Few things show your insignificance better than a politician attacking the media for breaking a scandal to you.
Two years ago a scandal broke in Hungary. No surprise here, there are dozens a week. This particular scandal was about the psychiatry ward of a hospital, where fecal matter floated on the floors as an overflown toilet flooded the corridors with sewage water, and towels were used to keep the water getting into patient wards (it didn’t work).
The doors of the bathrooms and toilets wouldn’t close, mold covered the showers, and patients were chained to the radiators every night to stay put.
I don’t make this claim – it was in the ombudsman’s report, in very plain and disturbing terms. He demanded the immediate closure of the hospital.
Last week a rat fell on the head of a nurse at the same ward, gnawing its way through a fake ceiling. The nurse didn’t bother to go through the usual routes of reporting the incident and waiting for a miracle. He contacted the media. RTL Klub (a rare media channel not yet controlled by the government) duly reported about the rodent. And while they were at it, they also looked at the hospital and whether anything had changed since the scathing ombudsman report.
Turns out, nothing happened since then.
And thus the very same scandal broke again.
Two years ago the ministry grudgingly called for an investigation, thereby implicitly admitting that the ombudsman did not write a fake report and those photos were not taken in, say, a kindergarten. That was really where patients were treated.
But an investigation is for lame beginners who still feel obliged to pretend they have the public interest at heart. We won’t get any such thing anymore.
Two years ago, it was an almost innocent age, pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, when “fake news” was a term reserved for actually invented lies spread by the evil geniuses of Russian and Russian-inspired propaganda.
Since Trump, however, “fake news” is everything that doesn’t serve the dictator’s interests. Autocrats have even learned to use the accusation in their own defense.
Another thing that changed since then is that authoritarian leaders are gradually losing the last shreds of inhibitions and they don’t even give a dead rat (pun intended) about what you think of them. After all, you can’t do anything against them, can you?
Sure, they want to feel admired. Sort of. But the surefire way to admiration is not being worthy of it. It is to intimidate their authoritarian followers by showing them that they can’t achieve anything against the autocrat. The goal is now to rub it in – not to hide it.
So the new central directive is clear:
When a scandal breaks, no apology, no admission, not even empty promises of an investigation to let things die out. Instead, complete denial, even in the face of facts.
The spokesman or the health minister must stand on the leaking toilet and say “appropriate hygienic conditions” out loud. No, even better: Say “world class Hungarian health care”. (That’s actually what they said.)
And of course, punish the whistleblower. Publicly.
So instead of investigating the rodent invasion, the minister demanded to know how the report leaked. The ombudsman’s two-years-old report disappeared from their website.* And the nurse is in even deeper trouble than he was working in a rat-infested psy ward where patients walk in sewage water whenever they are not chained to the radiators.
A similar thing happened few weeks ago when a bus driver published a photo of the thermometer from his driver’s seat that lacked air conditioning: it showed 45 degrees Celsius. That also prompted an investigation – against the driver. Not the public procurement manager that bought overpriced buses but saved on the air-con, nor the transportation company that routinely failed to order maintenance work on the many reported cases of broken air-conditioners on buses.
The same thing happened when a taxman blew the whistle about the government-sanctioned VAT fraud that was so large it could be measured as share of GDP. He was investigated. The authorities weren’t.
Or when an 18-year-old ethical hacker contacted the public transport authority to let them know that their new (and horribly overpriced) e-ticket system could be easily hacked (you could input the price you wanted to pay). He was arrested overnight, his computers (and his friends’ and family’s computers) confiscated and he was questioned with the suspicion of attacking critical infrastructure. Almost for terrorism.
Dismissing reports as fake news puts your (the people who live in that country) interest last
Autocracies never fail to deliver absurd consequences. Investigating who in the crowd dared to yell that the emperor is naked – instead of bringing him a bath robe – is one such logical, but absurd result of the logic of autocracies.
In an autocracy, everything is about the politicians. Their interests, their little feelings, their status must be protected at all cost. The public genuinely doesn’t matter.
* The original report had disappeared but you can still read the old news reports about the incident. We didn’t go crazy – although when the last independent news outlets will go under government control, these archives, too, will disappear – as we have seen with nol.hu after it was taken over by a Fidesz-friendly businessman.
Featured image: Jeanette Svensson @ Earthporn