The Ministry of Truth of Orban. How do anti-Ukrainian and anti-European propaganda work in Hungary?

In May 2022, Viktor Orban shared the recipe for the success of his own regime, outlining it in 12 points at the annual forum of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Budapest.

The fourth point on this list emphasizes the necessity of having one’s own media, while the fifth point highlights the use of these media to discredit opponents.

The Hungarian Prime Minister knows what he is talking about: for the past 13 years, during his continuous rule in Hungary, Orban has meticulously built his media empire — a monster that destroys all enemies of his regime.

Often, this empire relentlessly fights against enemies who are not truly enemies and heroically overcomes problems that do not actually exist — deliberately inventing them specifically for such a fight.

Currently, one of the public enemies of the Hungarian government is Ukraine.

Prior to the 2022 parliamentary elections, Orban and his team skillfully shifted their campaign strategy from “sowing” voters with various social benefits to a military, although anti-war and isolationist, theme.

While many other European governments were competing with each other to provide better assistance to Ukraine, Budapest chose a different niche. The propaganda machine went into full force to spread and reinforce the idea that Hungary should stay out of this war and not take sides.

One of the most disgraceful claims promoted by the Orban’s government is the notion that providing Ukraine with weapons to defend against Russian aggression will only prolong the war, and thus, it is necessary to stop it immediately and begin peaceful negotiations.

And the most cynical part is that Orban portrays Hungary itself as the key victim of this war, rather than Ukraine, clearly justifying it by prioritizing his own state and its interests.

These and many other arguments of Hungarian propaganda may seem absurd, but when repeated many times and from all Hungarian sources, they work. Many people genuinely believe in this invented reality. And even if the government wanted to, it can no longer easily detach itself from it.

There is no doubt that Hungarian propaganda during the era of Viktor Orban has already made its way into textbooks on political science and PR (public relations). The only question now is whether Viktor Orban still controls this propaganda or, conversely, has become its hostage.

Main Hungarian myths about Ukraine

From Ukraine’s perspective, it may seem that Hungarian media have long been talking a lot about our country.

That is not the case. Until 2022, Ukraine was hardly mentioned at all in the Hungarian media, except for topics related to the minority in Transcarpathia (Zakarpattia). Moreover, there is a lack of systematic knowledge about their largest neighbor among experts and politicians in Hungarian society.

This lack of knowledge creates the perfect ground for myths and manipulations — there are more than enough of them concerning Ukraine. In fact, both Russia and purely Hungarian political actors have contributed to their creation and amplification.

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This includes the myth of an “artificial state” supposedly created from the historical lands of its neighbors and the “questionable” existence of the Ukrainian nation. There is also the belief that modern Ukraine is a failed state on the verge of disintegration and that it only remains intact due to “external control” by the West, primarily the United States. In Hungary, you will likely hear confident assertions that after the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine constantly oppresses national minorities because nationalists (perhaps even Nazis) came to power who want to assimilate everyone and make them Ukrainians.

And, of course, there is the beloved Russian narrative that a “civil war” is raging in Ukraine.

Even those in Hungary who sincerely consider themselves opponents of Russia and Putin often believe in these narratives.

These cliches intersect and merge, undergoing modifications, and are so widespread that many average Hungarians and even representatives of “elite” professions cannot even entertain the idea that they are untrue.

An illustration of this is the recent scandal where a geography textbook for eighth grade described Ukraine as a country embroiled in a civil war, torn apart by Russia, the United States, and the European Union. Hungarian journalists drew attention to this issue, and the authorities promised to change the textbook… but nothing was ultimately changed.

These narratives are often supported by Viktor Orban himself, who regularly refers to Ukraine as “no man’s land,” a “financially non-existent state,” and claims that Ukraine cannot win the war.

There are other incredibly cynical false narratives deliberately created by the Hungarian government during the full-scale war. For example, among Hungarians, there is a widespread belief that Ukraine intentionally calls on ethnic Hungarians to join the Armed Forces in order to physically destroy the minority and throws them into the hottest spots. As an extension of this cynical falsehood, there is a myth that refrigerators with the bodies of Hungarians are present at parking lots in Zakarpattia because there are so many of them that they cannot be immediately transferred to the morgue in Berehove.

