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It’s dirty tricks déjà vu as Hungarian election heats up

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

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

Pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet said this week that it obtained new recordings showing that non-governmental organizations linked to Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros are “manipulating” international press coverage of Hungary — a claim civil society groups have strongly rejected. 

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

Orbán has long claimed that shadowy global forces are conspiring against his country, presenting himself to voters as the guardian of Hungary’s national interest. Critics, however, say that 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.

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

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

Earlier this week, Magyar Nemzet said that it received an email from an unknown address with a range of material, including English-language recordings of Andrej Nosko, a former manager at the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations, and videojournalist Mátyás Kálmán. 

Within hours of the first recordings’ publication, the Hungarian government posted the clips on one of its official YouTube channels and the story was circulated in pro-government media outlets in Hungary.

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

“I think that the part which is misrepresented is that this government — with some tweaks and tricks — enjoys genuine popular support,” Nosko can be heard saying in a 43-second clip. “What is presented abroad often is that this government does not enjoy popular support and it’s in power only because of scheming and curtailing freedoms.” 

In a 35-second recording, Nosko said that when he worked at “the foundation” sometimes journalists would 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 are “trusting” of NGOs.

In a second clip, he said: “Is the journalist independent enough or did he get a very good invitation to a good hotel, so how much did you offer to him to write what you want to hear back from the media? No one can really control this in these cases, so it’s very hard to be transparent.” 

“I was invited to Brussels and Strasbourg, to report on individual events, and usually in these cases journalists were really instructed where they should go, who they can talk to,” he said.

‘Outrageous’ 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 that a campaign is underway to trick and secretly record members of civil society.  

“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 were approached by individuals with fake identities for chats. The approach was highly 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 last names used in the latest stings was even identical to one used in 2018.

This time around, however, video calls were used. 

One individual, who asked not to be identified, said that 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 later “taken out of context and presented in a misleading way,” this person said. 

A second person said two individuals approached them via LinkedIn and email in September 2021, touting a “consultancy opportunity” for an unnamed foreign investor. 

During a Zoom call to discuss the opportunity, a fee of €3,000 was offered for a lecture and question-and-answer session. But the conversation quickly turned to questions about “who am I in contact with” and “influencing Brussels” on Hungary policy, according to the person, who also said one question focused on whether there is “more attention” given to Hungary than other countries. 

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

The two supposed individuals who made the approaches have social media profiles listing work experience in well-known multinationals and education in prestigious schools. But messages sent to their LinkedIn profiles this week went unanswered and there are no indications these individuals exist in real life. 

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

“Their publication by an outlet closely aligned with the Hungarian government follows a series of concerning efforts to entrap other civil society figures, including in this case a former Open Society employee,” the spokesperson said, adding: “These thuggish methods, designed to silence independent critical voices, have no place in a member state of the European Union.” 

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

“It is a shame that the Hungarian government could get away with that just as they do with the Pegasus scandal now. We were not afraid in 2018 and definitely not afraid now. We’ll keep working for human rights and the rule of law in Hungary,” he said. 

The Hungarian government declined to respond to questions about the recordings, pointing to blog posts by government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács that recapped Magyar Nemzet’s coverage. Kovács also wrote that he “honestly can’t wait to see what’s next.” 

Orbán himself weighed in on the recordings in a Friday morning interview on state-owned Kossuth Rádió.

He said “all sorts of journalists come, who — referring to their Hungarian pals — write all kinds of utter nonsense, fake news-type things. And this angers people.” 

“The facts matter,” Orbán said, citing “how the Hungarian economy is performing, how we work, how successful we are compared to the others.”

“What counts is that Hungary is a country that cannot be swept aside,” he said. 

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