For years, political analyst Péter Krekó has given commentary in the media about the Hungarian government’s slide towards authoritarianism, including its various smear campaigns against a long list of public enemies.
He never imagined he’d be in the crosshairs himself.
But for the last few weeks, the 40-year-old political scientist has found himself in the unenviable position of being the target of a full-spectrum hate campaign, after pro-government media falsely accused him of encouraging the spread of anti-vax misinformation in order to hurt the government.
It’s seen him vilified in hundreds of articles in pro-government media, and denounced by some of the most powerful politicians in the country, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. More than 20,000 people have signed a petition describing him as “one of the biggest villains of recent decades,” and he has received a slew of death threats targeting him and his young family.
“It’s really so surreal, it’s like we’re living in a virtual reality for weeks now,” Krekó told VICE World News.
“It’s so incredible that they misrepresent your opinion, and label you as a guy who is evil and wants to kill Hungarians.”
For Krekó, and other commentators VICE World News spoke to by phone, his ordeal is a vivid demonstration of the pro-government media machine assembled by the conservative Fidesz government in recent years, creating a powerful propaganda weapon to scapegoat critics and crush dissenting voices.
Krekó’s nightmare began with a quote he gave to Politico Europe last month, for an article exploring how Orbán’s politicisation of the COVID vaccine rollout risked undermining public confidence in vaccination.
Critics quoted in the piece argued that rather than boosting public support for vaccination, Orbán had instead been attacking a familiar target, the EU, for taking too long to approve and roll out vaccines, while talking up alternative Russian and Chinese vaccines and promising to be the first country in Europe to offer those jabs.
But public confidence in the Russian and Chinese vaccines is low, and the critics feared that that skepticism may have seeped over to the issue of coronavirus vaccines in general: in one poll by Hungary's Central Bureau of Statistics last month, the article pointed out, only 15 percent of people said they would definitely get vaccinated.
The article ended with a quote from Krekó, director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, saying: “The stakes are pretty high… If you undermine the willingness of people to vaccinate themselves, [Orbán] can suffer the political consequences.”
His meaning, he says, was “self-evident”: that the government’s politicisation of the vaccine issue could ultimately hurt it. But within days, the comment was seized on by pro-government media, which claimed that Krekó was advocating that the opposition push anti-vax rhetoric to hurt Orbán politically.
“It seems like it took them three days to figure out this ludicrous conspiracy theory,” said Krekó, a self-described “radical centrist.”
“It’s absurd that it could be read that I’m proposing the opposition should run an anti-vaccination campaign so Orbán will suffer the consequences.”
The campaign was spearheaded by an article in the pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet, claiming that if the opposition followed Krekó’s “strategy for overthrowing the government,” then “Hungarians will be sacrificed on the altar of coming to power.” The Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer, a co-founder of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, then launched an online petition, condemning Krekó as a “villain” and denouncing his scandalous “strategy,” which was labelled an “atrocity.”
“We demand that the left in Hungary distance itself from this man, from this strategy, and state clearly that it does not want to cling back power on the backs of the dead!” the petition says.
Criticism of Krekó was echoed in more than 200 articles in pro-government media, while a handful of government figures joined in the attacks, including Orbán himself. Responding to a radio interviewer’s question about Krekó’s alleged comments earlier this month, the prime minister said: “There are no limits to evil, only to our imagination. You’ll rarely hear a more wicked statement than that.”
In response, Krekó’s think tank issued a statement reiterating his pro-vaccination beliefs, and pointing out he was the target of a “brutally intense disinformation campaign” that was “totally misinterpreting his words.” A long list of academics in Europe and the U.S. signed an open letter condemning the media attacks against Krekó, with their “baseless claims that he plots to harm Hungarian citizens.”
But regardless, the attacks have continued. “This is classic fake news and disinformation logic. They are simply not publishing the facts,” said Krekó.
“Behind the whole facade of this ethical, patriotic regime that is being built up, there is this routine of lying to your own constituents. It shows how much they’re looking down on their voters and readers. They think they don’t deserve to know the truth.”
Asked by VICE World News about the campaign against Krekó, the Hungarian government’s international communications office denied any responsibility.
“If Mr. Krekó’s words were ‘misconstrued,’ the responsibility for that rests, it would seem, with Mr. Krekó and the reporter,” it said in an emailed response.
It said that the government “of course” condemned any threats of violence, but that regarding “criticism or threats in this particular case, you should address your questions to those who made them, not the government.” It did not respond prior to publication to a follow-up email pointing out that government figures, including Orbán, had joined in the criticism.
The statement went on to further attack Krekó, saying that in Hungary he was best known for his former role as a “well-paid advisor to the former Socialist prime minister and [as] a political activist and agent provocateur.” That echoed the politicised attacks on Krekó in pro-government media, which noted that his think tank had received grants from the Open Society Institute founded by the Hungarian-born liberal philanthropist George Soros, Fidesz’s pre-eminent political bogeyman.
In response, Krekó said that while Political Capital had received Open Society grants for projects, the government’s attempts to paint him as a political partisan and activist were untrue; he said he had never worked for a government institution or advised a left-wing prime minister in any capacity. “This is 100% fabrication,” he said.
For observers, the attacks on Krekó are a stark illustration of the power of the pro-government media apparatus that has been consolidated by Fidesz, in a stark remodeling of the media landscape that monitoring groups say poses a critical threat to press freedom in Hungary.
In late 2018, hundreds of pro-government outlets were consolidated into a nonprofit media conglomerate known as Kesma, which the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom found “represents a huge and unprecedented concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs who are friendly to the ruling party.” The campaign against Krekó was launched in a publication within the Kesma conglomerate, then carried by other outlets within the group.
Philippe Dam, advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the coordinated campaign against Krekó was a familiar tactic used against critics of the government.
“I would say it’s consistent with campaigns which have been orchestrated and likely based on instructions to editors from the government to smear someone who is critical,” he told VICE World News.
Szabolcs Vörös, editor of Válasz Online, one of Hungary’s few remaining independent news outlets, said the creation of Kesma had consolidated Fidesz’s grip on the media, giving it a powerful propaganda arm that could be used to smear critics.
“This whole media circle… is directly attached to stakeholders of the party, oligarchs of the prime minister,” he said.
“Whatever integrity or trust our profession had previously, it’s eroded now to zero.”
He said Orbán had sought to bring the media under his control, to secure his ongoing electoral success.
“The aim is perfectly working if you consider his election results,” he said. “Politically it paid off, but it killed our profession. That’s collateral damage in their eyes, I believe.”
For Krekó, the episode, coming as Hungary weathers a public health crisis, has given him a grim first person experience of a government modus operandi he has observed many times before.
“Fidesz’s strategy is to try to deal with policy issues on a political level,” he said.
“So it’s more important to find the scapegoat for the bad [coronavirus] figures, than to push down the bad figures. This is how I was somehow pulled into their bizarre scapegoating strategy.”
UPDATE 19/01/21: This article has been updated with a statement from Péter Krekó criticising government attempts to portray him as a political partisan and activist.