And this is not some marginal delusion. These myths are fueled by the highest-ranking Hungarian officials, including Orban and Szijjarto, who occasionally make statements portraying the Hungarian people as victims of the Russian war and demand an end to the forced conscription of Hungarians.

Hungary has had a sophisticated and multi-level system of government propaganda for many years to ensure that society is capable of believing any lie, including this one.

How Orban’s government created the propaganda machine

Viktor Orban was not always a master of overt manipulation.

The revelations at CPAC, mentioned at the beginning of the article, stem from the lessons learned from the bitter defeats of his party, Fidesz, in elections two decades ago.

In 2002, Fidesz achieved an excellent result, receiving over 41% of the votes and the largest fraction in parliament. However, they were unable to form a majority and lost the position of prime minister, which they had first obtained in 1998. Then, another defeat followed in 2006, again with over 40% support.

The Hungarian politician, among other factors, blamed the media for these two failures, as, according to his version, the Hungarian media predominantly worked in favor of his competitors.

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Therefore, immediately after returning to power in 2010, Fidesz turned its attention to the media.

On December 20, 2010, the parliament passed a new media law with vague and controversial provisions, creating a separate institution called NMHH (National Media and Infocommunications Authority) to oversee the media and even impose fines on them. The European Commission and the OSCE immediately raised concerns about the introduction of censorship, and Hungary, which was then presiding over the EU, ultimately yielded and made changes to the controversial law.

But later it became clear that Orban simply decided to “eat the elephant one bite at a time”

First and foremost, he tackled the state-owned media.

In 2011, the Hungarian government established the MTVA Fund (Media Service Support and Trust Fund), which integrated all state-owned media. Under one roof, they brought together eight state television channels — M1-M5, Duna, and others — seven radio stations headed by Kossuth Radio, a number of web portals led by Hirado, and the country’s main news agency, MTI, which became the monopolistic primary source of state information and remains so to this day.

Essentially, this news agency now also serves as the press service for all government bodies.

And in its work, there are no signs of independent media. EuroPravda, which interacted with MTI “correspondents” at events in Ukraine and abroad, can confirm this with certainty.

To attract journalists, the lack of freedom of speech is compensated by incredible budgets. For example, in 2017, the annual budget of MTVA amounted to approximately 80 billion forints (around €258.5 million), and in the election year of 2022, it reached around 132 billion forints (around €314 million).

At the same time, this media conglomerate positions itself as an independent public broadcaster, but in reality, it serves as a mouthpiece for the government, with its function being to report positive news about the government.

It is enough to recall that every Friday, Viktor Orban gives complimentary morning “interviews” on Kossuth Radio, which are essentially monologues by him.

On the other hand, for the opposition, public media in Hungary are a closed territory. If they are mentioned on MTVA platforms, it is usually in a negative context. Sometimes they are mocked, but more often they are simply ignored.

During the 2022 election campaign, access to public media was one of the top topics for the opposition, and eventually, their joint candidate for prime minister, Peter Marki-Zay, received a mere 5 minutes of airtime on M1, in a live broadcast.

The twin brother of the state media monster

Even in opposition, Viktor Orban began building a private media empire to support his party. Initially, this task was taken up by Lajos Simicska — Viktor Orban’s roommate in the student dormitory, a political ally, and essentially the main oligarch of Fidesz until 2014.

Simicska owned the channel Hír TV, newspapers Magyar Nemzet and Metropol, Lánchid Rádió, and others.

Later, the party’s media holding expanded to include TV2, Origo,, and other media outlets, but they were directly or indirectly owned by other allies of Orban. These included childhood friend and one of the wealthiest Hungarians, Lőrinc Mészáros, PR consultant Árpád Habony, and film producer Andrew G. Vajna.

After the split between Simicska and Orban in 2015, these three individuals became the formal owners of the Fidesz media empire. The management of the empire was taken over by Antal Rogan, the head of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet in Hungary, earning him the nickname “Minister of Propaganda.”

The Fidesz party’s victory in the 2018 elections completed the process of creating Media Monster No. 2. The key opponent of Orban’s party in those elections was the Jobbik party, which was supported by Simicska with his media empire. After suffering defeat, Simicska disposed of his media assets, with key ones such as Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV ending up in the hands of individuals close to Fidesz.

