Disinformation portals backed the government’s propaganda even concerning the Overtime Act
Government-controlled and pro-Russian portals promoted the same interpretations of the Overtime Act in December 2018.
In December 2018, government-critical media, the government-controlled media empire and pro-Russian alternative portals all paid special attention to the Overtime Act approved in mid-December and the subsequent protests. The government amended the Labour Code on two important points: the maximum number of mandatory overtime hours was raised to 400 a year, and the maximum cumulative working time frame was raised to 36 months. On paper, the employer can only force employees to work 400 hours of overtime with the latter’s agreement. However, the overtime agreement can only be terminated at the end of the year even if the employee realises during the year that accepting it was a mistake. Moreover, the longer working time frame theoretically allows employers to only pay for overtime work after three years if there is a collective agreement with employees. However, in the less developed parts of the country, there often is only one large employer, so in practice the employees cannot refuse the demands of the employer. Thus, the law actually affects the overwhelmingly pro-Fidesz countryside the most. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the waves of protests brought about by the Overtime Act were unique because the demonstrations in larger cities in the countryside involved more participants than they had done in earlier instances.
The government’s interpretation: everything’s all right; and, by the way, Soros
The government’s arguments often emphasise that “the employee’s agreement is needed for every hour of overtime.” Viktor Orbán himself highlighted in a radio interview that companies will pay for overtime every month. On the first government-info press conference of 2019, the prime minister also said that the Overtime Act is intended to whiten the economy, as many entrepreneurs had had to find legal loopholes to allow their workers to do overtime.
The protests around and after the approval of the Overtime Act played an even larger role in the government’s propaganda than the act’s interpretation itself. The prime minister – in line with the anti-Soros campaign strategy drafted by George Birnbaum and Arthur Finkelstein – said that George Soros is the one behind the “aggressive protests,” he is the person “paying” the “aggressive mob,” although he was once again silent on the evidence behind these claims. Balázs Hidvéghi stated right after the ominous “sled arson” that the protests are the “provocative rampages led by pro-immigration Soros-activists,” so every decent Hungarian is appalled by what had happened. (These are the sleds some of which had been set alight by a small group of protesters, and then Fidesz claimed they were intended to be Christmas presents for poor children. However, neither the pro-government nor alternative media mentioned that the protesters replaced the sleds and they were all on Kossuth square on 3 January, so they were not given to poor families for Christmas.)
State media mentioned that “the opposition wanted to take over control of the National Assembly in an organised manner” during the approval of the Overtime Act, but they did not explain why attempts to block a vote in the Assembly constitute an “attempted coup.”
At the same time, the Public Broadcaster (MTVA) failed to disclose either that parliamentary procedures on that day might not have complied with National Assembly regulations or that the opposition had previously submitted 2925 amendments to the so-called “Slave law,” which the ruling Fidesz-KDNP blocked by deciding on a justice committee sitting called via a text message that they would vote on all amendments as a package and not separately, without even holding a meaningful discussion on them.
State media’s analyses also “uncovered” the truth behind the protest wave brought about by the Overtime Act: they claimed that “there is no spontaneously organised protest that is repeated over several days” (?), and they also figured out that opposition politicians played a considerable role in the demonstrations. The government-controlled portal PestiSrácok referred to the protesters as “anarchists,” while the pro-government Facebook site ELÉG wanted to highlight the important differences between “aggressive opposition activists” and “peaceful Christians.”
Pro-Russian disinformation sites: everything’s all right; and, by the way, Soros
Similarly to the government’s communication, pro-Russian propaganda sites could not believe that there are people who dislike the Overtime Act, prompting them to demonstrate against it. The VilágFigyelő disinformation portal, which is always ready to defend the Russian president’s internal and foreign policies, also promoted the government’s arguments. The site used Orbán Viktor’s interpretation on the Overtime Act, claiming that “workers are not really protected by labour regulations, they are protected by an economic policy that creates demand for them.” Moreover, VilágFigyelő published reports on the alleged “extraordinary aggression” of protesters. The pro-Kremlin portal deduced from an Echo TV broadcast that the opposition had always planned to be violent and former Hungarian PM Ferenc Gyurcsány himself admitted this.
The Hungarian-language site of the News Front “press agency,” which can be connected to Russian intelligence services, only promoted the ruling party’s interpretation of the events taking place at the MTVA HQ, claiming that the opposition MPs in the building “harassed” MTVA employees and tried to “discredit the institution.”
VilágFigyelő even called the alleged destruction caused by the “horde” “the Christmas gift of George Soros.” The portal even “acquired” the “actual list of demands” of the opposition, which included “highly credible” points, such as: “we should rather get a loan from the IMF,” “Ferenc Gyurcsány for prime minister,” and “let the European Public Prosecutor’s Office interfere in Hungarian domestic affairs, and let it realise the politics they like because the West, and especially France, always took Hungarian interests into account, for instance, they took a real weight off our shoulders with Trianon…”
News Front also wrote about the violence of the “far-left activists of the Soros network,” drawing parallels between the events on Maidan square in 2014 and the protests in Budapest in 2018. This narrative became an important point for the Moscow-controlled portal: another article actually threatened Hungarians with a civil war, claiming that it is what the organisers of the protests are actually planning. The Maidan motive came up in a PestiSrácok article as well, where they described the first anti-Overtime Act demonstration as a “failed Maidan experiment.”
Naturally, VilágFigyelő was also able to find the affected employees who the protesters claim to represent, and they helped inform readers that everything is perfect in Hungary, there is no need for the “aggressive mob.” An unnamed “Hungarian worker” illustrated by a stock photo told the protesters that the “workers are not stupid,” they can take care of themselves; and overtime is good for people saving up for a home, a car or a holiday trip. An unnamed member of a trade union also “spoke up,” accusing trade union leaders of being liars and listing the government’s arguments for the Overtime Act word by word. PestiSrácok went as far in January as stating that “nobody is affected” by the Overtime Act, they only forgot to reveal why then the government had to pass it in the National Assembly despite the protests and the loss of popularity indicated by public opinion polls, and why the Orbán government refuses to reverse its decision.
Hand in hand
Consequently, we can conclude that the pro-government and pro-Russian portals propagated the same interpretations on the Overtime Act, all avoiding the question of how it would affect employees who are more vulnerable than the average Hungarian worker. Both groups spread similar narratives about the opposition protests and events connected to them. The only notable difference is that News Front tried to connect the demonstrations to the Maidan events, while Hungarian government-controlled media was more cautious with this.
All this is a good indication that the narratives pro-Russian alternative portals and the government-controlled media in Hungary are increasingly similar even in internal policy matters. Since government-controlled media often disseminates the Kremlin’s narratives in foreign policy issues, Moscow has been able to almost entirely eliminate its Hungarian disinformation network, it can simply rely on pro-government media outlets. In exchange, the small number of remaining openly pro-Kremlin portals rush to Orbán’s support in internal matters.
Patrik Szicherle holds first degrees in European studies from Southern Denmark University in Sonderborg and in English from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. He earned a master’s degree in international relations from Eötvös Loránd University. Patrik's research areas include international relations, the European Union, and the analysis of the effects of Russian influence on the region.
- Patrik Szicherle (2018). How to fight disinformation?, politicalcapital.hu.
- Attila Juhász & Patrik Szicherle (2017). The political effects of migration-related fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories in Europe, politicalcapital.hu.
- Bulcsú Hunyadi, Csaba Molnár & Patrik Szicherle (2017). Vulnerability Index: Hungary. Subversive Russian Influence in Hungary. politicalcapital.hu.