Bratislava, SLOVAKIA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.
When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona, an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.
Speaking with himself Vona – whom Budapest analyst Alex Kuli likens to a “rock star” in Western media – would be dealt with later. Over the phone. From back home. Across the border in Bratislava.
That is, if I’d even get the chance. Based on his “Jobbik” party’s track record, I had my doubts.
So, I wasn’t entirely surprised that after a week of back-and-forth via an intermediary, Vona rejected my request: he was “certain” his words would be “twisted, altered and falsified.”
My pursuit of a Vona comment is no failure, though. It not only sheds light onto the mentality of the newest political force on the eastern half of the continent. It also illuminates a lingering authoritarian impulse, especially when it comes to more independent-minded media.
Now, again to be fair, it’s understandable if Jobbik were to view me as “unfriendly.” I’ve freelanced from the region for the past 16 years, primarily for Western, liberal-leaning publications. I’ve written plenty about nationalism, minorities and inter-ethnic incitement, particularly as a barometer of the post-Communist transition from dictatorship to democracy.
I can imagine Jobbik wasn’t thrilled with my first article about its militaristic “Magyar Garda,” in March 2008. Naturally, I interviewed the folks most concerned about the uniformed “Gardista” who marched menacingly in Roma neighborhoods: human-rights advocates, Jewish and Romani activists.
On the other hand, I gave Jobbik its say. I interviewed a Jobbik spokesman, Zoltan Fuzessy. I also visited a Guard office in Budapest, where the tough-looking fellows at the door informed me what the “Captain” told them: don’t talk to the media. Instead, I interviewed a colorful member in the hallway.
That’s not enough to satisfy the press office. This March, for example, Jobbik emailed their media list to tout “the first objective article … ever” about the party. It was a straight question-and-answer with Vona in The Budapest Times. No contrarian views. No pointed, follow-up questions.
Jobbik officials, I can imagine, feel quite burned by the relentlessly negative coverage. No one seems to appreciate them, except for 17 percent of the voters and a clutch of far-right allies in Europe.
Last June, in light of electoral success at home – and hand-wringing abroad – Jobbik switched gears to more draconian media relations.
The party had just scored a major triumph, winning three seats in elections to the European Parliament. On behalf of a longtime client, the Christian Science Monitor, I contacted Fuzessy about interviewing one of those headed to Strasbourg, Jobbik honcho Krisztina Morvai.
In return, I was asked to fill out an extraordinary four-page questionnaire. It went well beyond asking who you are, for whom you work, proof of that relationship, etc. That’s what the United Nations, for example, would want to credential someone for a major conference.
The Jobbik questionnaire also wanted the topics you’d cover, the questions you’d ask. (Six questions, maximum.) It prodded you to divulge personal opinions about Jobbik – “positive,” “negative,” etc. Also, what you think the party stands for, and which media sources informed your judgment.
No chance to skip a question: each page warned, “Incomplete enquiries will be ignored.”
The document required that you agree to send a final version of your story to Jobbik, for their remarks to be “respected and considered” before publication or broadcast.
This one reflex, unfortunately, is not exclusive to Jobbik: many Hungarian and Eastern European sources still, even two decades later, expect this Communist-era “courtesy.” (American journalism, in contrast, correctly views this practice as a slippery slope toward censorship.)
The form’s final request, however, was unique to Jobbik: cash. After noting the party’s reliance on private donations, it stated, “Since by assisting your work we also provide material to be exploited commercially, we reckon with your generous contribution.” The boxed space was more explicit: “Minimum amount for freelancers: 100 Euros, for companies 250 Euros is requested.”
Sure, they cut me a break as a freelancer. But I wouldn’t pay. Never. Instead, I climbed upon my soap-box to deliver my objections.
Another spokesman, Zsolt Varkonyi, wrote back to claim the donation was “not compulsory by any means.” Given the wording, I told him, that was hard to believe. And I’m sure it wasn’t only me who balked: Jobbik has since struck donations from the application itself.
Ultimately, it was still too many hoops to clear. I abandoned the process and returned to my other projects. That was probably the aim anyway: deter foreign journalists from writing at all.