Additionally, Orban’s associates consolidated their influence over other previously independent media outlets, such as Origo or Index.

On November 28, 2018, it was announced that approximately 450 Hungarian media outlets, including national and regional ones, were being unified under the foundation Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány, or simply KESMA.

And now for the most interesting and absurd part: all their owners transferred their media outlets to the newly created foundation completely free of charge.

Of course, it was done solely in the interest of freedom of speech and to ensure the independence of these media outlets.

A week later, on December 5, Viktor Orban signed a government decree stating that the creation of KESMA is of national importance and should, therefore, not be obstructed by the Hungarian antitrust authorities.

Just like that.

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It’s probably needless to say that almost all key private media outlets known to be associated with Orban’s associates were included in KESMA.

When two monsters are not enough

During the local elections in 2019, the Fidesz party was preparing for an easy victory. However, despite winning the majority of regional councils, Fidesz suffered defeats in key cities, including Budapest.

According to the Fidesz version, one of the reasons for its defeat was a lack of engagement with the youth, particularly on social media. As a result, in the summer of 2020, Fidesz created yet another media monster.

This is a network of bloggers, commentators, and influencers united under a new structure called Megafon. By the spring of 2022, when the parliamentary elections took place, Megafon’s advertising expenses on Facebook exceeded 1 billion forints (€2.7 million).

Megafon pays for the promotion of specific messages by specific individuals who, by a strange coincidence, praise the government, engage in “culture wars” against leftists and liberals, advocate for Christian conservatism, or even defend the construction of a Chinese battery factory in Debrecen — precisely when it becomes one of the government’s and ruling party’s talking points.

Simultaneously with the establishment of this Megafon network, Fidesz invested significant resources in transforming all of its key party members into Facebook influencers, such as Péter Szijjártó, Judit Varga, and Barna Pál Zsigmond, who became key figures in Orban’s social media propaganda machine. For the Hungarian audience, the posts of controversial figures like Szijjártó, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, often serve as primary sources of news, gathering thousands of likes and hundreds of comments.

However, creating the infrastructure for media propaganda was not enough; it was crucial to constantly fill it with content that would captivate the hearts of millions and hinder critical thinking.

Orban himself, even without the help of armies of bots and trolls, is a skilled orator. This was evident from the beginning of his career when a young Viktor was still a liberal politician, supporting democracy and freedom. His party was also liberal at that time.

Later both Orban and Fidesz seemingly changed their views overnight, transforming from a liberal force into a conservative one, and yet the voters did not perceive it as a betrayal of their interests. This is an another fact that needs to be understood to grasp how the cynical government propaganda machine operates in Hungary.

Orban’s tales and myths

From the beginning of his career, Orban has relied on the sentiments of Hungarian dignity and anti-Sovietism in his game with the electorate. However, very quickly, the theme of national unity and overcoming the trauma of the Treaty of Trianon entered the rhetoric of Fidesz.

However, after the failures in the 2002 and 2006 elections, Orban realized that this was not enough.

In 2008, he started cooperating with American political technologists of Jewish origin, Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum. Their advice helped Viktor Orban return to power in 2010 with a constitutional majority, and in all three subsequent successful parliamentary campaigns, he has been using the same, proven methods.

What are these methods?

Firstly, to focus not on oneself or one’s own promises, but on discrediting opponents and demoralizing their voters.

Secondly, to find or invent an enemy and demonize them to the extent that even the laziest voter would want to come out and vote against this enemy (and for Orban, who is fighting against them).

Thirdly, this enemy must be personified, meaning that you should fight not only against liberals but against “leftist liberals led by George Soros.”

Fourthly, there is no need to be afraid of polarizing society. On the contrary, polarization plays into Orban’s hands because it strengthens the perception that mythical enemies truly exist and that the threat from them is real.

Fifthly, all of these actions must be systematic and long-lasting in order for Fidesz’s victory to be evident even before the official start of the election campaign.

