemy to rally support.

“Orban simply wants to create an external enemy. And, this time, the enemy is migrants. This lets him claim that he is the only person who can defend the country,” she told Media Diversity Institute.

“Of course, migrants are not the only enemies. Government media says that liberals like Soros and civil-society NGOs are also enemies who are trying to destroy our country,” she elaborated.

“But, migrants are constant enemies because it is easy to target them. They have no way to push back. We have local elections in two-weeks time, and this is one of the hottest topics. The position is to defend the country, to defend the nation against migrants.”

Today, the numbers of refugees coming to Europe from Syria and the Middle East have decreased considerably. According to Hungary’s Central Statistical Office, 671 people sought asylum in Hungary in 2018. A drop of 176,464 compared to 177,135 asylum seekers in 2015.

Despite the dramatic reduction in migrants passing through, Islamophobic anti-migration narratives persist in Hungarian media. In the past year alone, Centre for Independent Journalism Get the Trolls Out (GTTO) partner in Hungary flagged more than twenty cases of extreme Islamophobia in the Hungarian media.

In one particularly aggressive instance, the government-owned daily Magyar Nemzet [Hungarian Nation] tried to discredit opposition candidates standing in the upcoming municipal elections, ridiculing them for questioning the government’s narrative that immigrants are a threat to Christian societies and that a border wall is a necessary security measure.

In another, a state media outlet flat out lied about caravans of migrants that would be traveling through the country.

Bodrogi explains that it no longer matters whether there are actual refugees trying to enter Hungary. The echo-chamber of Hungarian media has created an alternative reality.

“In the late 80s, and early 90s when I grew up, Hungarian media were much more liberal on some points than they are now. The public service media was much more responsible. Financed by the state, it should be editorially independent and impartial. But, today it is not. This is a big problem especially for elder people and those living in the countryside. For them, ‘public-service’ media – radio and TV – is the only way to get information, apart from the internet. Exposed to constant Islamophobic anti-immigrant propaganda, these people inevitably accept this narrative.”

Her view is supported by data. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 72 percent of Hungarians want fewer migrants or no migrants at all. 73 percent consider immigrants to be a burden on the state “because they take jobs and social benefits.” And, 66 percent believe that immigrants refuse to ‘integrate’ and increase the risk of terrorism.

It is difficult not to see this as part of the rise of the global far right. Without a diverse media landscape, the Hungarian government is allowed to own the narrative. They use this power to push a narrative that symmetrically frames migrants and refugees as a threat to Hungarian society, and Viktor Orban as its savior. This shapes public opinion. How could it not, if this is the only perspective available?

If Hungary had a different media landscape, journalists’ coverage of migrants—and, by extension, public perception of migrants—would be much different.