The Hungarian internet TV fighting ‘propaganda’

Their studio is makeshift and their funds are largely crowd-sourced, yet Hungary’s top YouTube politics channel is one of the few voices left in the country critical of the government.

Partizan has become essential viewing for hundreds of thousands of Hungarians ahead of Sunday’s general elections in which nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban faces his tightest fight for political survival in years.

Founder and host Marton Gulyas, who produces at least one discussion, debate show or in-depth interview a day, says the purpose is to “liberate the political imagination of the people”.

“Public media here has no ambition of creating public service content, only spreading government propaganda,” Gulyas, a bearded and lanky 35-year-old, told AFP.

“It doesn’t work for the people as it should, instead it destroys and intoxicates public discourse and debate,” he said.

Partizan’s studio is in a dilapidated, red-brick warehouse on the outskirts of Budapest. The channel commands a fraction of the roughly 350-million-euro taxpayer-funded budget lavished annually on Hungary’s public broadcaster MTVA.

MTVA, who enjoys a state-of-the-art headquarters just a kilometre (mile) from Partizan’s — faithfully toes the government line of the day.

News items typically attack the EU, migration, or the opposition, and currently chime with Orban’s neutral approach to the Russian invasion.

The central European country now ranks in 92nd position — the second lowest in the EU — in the annual press freedom index of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

– Micro-donations –

Independent news outlets have largely been squeezed out — having had their licences revoked or editors replaced with those who support the government line.

During the election campaign, MTVA’s news television channel M1 and radio stations have bombarded viewers with Orban-friendly messaging.

M1 replayed Orban’s March 15 national day address nine times the following day.

The same morning Orban’s challenger, provincial mayor Peter Marki-Zay, was given just five minutes to outline his election manifesto on the channel, albeit the first time an opposition politician was given a platform to speak on M1 in four years.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs denies public media coverage is slanted in favour of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.

“If you listen to the morning news on the radio, it is clear that there is a variety of views and opinions,” he told AFP.

Partizan now boasts over 270,000 subscribers, a number that Gulyas says is dynamically growing and the channel is funded by thousands of micro-donations.

“If you like what we do, please consider a donation,” said the host as he signed off an election debate show with a trademark point at the camera.

Formerly a theatre group manager, then a prominent activist who was arrested five years ago for throwing paint at the presidential palace, Gulyas set up Partizan in 2018.

– No ‘traitor’ –

A few government-linked figures do dare face a grilling on Partizan but invitations to Orban — who has also refused to debate challenger Marki-Zay — cabinet ministers, and Fidesz politicians go unanswered.

“I like to reach outside my bubble,” said Gulyas, but he “acknowledges” that going on his show is risky for politicians.

A wayward comment by Marki-Zay about the Ukraine war during a Partizan interview was seized on by the Orban campaign.

“Asking fair and square questions can weaken not empower the opposition’s position, but I can’t make interviews in any other way,” said Gulyas.

Agnes Urban, a media expert with the Mertek Media Monitor watchdog, says Partizan is “vulnerable as it could be switched off for any reason” by internet giants.

“It is dependent on the decisions of major digital platforms, if for example YouTube shut down, or Facebook decided some of its content is unsuitable or unlawful, or indeed if the EU imposes strict regulations on digital platforms in the future, in these cases Partizan cannot do anything,” said Urban.

A former employee at the public broadcaster between 2015 and 2019, Andras Rostovanyi, 31, leaked a hidden recording of an editorial meeting that revealed top managers instructing staff to cover politically sensitive topics with a pro-government slant.

“Some of my colleagues might consider me a traitor but I don’t believe I am,” the former foreign desk journalist told AFP.

“In fact, my former bosses are the ones, who betrayed public service. I have done more public service than them, just by revealing this,” he said.

pmu/jza/jm/har

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