Page 99 of my dissertation falls in Chapter 1, “A ‘Viktator’ in the Making: Gaslighting Democracy, Telling Lies, and Evoking Histories,” which describes political culture in Hungary after 1989. In it, I introduce readers to a journalist, Noémi, who exemplifies the challenges of living and working in modern Budapest. Her words illustrate the substantial deterioration of a critical European Union value in Hungary, the freedom of the press (which falls under the EU’s “freedom of expression” value), due to the governing style of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz. In Hungary today, journalists continue to navigate increasingly restrictive working conditions – and many have lost their livelihoods as a result. They are not always able or allowed to write on topics they find relevant and are often completely barred from writing about political happenings that are not sanctioned and/or approved by the government. Institutions that allow their journalists freedom of expression have nearly all been bought by friends of the government–entire staffs given a choice to stay on board and bend to Orbán’s will or to leave. Daily, journalists must adapt to and negotiate with the ever-changing political climate that the autocratic Orbán maintains.
If page 99 of my dissertation passes the quality test, and I think it does, it is because of Noémi’s willingness to share her story with me. Further, the page spotlights a central point in my dissertation, that political talk in private spaces matters and can shape meaning, can eventually influence the outcome of elections. Noémi nicely illustrates the process of meaning-making that happens in private conversation with her voiced exploration of the text “journalism” in opposition to what she calls “propaganda media.” She also uses the text “Orbán” metonymically, as an emotionally-charged symbol for Fidesz – the same way many in Hungary do.
Before 2010, I think, it was like, we were all journalists, you know, and everyone had their own little biases, right wing, left wing—we all knew what the other was thinking. But ever since Orbán came into power and took over the media, and uh, they built up this propaganda media, which is like blatantly lying. It’s not biased, it’s lying. They make up stories out of thin air—so it’s not the same profession anymore. So, when I say “journalism” [now] I don’t include the propaganda media because I think that’s over now. They, they, I don’t call them “journalists” anymore…[i]n a way I sympathize with them because I come from the same group. I know how hard it is, how it’s impossible to get stories. How, what, how low paid, they are really [under] paid. And um, I know, like conditions are really harsh. Like, last week I was in [Germany] at a conference and I went to Der Spiegel’s headquarters—a shiny, huge building with like 15 stories and, whatever. And, the biggest, most read Hungarian newspaper’s office at the moment is in one room. In. a. room. So, it’s like, completely different realities. [Field Notes 10/02/2019]
The lack of material resources, Noémi noted, stemmed from “Orbán” gradually and consistently pulling funding from journalists. However, even if they did have a few material resources, journalists had to work to gather public information from a government that was not willing to practice transparency.
[Journalists] deal with ministries not answering them—legally they have to, but they don’t. …If you get sources [connected to the government], they lie…If you file a freedom of information request it will either be denied or you will be asked to pay tons of money or it will be unreadable…I swear to God they have a machine they put all these documents through that makes them unreadable before they send it to you! You get a grainy PDF that you can’t read—much worse than a scanned PDF…
Noémi’s account may remind some of Russian state tactics like those outlined in Eliot Borenstein’s Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (2019), and it should. Orbán has been called “mini-Putin,” by Hungarians and the larger Western Press alike. He poses a real threat to the values outlined in Treaty of the European Union; values meant to prevent World War III. For those who do practice Ford Maddox Ford’s method, they should encounter an engaging story that embodies the process of democratic decline in a modern EU member-state, and hopefully, they’ll learn more here and elsewhere, because Noémi’s story is but one that’s worth reading.
Storey-Nagy, Jessica. 2022. Sovereign Voices: Politics, Identity, and Meaning-Making in Contemporary Hungary. PhD dissertation, Indiana University.