The scapegoating of refugees offers a sinister glimpse of an increasingly popular model for gaining political power. Across Europe there exists an anti-refugee propaganda machine that fosters xenophobia. Politicians have taken anti-migrant rhetoric far beyond defence of Fortress Europe. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban referred to asylum seekers as “poison,” while Czech president Milos Zeman called the flight of people from conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan an “organized invasion” of Europe. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are governed by nationalist populists.
82 percent of Hungarians and 75 percent of Poles said refugees were a burden who took jobs and social benefits from locals, compared to an E.U. average of 50 percent. 76 percent of Hungarians and 71 percent of Poles said refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism in their country, compared to an average rate of 59 percent across the bloc. Similar hostility can be found in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But only Hungary has had any direct involvement with the mass movement of people. So why the exceptional levels of xenophobia? Evidence suggests that populist regimes have opportunistically seized on refugee and migrant flows, pumping up xenophobia for political gain.
Hungarian historian Paul Lendvai in his book “My Squandered Country,” Lendvai describes Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, as a “ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximizing his power without any compunction, giving vent to Hungarian nationalism or tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis.”
A single, centralized media authority was given power over everything, from the internet to broadcast licenses, from state media appointments to sanctions against editors of public and private media. The head of the authority was vested with ministerial-level powers and appointed by the prime minister. Media expert Karol Jakubowicz conducted an analysis of Hungary’s laws for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and concluded that the laws “simply cannot be described as being compatible with the basic principles of democracy.” 1,000 state media employees have been fired, while a trio of journalists went on a hunger strike over what they claimed was manipulation of the national media. Peter Bajomi-Lazar, editor of the respected Hungarian media studies quarterly Mediakutato, says that the Fidesz party came back into power with a clear plan to “colonize the media.” He describes the structure put in place as a “pyramid,” with Orban at its peak. “mainstream media are increasingly exposed to government interference and a quasi-single party rule has been established in the media realm,” he says and continues, “…in Hungary, media have been put in the service of a majoritarian government dedicated to establishing ideological hegemony in an attempt to change public opinion and voting behavior in the long run in order to cement its power. ”By 2014, Andras Petho, an award-winning Hungarian investigative journalist, was editor of Origo.hu, then the country’s leading online news portal. The media landscape had already shifted, he recalls: “Most of the big media had been either taken over by the government or by businessmen with close ties to the government.” Origo has since become a “mouthpiece” for the government in Petho’s assessment. The power of this propaganda machine was about to get its fullest demonstration. In autumn 2014 a poll found that just 3 percent of those surveyed considered immigration a serious issue. All that was about to change.
After winning a second term with a reduced majority in 2014, Prime Minister Orban suffered a series of setbacks, from corruption scandals to by-election defeats, as well as uproar at an unpopular internet tax, which saw his party’s popularity plunge. From a high in 2014 of 37 percent among eligible voters, Fidesz’s support had dropped to 20 percent by the following spring. Fidesz also lost all three by-elections held after its re-election. One of those seats was lost to Jobbik, a far-right fringe group that Fidesz had previously encouraged but now saw as a rival.
“It was going badly for them, and they were looking for a way to change the conversation,” says Csaba Toth, a political analyst with the liberal Republikon think-tank in Budapest. Fidesz tried stirring a debate around the death penalty, says Toth, and then experimented with a narrative about defending the “little man,” but neither stuck. “Then they switched to migration and that started to resonate.”
In the immediate aftermath of a deadly attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While other European leaders spoke up for freedom of speech and religious tolerance, Orban attempted to link the attack to Muslim migrants. He said, “Economic immigration is a bad thing in Europe, it should not be seen as having any benefits, because it only brings trouble and danger to the peoples of Europe.” (Ignoring the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attackers were French-born, not migrants.)
Under the guise of a “national consultation on terrorism and immigration,” in a practice known as push-polling, 8 million Hungarians were canvassed using 12 leading questions such as: “There are some who think that mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism. Do you agree with this view?” In parallel, the government launched a poster campaign with messages that appeared to be aimed at migrants, except they were written in Hungarian: “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs” and “If you come to Hungary, you need to respect our culture.”
