Propaganda machine

“Media alerts like machine gun fire” – analyst targeted by pro-government media in a witch-hunt

Péter Krekó, political analyst at Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, has been the target of a frenzied attack by media allied to Viktor Orbán’s government. He told our colleague the sound a smear campaign makes on one’s phone and the best help to sanely live through a character assassination. This is interview originally appeared on Vsquare, it is republished here in a longer version. You’ll find a piece in Hungarian on Átlátszó about this story here.

So how did you go from a regular political analyst to the main character in a mediatized witch-hunt?

At the end of December I gave a statement to Politico, which they used in an article titled „in Hungary, politicization of vaccine hangs over immunization efforts”. In this article i raised a point that the governmental campaign in Hungary in favour of the Russian and Chinese vaccines can reduce the willingness of the society rto cvaccinate themselves- given that these vaccines are highly unpopular. The last sentence of the piece was quoting me: „if you undermine the willingness of people to vaccinate themselves, [Orbán] can suffer the political consequences.” While the statement obviously referred to the government, the government-organized media twisted my words and started arguing that i proposed for the opposition to run an anti-vaccination campaign! This is what they called the „Krekó-strategy”. Governmental propagandists are wearing their thin foil hats 24/7, and they found me with this ludicrous theory.

In Hungary, both the government and the opposition are supportive of vaccination. In terms of other vaccines, such as the one of for measles, Hungary can boast admirable vaccination rates. This could be something for every Hungarian to get behind. We at Political Capital believe that vaccination is the most important tool against coronavirus, and the greatest task for the coming year will be to ensure that the necessary number of people receive immunity. We’ve also been saying from the outset that priority should be given to those vaccines that have received the necessary authorization and are trusted by the public. Otherwise people simply won’t go and get themselves vaccinated.

In a recent survey by Hungary’s Central Bureau of Statistics, only 15 percent of respondents said they would surely get the jab.

Right. Whereas, according to experts, some forty to sixty percent of the population have to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But if people don’t want to, they won’t go, since vaccination isn’t compulsory. And it doesn’t help things that the Hungarian government has been talking about the Chinese and Russian vaccines for two months now, even though these haven’t been greenlighted by the medical authorities so far. Neither are they popular with the public.

On 29th December, the political daily Magyar Nemzet published an article. This was a particulary braindead piece of hardcore, fringe, conspiracy theory journalism, below even the regular quality of logic you can find on Russia Today or Sputnik. This piece argued that by way of my statement, I was advising the opposition to undermine public trust in vaccination. Basically, they were saying that I was advising the opposition to barter the lives of Hungarian people for political power.

Were you?

No. In my comments to Politico, I did not even mention the opposition. And we’re independent, not advising any political parties. The quoted line from my statement for Politico was referencing the government peddling Russian and Chinese vaccines. I believe it was deliberately mistranslated by Magyar Nemzet. Both me and Politico made it clear that I didn’t say what they were reporting. But that didn’t bother them much. On the 30th, commentator Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece, which was saying that I was a lowly scoundrel and what else. I don’t really want to quote from it. Then came the total madness.

You need to know that these articles are published, they flash through the various publicatons of Fidesz-friendly media conglomerates in an instant. So you’re receiving media alerts like machine gun fire of literally identical articles getting published everywhere. Altogether there were some 200 articles of this kind. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in his new year’s address in the public radio, referenced the quotes attributed to me twice as „evil”. I find it grotesque, to say the least, that the PM is singling out me, a regular political analyst, in the midst of an actual public health crisis. Then Bayer started a petition against me, and they started repeating their lies again and again.

A case study in Hungarian propaganda: this is how the pro-government media works if something awkward is revealed about PM Orban

The pro-government media empire in Hungary has a special characteristic: when there is a very important message to push, they work in unison. The same message is spread by every website, newspaper, TV and radio channel; sometimes even headlines are the same. This week brought another example of this close cooperation.

You’re an analyst. Would you care to analyse the logic in the background of the smear campaign against you?

I really can’t, as i am part of the story myself. But also, since as a matter of public policy, I find it utterly senseless. Why spend so much energy on the character assassination of someone who isn’t runninng for office, instead of trying to convince Fidesz sympathisers to get vaccinated?

What I mean is that coordinated media attacks are now a regular staple of the Hungarian public life, but their targets were so far people who have or aspire to power: politicians, oligarchs and the like.

You’re right that this event has antecedents. But actual people who had been victims of a character assassination before, such as billionaire György Soros or banker Zoltán Spéder, are influential and wealthy people, or politicians such as Péter Juhász, who said very uncomfortable things about corruption.

This is a brutal disinformation campaign against a non-politician. I wonder what the two general practitioners, who were also asked by Politico for their piece, are thinking now, looking at the backlash against me. The intended effect is obvious: shrinking the space available for voices independent of the government and critical of its policies during the pandemic. These tactics do not only pertain to Hungary, nor are they new here. But the level of these brutal, primitive lies constitute a further step down. I think these attacks will only intensify in 2021, as we approach the 2022 elections.

Governing party organization launched smear campaign against local journalist

Atlatszo correspondent Zsuzsa Bodnár, the leader of a local environmental protection association was attacked in a local printed newspaper and then in defamatory leaflets thrown into mailboxes in the city of Göd, Pest County. The smear campaign was initiated by the local spokesperson of governing party Fidesz.

On a personal level, what’s it like to live through this?

For me, this is a surreal experience. You wake up, read the papers, and see the news painting a diabolical figure of yourself. What’s being attributed to me is the diametrical opposite of my opinion. But I learnt that it helps a lot if others write about your story as well from the independent media: if no-one is reporting reality, you start to have doubts about everything, even yourself. It’s like a grim episode of Black Mirror. But publicity and support from colleagues and the public helps to draw the boundaries of the political virtual reality that is built around you. I received support from my colleagues, from the academic community, and there was a petition supporting me as well.

The regular tone in Hungarian public life nowadays is brutal. You can learn to manage it; you can even get used to it. I’ve received threats before, but I’ve never made them public. But this is different. This is hatemongering on an industrial scale targeting me personally. While the smear campaign on the supposed „Krekó-strategy” was ongoing, I’ve received lots and lots hate mail in the form of emails, as well as messages and comments on social media. Some of it was about killing me and my family. Threats to a politician or a banker stop at his bodyguards, but I do not have bodyguards.

I don’t believe I am going to be a victim of any actual violence, but I think this has gone too far now. This is dangerous. If the state-funded disinformation machine continues fanning the flames of violence, at some point we will be witnessing its effect. We could see ont he Capitol Hill that conspiracy theories can fuel violence. It would be good if we didn’t wait until that.

Hungarian PM Orban threatens journalists – if someone hits us, we will respond, he said

Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, threatened journalists in his regular Friday morning interview at the public service radio channel. Atlatszo revealed on Monday that Orban used a private jet to travel to Bulgaria for a soccer match and that the government’s business and political elite are using a luxury yacht for holidays.

Interview by Márton Sarkadi Nagy. Cover photo of Péter Krekó from Political Capital via Facebook.

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