In this scheme, fear and conspiracy theories become key instruments of public opinion manipulation. While it has certain limitations, such as the belief in conspiracy theories being more prevalent among less educated residents of the provinces, it is sufficient to win elections, which satisfies Orban. Furthermore, the distorted “semi-majoritarian” electoral system works in favor of the ruling party, as it does not require majority support among Hungarians to gain control of the parliament.

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Fidesz received between 45% and 54% of the vote in the three parliamentary elections, but due to “majoritarian” voters from outside the capital, it has always received more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament, i.e., a constitutional majority. Residents of Budapest traditionally voted against but remained in the minority.

But let’s get back to Orban’s “enemies,” who often do not exist.

This is a well-thought-out tactic.

Because the ideal enemy is the one you can beat constantly and who cannot fight back.

This is how Soros and the “Soros plan” to almost occupy Hungary with migrants, the global conspiracy of the left and liberals against Hungary, and the fight against external governance and the Brussels bureaucracy (does this sound familiar?) appeared in the Hungarian political discourse of the last decade.

And also, traditional topics for far-right conservatives, such as the fight against the LGBTQ community and the traditional family.

To make the fake news and manipulations that fuel this “fight” seem more natural, they are often carried out under the guise of government information campaigns, as was the case during the demonization of Soros or the European Commission.

And in 2022, Ukraine played the role of this “enemy”. For example, in the fall of 2022, when Fidesz launched another round of “national consultations” (a Hungarian invention — propaganda campaigns officially financed by the government). Hungary was literally covered with banners depicting a falling bomb and the inscription “Brussels sanctions are destroying us”. It’s unnecessary to mention the ethical issues with such comparisons at a time when Russia was conducting a massive missile and bombing attack on Ukraine, causing the deaths of Ukrainians. But even if we set aside moral considerations, the sanctions imposed on Russia included exceptions for Hungary in key sectors relevant to them, making the slogan of this advertisement simply untrue.

However, the control over the media space held by Orban’s team in Hungary allows them to convince many people of the truthfulness of any lie. Stories about “hundreds and thousands of bodies of Transcarpathian Hungarians in refrigerators” and similar narratives vividly demonstrate this.

Moreover, not only the voters but also a significant portion of Fidesz, and it seems even Orban himself, started believing in them, perceiving their own myths as objective reality that no longer raises any doubts. Even when it ultimately harms the Hungarian people.

For example, over the past year, Viktor Orban constantly mentions that there are “around 200,000 Hungarians” living in Transcarpathia, whom Ukraine wants to “assimilate”.

But the truth is quite different.

If even 100,000 Hungarians were residing here by 24.02.2022, it would be good news. And not because of “assimilation.” Hungarians are leaving Transcarpathia. The reasons are poverty and the inability to succeed in Ukraine due to the language barrier (which, by the way, the educational law criticized by Hungary aims to overcome). Furthermore, Budapest has passported its ethnic minority, opening the path for Hungarians to easily emigrate. This is a sad truth: by aiming to preserve the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia, Budapest’s actions achieve the exact opposite.

The same applies to relations with the West.

The creation of an enemy image by Orban against the European Union initially had a pragmatic goal. He used it to work for his own elections while subtly blackmailing Brussels, extracting advantages, exceptions, and preferences for Hungary. Initially, it was even successful. However, over time, Orban’s anti-European propaganda, which had turned into an “alternative reality” within his own country, began to backfire on Orban’s own interests.

“The holy struggle against Brussels,” in which the government is often unable or unwilling to back down, has led to the actual isolation of Hungary and the irritation of its allies, as well as the search for ways to bypass Budapest’s constant blockades and blackmail legally. In parallel, efforts are being made to prevent a further slide in terms of Hungary’s democracy and the rule of law, which is why the European Commission has frozen several billion euros in funding for Hungary. The same applies to Hungary’s relationship with NATO: recently, the Alliance took the unprecedented step of ignoring Hungary’s veto.

The spiral of propaganda tightens, and breaking free from it is difficult, especially when it consistently yields sky-high ratings for Viktor Orban (up to 50% as of May 2023) for 13 consecutive years.

These ratings, and therefore maintaining power in Hungary, are the absolute criteria for Orban, and this is a troubling reality for Ukraine, Europe, and Hungary itself.

Originally posted by Dmytro Tyzhanskyi on European Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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