No time to chicken out: Hungary's opposition gets creative
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Selling yourself in five minutes can be tough. But that's all Hungary's opposition parties have been given on state media to promote their visions for Sunday's European Parliament election.
Undeterred, they've come up with novel and creative ways From short "reality newscasts" mentioning the enrichment of the prime minister's family or a party spokesman clucking away dressed in a chicken costume, the opposition is making every broadcast second count.
It's a lean and mean approach that contrasts with what's available to the ruling Fidesz party on state radio and television channels and other media outlets considered to be under its control. One particularly humorous promotion has come from the Two-Tailed Dog Party — yes, there really is such a thing. Top of its agenda is banning the Eurovision Song Contest and mandatory siestas, "because a night of sleep isn't enough."
It may come as a bit of a surprise to some that the party has yet to win any seats in Hungary's parliament and isn't expected to see any of its lawmakers elected to the European Union legislature, but the party is sure making an impact. Hungarians have certainly chuckled at the memory of one of its campaign stunts, when a party spokesman answered a reporter's questions on state television by clucking away for minutes while dressed in a chicken costume.
"They were asking me questions that only have one reasonable answer— 'cluck-cluck,'" said Jozsef Tichy-Racs, a former spokesman for the satirical party. That's how the Two-Tailed Dog Party used its five-minute slot.
Momentum, another new party which first gained attention for its successful efforts two years ago to end Budapest's bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, took a different approach. The party, which opinion polls suggest could win one of Hungary's 21 seats in the EU parliament, used its five-minute allotment during a simultaneous broadcast on state TV and radio to present a "reality newscast" dealing with issues like Hungary's increasing shortage of doctors, the wasteful use of funds received from the EU and the debut of Orban's 32-year-old son-in-law on the list of richest Hungarians.
Momentum also used its time on state TV to promote a campaign, which has received over 600,000 signatures, to pressure the government into joining the European Public Prosecutor's Office. The new agency will begin fraud and corruption investigations into the use of EU funds starting in 2020. Twenty-two of the 28 EU states have signed up for the agency, but Orban's government says the body would compromise national sovereignty. Opposition parties say Orban wants to escape tighter EU scrutiny.
Hungary's opposition parties have to resort to these sorts of media strategies because they face numerous challenges in getting heard. The government has Hungary's media sewn up. That's especially true since nearly 500 internet sites, magazines, newspapers and cable TV channels were merged into a foundation for right-wing media and which is under tight government control.
It's easy for Orban's government to get its message — and accusations, whether true or false — across. Marta Bencsik, a media lawyer at the Mertek Media Monitor watchdog and think tank, said a recent study of the state television newscasts showed they were "unbalanced."
"They mostly promote the government's propaganda and themes, presenting the government in a favorable light," Bencsik said. "The opposition appeared only in a negative context." According to data presented by Benedek Javor, the leading EU parliament candidate of the green Dialogue party, state TV news broadcasts in the seven days between April 26 and May 2, included stories about the opposition parties totaling just over five hours, with more than four hours showing them in a negative light.
In the same period, stories about the government, Orban and Fidesz totaled more than seven hours. "Naturally, we couldn't find any stories at all critical of the government, even with a magnifying glass," Javor said.
Orban's government, which cemented its grip on power with another big election victory last year, does face challenges from time to time. The right-wing Jobbik party, for example, has won over 200 court cases against pro-government media outlets in the past three years over the reporting of false stories about it and its leaders.
"Hungarian society believes that what they hear on the newscasts is reality," said Jobbik spokesman Gyorgy Szilagyi. "So Fidesz creates a virtual reality for its voters" Despite the victories, not much appears to change.
"We win the lawsuit ... but it doesn't interest the public anymore," Szilagyi said. "In Hungary, unfortunately, it is the government which fills voters and public media with fake news, often originating in Russia," he added without providing any evidence.
He recounted a false story about how a luxury trip he was said to have made spread from one pro-Fidesz media outlet to another in a matter of hours. "By nighttime, it was on the leading newscasts on state and pro-government television," Szilagyi said.
Fidesz also appears to have a near-monopoly over the billboards that line Hungary's transport networks. Momentum spokesman Balazs Nemes said media headwinds have forced the party to innovate. "The present media situation motivates us, for example, to spend more time on field work or to increase our presence on the street," Nemes said.
For his part, "chicken man" Tichy-Racs said he was proud to see the rest of the opposition resorting to similar ingenuity — "I'm glad the other parties are also using their five minutes of airtime wisely."
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