It’s a dirty trick deja vu as Hungarian election heats up – POLITICO

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It’s election time in Hungary and the dirty tricks are back.

With only two months left before Hungarians go to the polls, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is promoting secret recordings aimed at discrediting civil society and independent media.

The pro-government Magyar Nemzet daily said this week it had obtained new recordings showing that non-governmental organizations linked to Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros were “manipulating” international media coverage of Hungary – a claim that groups from the civil society have firmly rejected.

The move closely resembles the controversial release of recordings of NGO employees weeks before Hungary’s last parliamentary election in 2018.

Orbán has long claimed that dark global forces are conspiring against his country, portraying himself to voters as the guardian of Hungary’s national interest. Critics, however, say the longtime prime minister – who is facing a tough election campaign against a united opposition alliance – has misled voters with baseless conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes.

The institutions of the European Union, of which Hungary has been a member since 2004, have accused Orbán’s government of backsliding on basic democratic standards.

The latest leaks come as Hungarian opposition activists, journalists and politicians increasingly fear their civil rights are under threat. Last summer, evidence emerged that a number of journalists and opposition figures were targeted by the Pegasus spyware.

Earlier this week, Magyar Nemzet said he received an email from an unknown address with a range of documents, including in English recordings by Andrej Nosko, former coach to the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations, and videojournalist Matyas Kalman.

Hours after the first recordings were released, the Hungarian government posted the clips on one of its official YouTube channels and the story was shared in pro-government media in Hungary.

In both cases, the clips appear fragmented and their context is very blurry, with an unidentified person heard asking questions in English in the background. But Magyar Nemzet presented the clips as proof that “most NGOs, including Amnesty International, control foreign journalists” and that “foreign journalists paint a distorted picture of Hungary”.

“I think the part that’s twisted is that this government – with a few tweaks and tricks – has real popular support,” Nosko can be heard saying in a 43-second clip. “What is often presented abroad is that this government does not enjoy popular support and is in power only because of intrigue and restrictions on freedoms.”

In a 35-second recording, Nosko said that when he worked at “the foundation”, reporters would sometimes ask for recommendations of “someone to talk to” and “people with a certain bias would recommend their own friends or colleagues or people with a similar. persuasion.”

Kálmán, for his part, can be heard discussing journalists who “trust” NGOs.

In a second clip, he said: “Is the journalist independent enough or did he get a really good invitation to a good hotel, so how much did you offer him to write what you want to hear from medias ? Nobody can really control that in these cases, so it’s very difficult to be transparent.

“I have been invited to Brussels and Strasbourg, to report on individual events, and usually in those cases journalists have really been told where they need to go, who they can talk to,” he said. declared.

“Scandalous” campaign

Both Nosko and Kálmán declined to comment on the record for this article. But activists and civil society groups say the clips are misleading – and a campaign is underway to trick and covertly record civil society members.

“It’s outrageous,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, calling the recordings “part of the election campaign.”

POLITICO has identified four cases over the past two years where members of Hungarian civil society have been approached by individuals with false identities for discussions. The approach was very similar to tactics used in 2017 and 2018, when members of civil society were lured into in-person meetings under false pretenses and secretly recorded. One of the fictitious surnames used in the latest stings was even identical to the one used in 2018.

This time around, however, video calls were used.

One individual, who asked not to be identified, said he had a video call in 2020 with someone he believed to be a “donor interested in supporting civil society”.

Selected excerpts from the chat were then “taken out of context and misrepresented,” the person said.

A second person said two people approached them via LinkedIn and email in September 2021, touting an “advisory opportunity” for an anonymous foreign investor.

During a Zoom call to discuss the opportunity, a €3,000 fee was offered for a conference call and Q&A session. But the conversation quickly turned to questions about “who am I in contact with” and “influencing Brussels” on Hungarian politics, according to the person, who also said one question was about whether s There was “more attention” given to Hungary than other countries. .

The interaction was “very weird,” this person said.

The two alleged individuals who made the moves have social media profiles listing work experiences at well-known multinationals and studies at prestigious schools. But messages sent to their LinkedIn profiles this week have gone unanswered and there is no indication that these people exist in real life.

“Magyar Nemzet’s use of heavy selective editing to distort clearly recorded interviews under false pretences aims to discredit and intimidate civil society and independent media in Hungary,” a spokesperson for the Open Society Foundations said. .

“Their publication by a media outlet with close ties to the Hungarian government follows a series of disturbing efforts to frame other civil society figures, including in this case a former Open Society employee,” the door said. -speech, adding: “These brutal methods, designed to silence independent critical voices, have no place in any member state of the European Union.

Dávid Vig, director of Amnesty International Hungary, also referred to the previous campaign.

“It is a pity that the Hungarian government was able to get away with the Pegasus scandal as it is doing now. We were not afraid in 2018 and certainly not afraid now. We will continue to work for human rights and the rule of law in Hungary,” he said.

The Hungarian government declined to answer questions about the recordings, pointing out Blog messages from government spokesman Zoltán Kovács summarizing media coverage of Magyar Nemzet. Kovács also wrote that he “honestly can’t wait to see what’s next.”

Orbán himself weighed in on the records on a Friday morning interview on public radio Kossuth Rádió.

He said that “all kinds of journalists come, who – referring to their Hungarian buddies – write all kinds of absurd, fake news type things. And that makes people angry.

“Facts matter,” Orbán said, citing “how the Hungarian economy is doing, how we work, how well we are doing compared to others.”

“What matters is that Hungary is a country that cannot be swept away,” he said.

Laura T. Thrasher