In order for someone to assess the efficiency of one type of government, he or she must have the input of the media. Without newspapers, magazines and radio, it would be very difficult for a person to pass judgments on how their standard of living has been affected by a regime such as communism. But do people stop and ask themselves about the validity of the information that is dispensed by the press? Hypothetically, an organization that creates lies and feeds them to the public as widely accepted truths could drastically alter the perception of communism. This very phenomenon is one that was apparent in a newspaper known as Szabad Nep, and pervaded post World War II Hungary while shaping national identity.
The very essence of newspapers and radio is that people have freedom to state basic facts and offer opinions that the public may or may not agree with. But one of the integral aspects of communism at this time was the denial of this basic right (Delaney 86). Rather than allowing people to think for themselves, communists who ran the Hungarian News Agency (MTI) created their own facts and statistics, which were forcefully fed to Hungarians through their main mouthpiece, Szabad Nep.
Szabad Nep was the Communist Party’s daily paper and was printed and sold in 700,000 copies. This newspaper was controlled by the Party and was always the first to receive information leaks and spread propaganda. The state owned all publishing houses and all printing plants. The state gave the initial permission for a paper to exist. The Party also had the final say when selecting editors and staff members.
There was much censorship as well (89). Anyone caught reading Western papers was arrested. Every day there would be an executive meeting of the editorial board. The editorial board would determine the angle that the newspaper would put on a story and decide what type of perception they wanted the public to have on particular stories. This is how the lies got started. The head of the board was a member of the Party’s central committee. Obviously, this man would have to be influenced in ways other than merely reporting the facts and allowing readers to formulate their own opinions.
From 1945 until 1954 the head of this board was usually one of the most underhanded men in the country. One who stands out was Oscar Betlen in 1951. The phone system at Szabad Nep was connected to the Communist Party headquarters. The people who were employed there were not actually journalists. These people were more like ideologists for the Party. They were instructed in Russian and were expected to know an incredible number of facts about communist history and the USSR. They didn’t even have to display any proficiency for article writing. These men were exempted from accountability to the Party cell at Szabad Nep, but worked directly with the central committee. They had special perks such as housing priority and the ability to use exclusive hospitals and resorts (91).
There were three different types of workers at Szabad Nep. The first type consisted of men who were long time pre-war communists. The second were the types of people who had to be converted to communism, but wound up being some of the most dedicated to the brainwashing of the public. The third group was made up of young people who were either brought up by communist rule or began their careers in the communist regime. Of course, this was the largest group. After all, it was the nation’s young people who were the main target of the newspaper’s propaganda.
To the young, the facts that were being told to them were all they knew. They were too young to recall what actually happened. The Party used them to re-write the record books. While there were competing papers such as Magyar Nemzet, Esti Budapest, and Szabad Ifiusag, Szabad Nep was always the major mouthpiece for the Party. No paper could report any story before Szabad Nep. Oscar Betlen ensured that there were no nonconformists and he hated anyone who tried to think originally. He had a special hatred for those who acted under the influence of the West.
The death of Stalin marked the intellectual thawing of the Hungarian public. Imre Nagy took over as Prime Minister and began the process of destroying the communist voice of Stalinism. June of 1953 brought many changes in the newspaper industry as those who were formerly entrenched in indentured servitude to Szabad Nep rebelled against Soviet oppression. Informants, known as “apparatchiks” were no longer the chief source of news and true journalists gained control of public domain. In fact, Szabad Nep itself published stories that exposed the injustices that had taken place.
Sadly, however, just a few years later the ideological war was waged once again with the Party taking over the reins of the press. The control of the press became just as severe as it had been in the days of Stalinism. But in those few short years of revolution, the Hungarian people were able to mold their own form of a national identity by using the press as a weapon against propaganda.
Delaney, Robert Finley. This is Communist Hungary. Henry Regnery Company. 1958: Chicago.