With knowledge of our responsibility

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The Hungarian government has officially declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic. In this moment of great uncertainty, certain media outlets that are propped up by the government such as Hungarian public television and another commercial TV station, some websites, and several print publications, have devoted significant attention to a distressing proposition: that journalists should be jailed for their reporting on problems that have arisen in the management of the pandemic. The questions these journalists ask are recast as “fear-mongering”, and our colleagues in the media have become objects of scorn for their pursuit of the truth.

There are many people in Hungary who are working themselves to the very limits of their capabilities in order to keep us all safe. Among them are many doctors and nurses, whose experiences we have conveyed through our reporting. We have told their stories partly by writing about the struggles they face on a daily basis, and also by posing questions to those in authority who are best positioned to assist them in their life-saving work. When anger and resentment is incited against us in the media, it serves only to demean and silence the voices of those who have heroically taken their places on the frontlines of public health. If we have a patriotic duty in these times, it is to listen to these healthcare workers and extend to them our assistance, because only they can help us all.

When we as journalists are called “pieces of shit” and are accused of arousing panic for which we should be sent to jail, the struggles of a nurse working in 24 hour shifts without breaks in an overcrowded intensive care ward are diminished and swept aside. 

Let’s get something straight: we do not invent “fake news”. In fact, we sometimes moderate the tone of certain harrowing accounts in order to maintain objectivity in a state of emergency. With a complete understanding of our responsibilities, we relay the truth while following the strictest possible journalistic standards.

When we report that healthcare workers treating possible coronavirus patients are suffering from a lack of protective equipment, we corroborate the veracity of these reports numerous times. It has happened that after making such a confirmation, the situation in a particular hospital substantially improved and adequate protective equipment was provided, at which time we turned our attention to other stories. But when several sources, independently of one another, reported from different hospitals that there was a shortage of equipment, then we published an article and asked authorities the appropriate questions.

Regardless of the attacks against us, we believe in the value and purpose of our work. After doctors and scientists called for authorization for hospitals to administer tests to patients they believed to be infected with coronavirus, we wrote several articles conveying their message. Several days later, these hospitals got the authorization they needed. We don’t take credit for satisfying the needs of the doctors, but we might have contributed by elevating their voices. Even if our articles had no effect on decision-making, we still believe we acted appropriately since it is the right of all Hungarians to know what doctors are thinking and experiencing during a pandemic. To demand imprisonment for reporting on these facts is madness.

Employees at the publications that are now criticizing our work could have asked the doctors themselves about their experiences on the job. If they had come to different conclusions than we did, then they surely would have reported on them. It’s still not too late for them to ask employees at the Foreign Affairs and Interior Ministries, for example, whether it is really feasible for them to work from home if there is no one to care for their children. If they were to ask, these employees would tell them that, in fact, they are being required to come to work. If they asked employees at certain background institutions of the Ministry of Human Resources, on the other hand, then they would learn that some of them are being permitted to work from home. Of course, if they were to have actually asked these workers about their experiences, it would have made it more difficult to write an article claiming that Index had incited a panic, and perhaps even committed a crime, by reporting on these labor issues that are affecting workers with children.

If I had wanted to ignite a controversy, I would have written dramatically about statements by a doctor who, lacking all protective equipment, came into direct contact with a patient infected with coronavirus and was then sent home to his children without receiving any testing, and then was called back to work the next day where he had to treat critically ill patients without access to the proper mask. It would not have been a betrayal of my profession if I had quoted this doctor’s rather colorful words. But still, in these times, I felt it would have been excessive to do so because there is a state of emergency, people are tense and exhausted, and healthcare workers are facing unprecedented difficulties. In a situation as difficult to manage as this one, people inevitably make mistakes and face harsh constraints. This is why I have focused on problems that appear to be objectively systemic, and my colleagues have done the same in many similar situations. 

Perhaps this incitement against us is really an attempt to make us lose touch with our presence of mind, to make us operate on our emotions and dispose of our strict standards so our work will appear to be unreliable, politically motivated hysteria. If we did, there would no longer be any difference between journalists and those defaming them. If that is what they are aiming for, then their efforts are in vain.

“This is a damn big pandemic. At least, the one which has made the rounds in the media. It’s as if they were doing  a worldwide experiment in which they were trying to find out whether, with adequate propaganda, they could make people believe in the threat of a terrible worldwide pandemic, even though in reality there is no pandemic, not even the vague trace of one. The answer is yes, they can.” 

This paragraph appeared in a publication on March 6. On the cover page was a single ad, which reads, “Commissioned by the Hungarian government.” The ad called attention to the importance of measures taken to protect people from the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the author of these lines laughed as one of his television program’s co-hosts said that some of the journalists pushing the government to make proper decisions “should finally be put into police cars”. We consider this to be extremely distasteful.

Translation by Justin Spike

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