BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Around 1,500 demonstrators gathered at the headquarters of Hungary's public media company Friday to protest what they say is biased news coverage and state-sponsored propaganda that favors the country's populist government.
Demonstrators called for the replacement of the director of public media corporation MTVA and for coverage of a recent wave of major protests and strikes by Hungarian teachers and students. The protests demanding better pay and working conditions for educators have been largely ignored by public media despite some drawing tens of thousands of people.
The protest Friday, dubbed a “blockade of the factory of lies," was called by independent opposition lawmaker Akos Hadhazy, a former member of the ruling Fidesz party who is known as an anti-corruption crusader.
Speaking at the protest, Hadhazy said Hungary's government had created a “propaganda machine” that has refused to provide opposition voices airtime while openly advocating the policies of the governing party.
“In a normal country, the public media follow very strict rules to ensure that opposition opinions and government party opinions are presented in the same way and in the same quantity,” Hadhazy said. "As long as this propaganda machine is available to the government, it can do virtually anything.”
Hungary's government, under the leadership of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban since 2010, has frequently been accused of eroding press freedoms and rolling back democratic checks and balances.
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders added Orban to its list of “press freedom predators” last year. But he has pointed to the existence of several online news outlets and commercial television stations that are critical of his government as proof that the media in Hungary are “freer and more diverse” than in Western Europe.
At the protest Friday, Sandor Godan, 68, said Hungary's public media have used the airwaves to create an alternate reality.
“Well, it’s just unwatchable, it’s as simple as that,” Godan said. “They’re not saying what’s happening in reality, they’re living in a bubble.”
Another demonstrator, Gyorgy Laszlo, said he believed Hungarian elections have been influenced by an over-representation of pro-government voices.
“The fact of the matter is that public media doesn’t operate according to the law. If you read the media law, it should be balanced,” he said. “Hungarian brains have been washed for ten years and they have been washed successfully."
In September, the European Union's legislature declared that Hungary had become “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” under Orban's leadership, and that its undermining of the bloc’s democratic values had taken Hungary out of the community of democracies.
Orban's government faces financial penalties from the EU in the billions of dollars over concerns over corruption and rule-of-law violations.