Binary Narratives of Migration Crisis in the Hungarian News Media: Making Distinction between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. Hungary, Central Europe, 6 September 2015.

Since the beginning of 2015 when a considerable number of people have started pouring into the European Union– what will be later labeled as the start of the Europe`s migrant crisis- numerous European media agencies were not ready for reporting such events. Because of the overall unpreparedness and in some cases, governmental tighter control, media coverage of migration crisis in Europe usually followed the mainstream political storylines. (Georgiou, Zaborowski 2017) In some countries, the coverage has been more hostile and de-humanized (Hungary, France), while in others it showed a more sympathetic approach (Greece, Serbia) towards the migrant movements.

It seems that binary narratives in the Hungarian news media have been following official aggressive response to the migrants’ influx ever since the crisis has started.  Hungarian PM keeps fueling negative statements about newcomers. Political discourses of security and border control measures have been a major axis in official Hungarian migration policy since 2015. Victor Orban has repeatedly used phrases such as “illegal migrants” and “Muslim community” (Viktor Orbán’s speech 2015), thus stressing out the difference between migrants who represent cultural threat and lawlessness issue, and Hungarian righteous, Christian citizens.

Hungarian political campaign which carried a strong security connotation depicting migrants as a hazardous threat (Traynor 2015), entered into Hungarian media space quickly. Many articles in the Hungarian press were pointing out protection initiatives and threatening nature of newcomers. It was common to see segments such as “an illegal migrant arrives in Europe every 12 seconds” and “the migrants threaten our culture” in the Hungarian news media. (Thorpe 2015) Binary structure in the Hungarian press was reinforced by the government`s anti-migrant campaign which helped in making a strong division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in media terminology.

As Georgiou and Zaborowski point out, media discourse throughout Europe managed to create ‘the other’ by frequently avoiding to mention either migrants` profession, gender or names, hence, placing almost every refugees in an undesirable group for European countries. (2017, 10) In the European news media, and particularly in Hungary, refugees were presented as dehumanized, unskilled and voiceless crowd, needless to any society. In this case, Hungarian media is leading with striking figures where refugees were predominantly anonymous and invisible. Refugees` names were mentioned 6.7% compared to 15.6% average across the 11 European sample, also female refugees were sometimes present, nonetheless, never quoted. (Georgiou, Zaborowski 2017, 10-11) Having said that, one cannot but assume that Hungarian anti-immigration media campaign has, unfortunately, become successful and added to the already alarming decline in democratic values and freedoms in the country.

One of the reasons for such poor treatment of migrants in the Hungarian news media could be found in the fact that press monitoring bodies, accountable for supervising standards and reacting to cases of hate speech and discrimination, do not have significant influence over media practice in Hungary. (Georgiou, Zaborowski 2017, 12) Besides, that gives government officials and popular politicians a vast space for controlling and influencing media agencies and journalists as well. According to the Freedom House Report from 2017, Hungary has been experiencing a serious decline in core democratic values and principles over a decade. The overall Hungarian democratic score deteriorated from 3.29 in 2016 to 3.54 in 2017. (Hegedüs2017) Also, in terms of media independence, we can observe significant change starting in2015. During the three-year period from 2012 to 2014 media had a stable score of 3.50, but in 2015 it worsened and reached 3.75. In 2016 the figures remained unchanged, but again, still alarming.  This year has brought a further decline in media independence, Hungary scored souring 4.25.The report suggests that possible reason for such severe decline in the independence of media would be the strong political interference in the Hungarian media market. Beside public media, the second-largest private TV channel, and many online and print outlets are under serious government control. (Hegedüs 2017) This leaves space for-governmental directives within press release where news is in most cases biased and predominately politically suitable.

The physical barrier on the Hungarian border with Serbia remains secured as a defender of the local population from ‘the other’. Hungarian media continues with binary narratives when it comes to the coverage of the migrant crisis. Deterioration of the Hungarian independent media as a result of tighter governmental control and overall European unpreparedness for covering refugees` stories have turned Hungary`s media narratives of migrant crisis into the collection of biased, anti-migrant headlines.                                                                                                      

Written by:  Nina Miholjcic  (MA in Diplomacy and International Affairs)

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