What the sex scandal of MEP József Szájer reveals about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

The resignation of an elected office due to a scandal always triggers political reactions and fills the news headlines.

But what distinguishes the case of the Hungarian MEP József Szájer is not only the nature of the scandal in which he has been involved: the way it is reported in the media is revealing in itself.

Szájer, the top figure in the Fidesz party, which rules Hungary, was caught by police as he attended what has been reported as a gay sex party in an apartment above a cafe in the Belgian capital on Friday night.

In addition to trying to escape through the pipes of a neighboring apartment injuring his hand, the police found drugs in his backpack, something he denied in a statement to the Hungarian media. The bloodied police escorted him home, where he showed his diplomatic documents.

The issue would be enough to sink any political career, but in Szájer’s case, the potential damage to the credibility of a Hungarian government that vigorously pursues anti-LGBTQ policies is even greater given the influence it has had on shaping politics. internal country.

Condemnation of flagrant hypocrisy

“Szájer is probably best known in Hungary as one of the people who wrote the Constitution and actually the Constitution is one of the centerpieces of this story because, in the first place, when it was written in 2011, it prohibited marriage between persons of the same sex. Or at least he said it was unconstitutional, “Aron Demeter, program director for Amnesty International Hungary, told Euronews.

Legal recognition of gender changes ended in May and more recently, the former MEP has played a key role in drafting the new proposed amendments to the constitution promoted by the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán that seek to enshrine “Christian values. “.

An amendment, which defines that in the parental relationship “the mother is a woman and the father a man”, would amount to a constitutional prohibition of the adoption of persons of the same sex.

“That this is something that Szájer promoted and that he is the most important figure in the Fidesz Government in Brussels, makes this story even more absurd,” said Demeter.

The actions of Szájer, and those of the Fidesz government, have been described as hypocritical in Brussels.

“He is enjoying the freedom of the LGBTI community here in Brussels and at the same time, his party is condemning the LGBTI community back in Hungary,” French MEP Manon Aubry told Euronews.

“He was even one of the main drafters of the constitution that criminalizes that community in Hungary,” he adds.

However, the bizarre events that have led to the fall of Szájer have been largely silenced in Hungary, thanks in large part to the strict government control of the media landscape that has been developing over the years.

“The messages that have been communicated about the Szájer case, both in the pro-government and state media, have been clearly controlled on many of the sensitive details; for example, every reference to the MEP taking part in a sexual party “Zsuzsanna Végh, a research associate on Hungary at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Euronews.

“If you listen to the state radio or watch the state news, you wouldn’t even understand why he would have to resign, just because he participated in a little party and violated the current restrictions against COVID-19, because that is the story they communicate and they do not go anymore there”.

But nevertheless, according to a survey commissioned by euronews, Hungarians do not seem willing to endorse the government version and neither understand nor forgive the scandal.

Restrictions on freedom of the press

Along with Poland, Hungary has become a black beast in EU circles due to its apparent erosion of the core values ​​of EU membership, namely the primacy of the rule of law and freedom of the press.

Hungary ranks 89th in the world rankings for press freedom in 2020, falling two places below what it was last year, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and dropping 33 places in total in the last eight years.

“One of the areas that has particularly suffered during the last decade under the Orbán government has been freedom of the media, really starting from 2010-2011,” said Végh.

Orbán has asserted his party’s control over the Hungarian media, including influencing the production of public broadcasters.

According to an independent investigation cited in a 2019 report of the European Federation of Journalists, almost 80% of the news is “financed by sources decided by the ruling party.”

The latest attack on press freedom came with the establishment of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) in 2018. In addition to concentrating about 467 media outlets in a single monopoly with a composite board By government appointees, KESMA has also acted as a tourniquet on advertising revenue, throttling everything except for pro-government media.

Almost all regional media have also fallen under the auspices of Orbán’s media empire. The media that retain their freedom face an uphill battle to accurately report what is happening in the country.

“Free media, independent media, have very little access to official sources, which was even worse during the pandemic situation,” Vegh explains. “They are regularly ignored when they ask questions at press conferences and very often they are also attacked by politicians and pro-government media,” says the expert.

The disparity of information in the Szájer case between independent and state-controlled media has been very marked.

While independent media outlets such as the news website Index.hu have widely reported on all the events that led to his resignation, including Szájer’s participation in a sex party, the story itself does not appear in the media. Pro-government media outlets – including the Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap newspapers, which instead focused on Fidesz’s well-known target, billionaire George Soros – or briefly reported that he had withdrawn because he had violated local lockdown restrictions.

Change the narrative

Thanks to its dominance of the Hungarian media, will the government manage to mitigate the consequences of the scandal?

“It’s pretty early to tell, but it’s clear that the state and pro-government media are in trouble because I think they are still looking for the angle to report on that story,” Demeter said. “A fairly recent angle that they have found today is to say that these accusations, that this is due to an unknown foreign power, or more likely some kind of secret service. That Szájer is a victim in this case because he is a strong defender of the traditional values ​​in a liberal city and a liberal regime “.

Demeter is not alone in suggesting that the government’s likely tactic will be to sell the idea that Hungary, and Szájer in particular, has fallen into a conspiracy to subvert its domestic program.

Végh also believes that Orbán and the pro-government media will do their best to turn the story around.

“Obviously the issue here, in my opinion, is not the sex party or the sexual orientation of József Szájer itself,” Végh said. “The issue is the hypocrisy of the Hungarian government and the Fidesz party, and I think this definitely impacts the image of the government and that is why they are trying to silence the whole case and push it under the rug.”

Orbán has already tried to limit the damage from the scandal, confirming to the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet that Szájer not only apologized and resigned over the matter but has also left the Fidesz party, of which he was a founding member.

“What József Szájer did does not fit the values ​​of our political community. We will not forget or deny the work he did over the last 30 years, but his act is unacceptable and cannot be defended,” he said. I

It is not clear if Orbán’s distancing from Szájer will be enough to quell the storm.

Blame Brussels

“Potentially, if they cannot sweep under the rug, then another clue that the government media can use is to present Hungary and the Hungarian government as the victim of the Brussels attacks due to the Hungarian veto on the MFF. [marco financiero plurianual]”He maintained.” That it is a kind of retaliation against Hungary because it tries to block the adoption of the MFF. “

Arousing anti-EU sentiment has been a successful tactic used by Orbán in the recent past. If anything, raising the specter of foreign inference by the EU in Hungarian internal affairs will only “further intensify” existing tensions with Brussels, Végh added.

The spirits are already beginning to overflow in the European People’s Party (EPP), of which Fidesz was a member but has been suspended. Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch this week made comparisons between the Gestapo and the head of the EPP, Manfred Weber, amid a dispute between Brussels and Hungary.

And what about the situation of the Hungarian LGBTQ community after Szájer’s resignation?

“¿[El escándalo] will change the government’s narrative and its intention to continue violating the human rights of LGBT people? I would seriously doubt it, “Demeter said.” My experience with this Government is that they will most likely find an angle to distort the Szájer story and will probably push all these amendments (against the LGBT community) and probably more amendments in the future. So I don’t think they will back down from this. “