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Protesting Media Control in Hungary

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On the surface, Hungary enjoys freedom of the press. There is a wide variety of newspapers that reflect different points of view from Nepszabadszag on the Left to Magyar Hirlap on the Right. There are some independent voices on the radio, including KlubRadio. The Internet is a veritable free-for-all displaying a full range of opinions.

But if you look a little deeper, this freedom of the press is actually quite limited. Most Hungarians -- more than 70 percent -- rely on television for their news, and the government maintains a lock on public television through a variety of complex mechanisms. Several private channels, including News TV and Echo TV, also hew close to the ruling Fidesz party. Only the cable station ATV maintains its independence. KlubRadio, meanwhile, overcame various challenges to renew its broadcast license in 2013, though it faces significant financial challenges and is down from 11 provincial stations to only one.

But journalist Balazs Nagy Navarro urges people to dig even deeper to understand how thoroughly the Hungarian media is compromised. The problems, for instance, didn't begin with Fidesz taking power in 2010.

"The public media is always aligned with the government," he told me in an interview last May. "It's Left when the government is Left or Right when the government is Right. Now it's changed completely. The media is now 80-90 percent controlled by the government and conservative, pro-business circles. Hungarian society is definitely not divided this way, 80 percent conservative and 20 percent leftist. But the biggest problem is that the access to information is very much controlled. It's not just public media but also local media."

I spoke with Nagy Navarro in the Budapest apartment he shares with his wife Julieta Nagy Navarro. But he spends much of his time camped outside the public media building in Obuda (which you can see in this short video). He's been there for more than two years, protesting the government's manipulations of the public media and his own shabby treatment by his employers. He kicked off the protest with a hunger strike in December 2011. Since then he has endured court challenges, attacks by security guards, and character defamation. And he has also garnered considerable coverage in the foreign press - though not so much in the domestic press - for his campaign. In 2012, he and his fellow journalist and trade unionist Aranka Szavuly won the Freedom and Future of the Media award in Germany.

Nagy Navarro has protested against government control of the media during the current Fidesz era but also during the previous rule by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. "If this is a democratic society and I'm against corruption and I see corruption in my workplace, I will say something," he said. "If someone is trying to influence the public media, I will say something. I put my opinion on the noticeboard of the newsroom so that everyone can see. The government tried to place their own inept people in the media, and I pointed this out. I started my career in journalism after the changes. I wanted this to be a free and democratic country where we do free and objective reporting, not because these are the rules but because this is what we want."

The Interview

Tell me about the first time you were fired.

It was in December 2005. To be brief, I was seen as a troublemaker by my bosses, and not just as a journalist. If this is a democratic society and I'm against corruption and I see corruption in my workplace, I will say something. If someone is trying to influence the public media, I will say something. I put my opinion on the noticeboard of the newsroom so that everyone can see. The government tried to place their own inept people in the media, and I pointed this out. I started my career in journalism after the changes. I wanted this to be a free and democratic country where we do free and objective reporting, not because these are the rules but because this is what we want. Nobody ever said in response that we should tell lies. They didn't confront me like that. They simply started to make an uncomfortable situation by not raising my salary and no longer sending me abroad as I used to. After five years, I was making the same salary, which was less than my trainees and subeditors. And of course their message was: you can say what you want, but this is the result.

I took them to court on equal work, equal pay. I said, "Even if you don't like my face and not even taking into consideration my experience, you should pay me at least the same as my coworkers."It was quite an unprecedented lawsuit. Before the first level trial, they should have paid me five years of damages and raised my salary more than 100 percent. But three days before the verdict, they fired me. The said, "We've got one too many foreign news editors in the newsroom and by chance it's you. It has nothing to do with the lawsuit."

Three days later, I won my original lawsuit on equal work equal pay at the first level. The verdict said that I had been discriminated against for five years because of my opinion. They appealed, of course, so there were two lawsuits going on at the same time -- on the discrimination and the second on the illegal firing that itself was a retaliation.

That was in 2005, and the dismissal case is still going on concerning damages. The discrimination lawsuit went up to the Supreme Court. I won at all levels. Finally, in 2013, the court also declared in the other lawsuit that the employer's actions to fire me were illegal and discriminatory. In addition to the damages, the court ordered the public television station to pay the difference between what the salaries are today and what they were in 2005. This verdict was upheld in court but the judges at the second level cut the sum. So I took it to the Supreme Court, and now we are waiting. It's also interesting that while at the first level my judges were always different, at second level at the Budapest Capital court I always got the same council, and they upheld the decisions but always tried to cut back on damages.