This campaign coincided with a genuine surge in the numbers of refugees and migrants arriving. Due to its location, Hungary was a staging post on the Western Balkan route (via Turkey, Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia or Croatia) into the E.U. In 2014, Hungary witnessed just over 50,000 irregular border crossings, but some 411,515 would enter during 2015. The overwhelming majority of these people did not intend to seek asylum or settle in Hungary. Most of the 176,000 people who did claim asylum during 2015 did so after being detained by Hungarian police. Only 508 people received either refugee status or subsidiary protection, a temporary equivalent. Most refugees and migrants stayed in Hungary for between two and three days. The construction of a 108-mile (175km) border fence and the closure of Keleti railway station in Budapest to migrants actually had the effect of prolonging refugees’ and migrants’ stays in the country. After its completion in September 2015, the border fence meant new arrivals were channeled through a few entry points where they would have to register for asylum in Hungary. The closure of Keleti, the main railway hub for train routes out of Hungary, effectively created an ad hoc refugee camp in Budapest.
“As long as migration is top of the agenda, their [Fidesz] popularity goes up,” explains political analyst Toth. “They have to keep up the momentum.”
But by March 2016 when the Turkey agreed to prevent the departure of refugees the flood of arrivals had slowed to a trickle. In Hungary, migration remained item No. 1 on the agenda. with the announcement of the “quota referendum” to be held in October. The plebiscite was in opposition to an E.U. plan to establish mandatory quotas to help in relocating 120,000 refugees from front-line states such as Greece and Italy. It called for Hungary to resettle just 1,294 people.
“The communications, the fence, the referendum campaign all strengthened the government,” says Bank Levente Boros, a senior analyst with the Nezopont Institute, a government-funded Hungarian think-tank. “It was very good politics.” Boros, who refers to migrants and refugees as “the siege force at Hungary’s gates,” says the switch to a national conversation dominated by migration had wrong-footed the left and liberal opposition parties, while the hard-line rhetoric of Orban had left the far-right Jobbik with no point of differentiation.
A new state poster campaign was begun that would occupy 40 percent of Hungary’s entire outdoor advertising capacity. Slogans included: “The Paris attacks have been committed by IMMIGRANTS” and “Since the migrant crisis harassment of women has suddenly increased.”
“The power of these messages is that they were everywhere; if you walked a few blocks you would see one,” says Orsolya Jeney, country director of Amnesty International in Hungary. “You’ve never seen such a campaign telling you what to think.” State TV once every hour would be interrupted by a short news bulletin dedicated to negative coverage of migrants. Much of it focused on lurid accounts of ungrateful, dangerous or dirty migrants. The Budapest media watchdog, Mertek, conducted a content analysis on the news output of Hungary’s five main TV stations in the buildup to the vote and found an overwhelming bias in the coverage. The cost of the state-financed “no” campaign was $59 million. In comparison, in the U.K., the public grants to the official Leave and Remain campaigns in the EU referendum came to $1.5 million, while a further $12 million of public money was spent on leafleting Britons in support of Remain.
The referendum delivered the resounding “no” vote the government had pushed so hard for. More than 98 percent of those who voted rejected E.U. quotas. But there was a sting in the turnout: At 44 percent, it was also short of the 50 percent threshold required to validate the result.
In September 2015 an employee at M1, Hungary’s main state TV channel, took a screengrab of an instruction from editors not to show children in its coverage of refugee issues. A confused defense followed in which the state media authority said the order aimed to protect the children themselves, while someone described as a “government-friendly journalist” told the Guardian that the channel did feature children. One of the clearest edicts concerned the word “refugees,” which has all but disappeared from coverage of the refugee crisis. There are words in Hungarian for refugee (“menekult”) and asylum seeker (“menedekkero”), and previous refugee crises were discussed using the word “bevandorlo,” which translates roughly as “incomer.” Instead of these words, a foreign-sounding imposition from Latin was deployed: “migrans.” “When it was used in Hungarian it was an adjective, and suddenly it’s a noun,” says one correspondent from national radio who was called by an editor before an interview and instructed to use the word “migrans” on air. “It was clear that there was a strategy not to use the word refugee. It started with the government and media just followed it,” the correspondent says.
