Backtracking and on the Offensive: the FIDESZ PR Machinery Strikes Back

by Dr. David Mandler

If the article in which Zsolt Bayer, the influential opinion columnist of the Magyar Nemzet, characterizes a significant portion of Hungary’s gypsy population as animals unworthy of even “being” was repulsive, the reaction, non-reaction and, what I’ll call, retroaction of the ruling FIDESZ party–not to mention the official stance of the Magyar Nemzet–has been even more so.

Up to now, Mr. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has kept silent on the issue. Clearly, he was not ready to distance himself from such a useful tool as Mr. Bayer. Yet, the deafening silence of the Hungarian prime minister does not mean that Mr. Orban’s public relations machinery has done nothing to shape Hungarian public reaction as voices of condemnations arose in the first few days following the publication of Mr. Bayer’s vitriolic article.

That the opposition’s main figures would speak up against Mr. Bayer’s tone and conclusions was not in question. So much more surprising was the initial condemnation of Bayer’s article by the vice prime minister, Tibor Navracsics on January 7th. In an interview to ATV, the vice premier said as follows: “the piece by Zsolt Bayer contains assertions that assail democracy and mocks all such principles associated with the democratic community in which FIDESZ believes” [Bayer Zsolt írása súlyos, demokráciát sértő állításokat tartalmaz, s megcsúfol minden olyan demokratikus közösségi elvet, amiben a Fidesz hisz].

That was then.

Since then, the initial landscape of moral clarity has been muddied by party politics as oppositional forces mobilized in a small -scale demonstration against Mr. Bayer on Sunday, and the attempts at demonizing those who spoke up against him gathered steam. By then, though, it was clear that Bayer would not be allowed to fall victim to his own all-too-frank words. The Magyar Nemzet, which had issued a half-hearted apology on its website mixed with an attack against the left, later modified its press release by removing any references to an apology and, instead, stated the following partisan words: “The Magyar Nemzet not only renounces the newest witchcraft of the post-communists, but also calls on his readers and supporters to stand by our chief staffer [Bayer], our newspaper, and the nation’s government that has been doing its job.”

Zsolt Bayer himself published a follow-up article on Tuesday, three days after his initial article, in which he denies that he had ever suggested the liquidation of any gypsies and goes on the offensive against those who, in his view, deliberately misinterpreted his words. In fact, he now says, he favors total isolation and exclusion from social interactions of those gypsies who are violent (gone is the major modifier he had used earlier to characterize a “significant part” of gypsy society as animals. In his newest article, only a part of them are as such).

Sure. Deliberately misinterpreted.

As if those who read Bayer’s words had nothing better to do than to spend valuable time on trying to reinterpret and maliciously misinterpret his words. One cannot but observe that either Mr. Bayer is stupid or those readers of his article who found it to be an unabashed incitement for “anything” (including violence) to solve the “Gypsy Question” (the way Mr. Bayer puts it, echoing the “Jewish Question” formulation of the anti-Semites of old).

Then, on Monday, even the Vice Prime Minister, Mr. Tibor Navracsics, backtracked. As reported on, he now believes that Bayer’s follow-up piece has made it clear that even Bayer had seen some problems with his earlier piece and, knowing Bayer, the Vice Primer Minister says, he “does not assume that Bayer seriously believed what he wrote on Saturday.” It is, to say the least, rather curious to propose that a person’s words do not matter (especially when the person in question is a journalist) and can ascribe a motivation contrary to that person’s words simply based on the fact that one “knows” that person and, surely, could not possibly have meant it. It is even more curious when one reacts to the words of that person with condemnation a week before only to reverse oneself a week later. Be it as it may, the vice PM may be following the prime minister’s now infamous statement at the U.S. embassy–according to wikileaks–in which he sought to reassure the concerns regarding certain statements he had made.  Mr. Orban at the time is reported to have said the following: “don’t pay attention to what I say. Pay attention to what I do.”

So, if Mr. Bayer has succeeded in cementing his position as a friend of the Prime Minister, it could only have happened because the Prime Minster wished it to be so. Ergo, no matter what Mr. Bayer writes, so the FIDESZ PR machinery would have the country believe, he is fine because he cannot possibly mean anything that is contrary to the declared interests of FIDESZ as embodied by its leader, Mr. Viktor Orban.

Clearly, without international reactions, the FIDESZ public relations machinery has been successful in containing the damage and even tried to use the reaction against Bayer to its advantage. No copy/paste press release has been issued so far as no such need has arisen.

Not even after Neelie Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission, entered the picture on Monday, has there been a change. Ms. Kroes tweeted the following message on Monday: “I am horrified by the words of Zsolt Bayer about Hungary’s Roma community (“animals” etc). This is not what I call freedom of speech / media. if someone calls Roma community “not human” – I’m talking about Zsolt Bayer of #Fidesz in #Hungary – that is sign they’re not a worthy ally.” Ms. Kroes’ source for this story was none other than my own article that was run by The Budapest Times. Sadly, if anything, her tweet–widely disseminated by the Hungarian press–has only served to make the supporters of FIDESZ harden their defenses and allege that “the left” was again out to “attack Hungary.”

It is incredible that no translation of Bayer’s original article has been made by any responsible Hungarian organization with an intent to publicize Bayer’s initial call to action against “a significant part” of Hungarian gypsies. Yet, where there is a lack of organizational prowess, individuals must step up and find various ways to shout against injustice. And while many have done so within Hungary itself, the issue has once again been politicized, making it less likely that those on the right with a clear moral compass will speak up now against the type of public discourse Bayer’s article represents.

My hope, however remote, is that more and more people, even amongst the ranks of the FIDESZ party, realize that the kind of speech Mr. Bayer employed in his incendiary article is simply unacceptable in a civil society and express their distaste for a man like Bayer calling himself a journalist, no matter how influential he is in the FIDESZ party.

At this point, it would be unrealistic to expect prime minister Orban to say anything to the international community about his views on Bayer’s “solutions”  to the “Gypsy Question.” Clearly, it is superfluous for him to do so. But a cursory look at the incredibly organized rallying around Bayer as best demonstrated by the reversal of the vice prime minister’s position on him reveals what Mr. Orban really thinks.

As the prime minister has himself said (with my embellishment): what matters is not what he says (or does not say) but rather how he acts (and makes others within his vast sphere of influence act).