It hasn’t, of course. Jobbik is prominent in much of the Hungary coverage.
However, I’ve just polled my Western-journalist acquaintances in Budapest. One charmed Vona with his Hungarian and convinced him to sit for Bloomberg in late 2007. Two others, the AP and Financial Times, tell me they’ve spoken with Vona directly. Yet neither was a sit-down interview. Both caught Vona after press conferences, probing with a few questions.
(I don’t know if The Budapest Times paid, emailed its questions and published the response, or did it the old-fashioned way.)
That leads back to my assignment for Foreign Policy. Despite the unpleasant taste from last June, Jobbik did not black-list me. That’s what the right-wing Fidesz government did a decade ago. Instead, Jobbik kept me on their email list. A savvy move, frankly. I read about them, as they often send interesting reports about their grievances – and perceived progress.
No other political party has me on their email list, firing missives written in clean, clear English.
On Monday morning, June 14, I trawled through all my Jobbik emails on file, pulling the 12 different addresses I could find. In a mass email, I introduced myself, mentioned my assignment and requested an interview with Mr. Vona. The next morning, lo and behold, I got a friendly email from Marton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik’s top man on the foreign-affairs committee in Parliament.
Vona had anointed Gyöngyösi as stand-in, empowered to speak for him – and the party itself.
I called Gyöngyösi, a former tax expert for multi-nationals KPMG and Ernst&Young. In fluent English, Gyöngyösi explained that with parliamentary life new to Jobbik, there’s a lot to learn, with many new laws going through. Vona is the party’s fraction leader in parliament, and remains chairman of Jobbik and president of the now-outlawed – according to one domestic court – Hungarian Guard.
Vona is “just torn apart at the moment,” Gyöngyösi said. “Up to his eyes” in work.
He also told me that Vona wisely knew I’d have more than “just a few questions,” and it would too much to explain Jobbik’s positions.
Gyöngyösi and I, in fact, went on to speak for two hours Tuesday. With that 36-hour stretch in the countryside fresh on my mind, I had many questions. He generously answered each one, and every critique I’ve read. From his side, he also covered the entire list of Jobbik talking points.
The next day, after mulling it, I nudged Gyöngyösi: while our talk was enormously helpful, I still hoped to ask Vona just a few personal questions. It was a profile, after all. I needed his voice in there.
Gyöngyösi and I then spent another half-hour on the phone. I lobbied him for those few questions, and he agreed to answer a several more questions about his boss’ motivations.
He softened, and suggested I email him the questions, to see if Vona would answer. Gyöngyösi noted that Vona doesn’t feel comfortable speaking on such complex matters in English.
My riposte: how about I email the questions for him to read, then we discuss them in English.
On Thursday, the answer: no. Answers in writing. Today or tomorrow.
I came to terms with that, and replied that was fine. But of course I’d have to explain those conditions in my article. I then emailed four multi-part questions that were, well, simultaneously broad and specific, encouraging him to be as elaborate as possible. I couldn’t help myself.
I looked forward to reading his answers. Then, Thursday night, an email: “You must be kidding,” wrote Gyöngyösi, clearly perturbed by the questions.
The next morning, the other shoe dropped: “I am sorry to inform you …” Then Vona’s accusation about what he thought I would do with his words. More surprisingly, Gyöngyösi himself added that now, having read a November 2006 article of mine in the Jerusalem Post, “I tend to agree with Mr. Vona.”
Hit with such a serious charge, I’ve pressed Gyöngyösi for concrete examples of where he and Vona thought I’d “twisted, altered and falsified” words in my reporting. I’m still waiting. All he’s produced as evidence is two right-wing criticisms of my reporting – of that 2006 piece, and a second against me from 2000, by one of the right’s most fiery propagandists. Hardly a neutral source.
Yet that’s enough to convince them, apparently.
Oh, well. Profiles can be written “around” the subject. I’d tried every tactic I could think of to get comment. Now it was Gyöngyösi’s turn to take one last stab – to spike my story.
“I would be happier if the quotes, the interview and the article would not be published,” he wrote me Monday morning.
I can understand why he would.