Georg Spottle, a former German soldier with links to far-right groups, including Germany’s Pegida, as a “security expert” on M1. Spottle, claims Afghan imams told Muslim men that all European women were prostitutes. A journalist decided to trace some of the conspiracy theories that Spottle was peddling as facts. Many of them led back to extremist or fake news sites such as Junge Freiheit, Compact and Kopp Verlag, which are produced by German neo-Nazi groups and right-wing extremists.
Endre Sik, a sociologist at Eotvos Lorand University, has been measuring levels of xenophobia in his native Hungary since 1992. “Hungary, without any manipulation, is quite xenophobic,” Sik admits. “It is one of the first things I tell my sociology students.” Toth also concedes this “Hungary had an anti-other feeling that was always present. But they took this predisposition and turned it into a reality by artificially heightening the level of fear and inflating the importance (of refugees). It made it real for the people. They thought they were under attack.”
Sik’s research has found what he calls the “natural level” of xenophobia to be somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Hungarians. Since 2010, when Orban and Fidesz took power, levels of xenophobia have climbed “sharply” above their historical upper limit. The latest results, which include data up to the end of October 2016, show a record 58 percent of respondents as xenophobes. Xenophiles have essentially disappeared, dropping below 1 percent, from a historical average of 10 percent. His survey discovered an interesting detail, the more Hungarians actually encountered migrants the less anti-refugee they were. “Our explanation is that when there are refugees it works against the level of xenophobia,” says Sik. “When people see actual refugees, they think about it. They don’t buy the state propaganda at face value.” Media monitors Mertek appears] to confirm Sik’s findings. When they looked at the turnout by voting precinct they found the lowest turnout in the Budapest area around Keleti railway station. This was the place that was briefly transformed into a refugee camp as authorities barred refugees and migrants from boarding trains to Austria. The referendum was a stunt, a “fake,” Sik says. The purpose of the campaign was to restore Fidesz’s popularity as the essential party: “They were scaring people and then telling them only the government can defend them from outsiders who will destroy their world.”
Czech president, Milos Zeman, has drawn sympathetic coverage from private media, by appealing to patriotic sentiment and portraying Czech culture as being under attack. Prima had given considerable play to Zeman’s rants against refugees and migrants. The most-watched Czech TV station, Prima, held an extraordinary editorial meeting. It was said to feature direct orders from senior management, dictating to journalists that they were to present refugees and migrants as a threat. In a five-week period either side of the relevant date. In the weeks prior to the meeting, news reports with a positive slant on refugees constituted 9 percent of output, negative reports 27 percent and neutral ones 53 percent. After the meeting, positive reports disappeared entirely, neutral reports dropped to 28 percent and 72 percent of coverage went negative. News presenters began to introduce short reports, or “packages,” by editorializing their content. The packages themselves focused almost exclusively on negative stories about refugees. They started to get really creative with camera shots and with facts. Czech main evening news claimed that 50 million migrants were coming their way. In reality, the Czech Republic received 1,525 applications for asylum in 2015.
Prima editor-in-chief Jitka Obzinova can be heard telling journalists during a September 2015 meeting that the station will take a clear position on the crisis, namely that refugees represent a “threat” and that employees who are not happy with this can leave. “You have an employer with an opinion,” the journalists are told, and editors “are gods and you cannot argue with God.” The staff at Prima knew that they were being told to violate even the most basic journalistic ethics and they obligingly complied.
Daniel Prokop, a leading Czech analyst and director of social and political research at the research firm Median, explained “The media want to feed the prejudice of their viewers,” Prokop explains. “It is self-fulfilling, though, if you have enough of the negative coverage you eventually create these attitudes.”