When the verdict was upheld the first time, back in 2009, I got my job back. But I couldn't work until the elections were finished, so I started working again in October 2010. The first time I was fired it was during the Socialist-Liberal government. So, today, pro-government people sometimes ask me, "What were you doing when the Socialist-Liberal government was doing the same things as the Fidesz government?"

I say, "I'm sorry but I was saying the same things. I pointed out wrong things, and I was fired. And later when I did the same under a different government, I was fired again." This is one of the reasons that I fought and won the cases.

This is also why I was invited to start an independent trade union, the Independent Union of Film and Television Makers. That started my second troublemaking period. Setting up this union has been part of my continual fight for workers' rights in the public media, which has included a fight against the current government and its attempt to control the public media. The last stage was this hunger strike. I started it on December 10, 2011.

The official reason for the second firing, which they hid from the public statements but which became known in the trial process, was that I went to a political protest and said, "In 1989 a young guy was brave enough to say that the Russians should leave this country. We should now say that this guy, Viktor Orban, should leave this country for the benefit of Hungarians." They had a transcript of this speech, and now this is my crime. According to the law, however, this is not a crime, since we have freedom of speech. In reality, my crime is my trade union work and staging the hunger strike because of news manipulation in the public media -- in other words, challenging the government policy. But of course they didn't say this when I was fired.

At this time, after finishing the hunger strike but continuing the protest, we created a "Clean Hands"movement, and our movement was at its peak with 5-10,000 people. At that time, my employer didn't want to say that I was fired for political reasons, so they said it was for different reasons. But I'd expected that sooner or later they would do it.

The hunger strike lasted for how long?

For me it was 22 days. We didn't take solid foods, just liquids like water, tea, and juice. It wasn't like Gandhi, but still it was 22 days. When we launched the Clean Hands movement in front of the parliament building, I declared that I would finish the hunger strike. Many people joined at the beginning, and it lasted for two to three weeks. There were also solidarity strikes after I finished for 1-2 days. And from the start of the hunger strike there have been protests in front of the public media building. There's been almost a total blackout in the Hungarian media about this. People don't know that we started this hunger strike, who started it, or that the protests are still going on. More people on the outside of Hungary know about it. Last week I did an interview with Al-Jazeera English. It's not true that just government control is the problem with the media. It's a much deeper problem with how the media works. If the political elite and the business elite are corrupt, the media elite is corrupt in the same way. The so-called oppositional media is small, weak, and also selective along party and ideological lines.

For the camp in front of the public media building, do you have specific demands?

It started when the image of the former head of the Supreme Court was blurred out in public news. It turned out that this had been on the instruction of the head of the news who said, "I just don't want this guy seen on my television." We asked for those responsible for this to be disciplined or fired. They were basically manipulating the news and telling open lies. This was not soft manipulation, but direct manipulation. The reporters, out of fear or who knows what kind of loyalty, just followed the orders. We put out six names of those responsible. Two of the six left. One real bad guy, the mastermind of the manipulation, was fired on the sixth day of the hunger strike. Another left on his own. The rest are still there, heading the news departments and continuing the manipulation.

If the other four people leave, would that be a victory?

I don't see victory for these people just to be fired. This is only the first step. We need to change the system so that this kind of thing can never happen again. Instead of undertaking an investigation, the CEO of the company started a campaign against us. He took me to court for defamation. Now I have three court cases against me initiated by him, three of which he has already lost. It is unbelievable but the company even initiated a criminal process against me, asking for a one-year suspended prison sentence for my supposedly defamatory remarks. But I had been acquitted at the first level, and at the second level they rejected their claims as totally unfounded. So it is now my turn to sue them for false accusation. They accused me of spreading lies that peaceful protesters were attacked in November 2012, even though these facts have been proven. But the importance of this is the chilling effect. The message for everyone is that if you speak out, if you protest, we cannot only fire you regardless of your trade union protection but we can also intimidate you with the threat of a prison sentence.

We have a very hierarchical system in the public media. The CEO of the public media system is appointed by the head of the media council, which created this new media law. This council is supposed to be just a supervisory body. And it's supposed to be independent. But how can it be independent when it appoints the CEO of this company, and the head of the media council is basically picked up by the prime minister.

How long will you maintain this action then?

For the rest of the interview, click here.