From the Charlie Hebdo attack to Hungary’s moral panic

Since January 2015, the Hungarian government has been creating an atmosphere of fear against refugees and migrants that has quickly led to a moral panic, which in turn has served as justification for strong anti-immigrant measures. This is the conclusion of a scientific paper recently produced by two media researchers. V4Revue interviewed Vera Messing, one of the paper’s authors.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Michael Gubi

The main argument of your paper 1 is that, starting from very early on in 2015, the Orban government has knowingly, intentionally and professionally stirred up negative emotions against refugees, on which it has built its entire political strategy, and the media has been instrumental in this campaign. How can you prove that?

It is important to note that, together with my research partner Gábor Bernáth 2, we analyzed the Hungarian media coverage concerning refugees and migrants only during a three-week period in January. So it was at the very beginning of this whole campaign, when in fact there were very few refugees arriving from war-torn zones, and we definitely did not yet have the flow of refugees we experienced starting in the early summer. In January, returning from his visit to Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attack, Viktor Orban gave an interview 3 for the state broadcaster in which he set the tone for the campaign. From there we can trace all the major elements of what happened later. One does not start such a campaign accidentally.

If it is professionally designed, there must be elements which prove that argument. Were you able to identify such elements?

First of all, prior to that interview, the question of migration was non-existent in the Hungarian public discourse and in the country’s media. A research effort 4by the Hungarian Helsinki Commission into the media representation of refugees and migrants clearly demonstrated this, which was not surprising at all since less than 2 percent of the country’s population can be counted as migrants due to extremely strict regulations. Most of those are ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries who settled in Hungary. So the whole issue of migration was a fringe topic until the Prime Minister threw it into the center of the political debate in January. The most important defining element is his choice of words. Not only did he seem to deliberately avoid the word “refugee”, instead using exclusively “migrants”, but he also added certain adjectives to this term and spoke only of “economic migrants”…

In Hungarian the word is even worse; it (“megélhetési bevándorló”) implies that the person’s only intention is to sign up for social benefits…

Yes, it is a kind of welfare migrant. Moreover, the term Orban used is highly emotionally charged; in Hungarian media and police jargon it is regularly used to describe criminals who commit petty crimes out of necessity, in order to make both ends meet (“megélhetési bűnözők”). Most of the time the term is used to label Roma as well, who – according to this narrative – “abuse” the social welfare system. So the term the Prime Minister used, which was later echoed by a lot of Hungarian media outlets, immediately created a context for the criminalization of migration. Thus Orban was able to connect the term to something most of the Hungarian public was familiar with, and he consciously built on the existing xenophobic and anti-migration feelings. The most striking aspect is how easily he was able to make a connection between third-generation migrants in Paris and migrants to Hungary.

Very quickly too, the government launched a so-called “national consultation”, a questionnaire delivered by mail to every Hungarian that critics – including the UN’s refugee agency 5– say equates immigration with terrorism.

This national consultation, the quickly set-up special parliamentary debate on migration with the very biased title “Hungary doesn’t need welfare migrants”, and the anti-migration billboard 6 campaign in the spring all prove that the January speech was the beginning of a cunningly designed political strategy.

Which critics also say was aimed at diverting attention from corruption cases which broke at the end of last year and the flagging popularity of the governing party, Fidesz.

To understand the goals of this campaign would necessitate further studies, but what we have seen was that all these campaigns carefully applied the term for welfare migrants that I described earlier. The use of this term was complemented by the highly manipulative use of statistics. Orban and the governing party politicians regularly spoke of tens of thousands of “welfare migrants” flooding Hungary, while the same statistics also show that most of these people simply left the country for Western or Northern Europe without even waiting for their requests to be processed.

And all this you define as the creation of a moral panic in your paper.

The theory of moral panic says the actions, characteristics and behavior of a small group of people can be sensed as a danger by the society, and the state applies all its available tools (administrative, legislative, communicative) to help people identify this threat. The society will then start to demand radical and often very simplistic solutions and thus legitimize forceful intervention by the government. The intervention itself will also feed into the panic. We have seen quite clear evidence of this in Hungary. The government very quickly commissioned an opinion poll, which was conducted by a “friendly” pollster. This poll immediately showed that 70 percent of the population would demand harsh measures against migrants, which was a logical consequence of the sudden change in tone by the Prime Minister and the leading government politicians. When leaders start to speak of a danger, people will react to that, and the panic will spread.

Hungary’s press is partly free, according to the international press freedom watchdog Freedom House, and tons of research shows the structural weaknesses of the media market. To what extent has this partly free press counteracted this campaign?

Once again, we analyzed only the first couple of weeks of the campaign, but my personal impression is that several news outlets radically changed their coverage after it became a visible and realistic problem. While others – mainly the pro-government outlets – continued to repeat the government propaganda. But this is only the impression of a news consumer, not the findings of a researcher. As you said, Hungary’s media market is very much dependent on politics. Certain very important parts of the Hungarian media – the pro-government media – use the narrative of those in power, but there are outlets which try to give space to independent voices. The most important reason why those in power are able to maintain a strong narrative is simply that the media relies heavily on politicians’ statements, usually broadcasting them without providing any background information or explanation.

In certain parts of the media there are very strong trends of self-censorship and conformism to power and authority. As a consequence, the government’s narrative overruled every other narrative during the period we analyzed – not only the state media, the state-controlled newsrooms or the media outlets that are in the hands of government-friendly businessmen, but also the so-called independent media. Later in the year the picture somewhat changed, but the government’s narrative was still able to largely prevail.

To what extent was the alternative, left-liberal opposition narrative able to find its way into the media discourse?

It is really interesting that, during this period, we have experienced a lack of any voice from the so-called left-wing opposition. They have been silent about the issue of migration and refugees for very long, with the exception of just one tiny party. Also, discourse analysis of the parliamentary debate showed that the left took on the securitizing discourse of FIDESZ and interpreted migration in the context of a threat, rather than a potential positive – for example, replacing the population of an aging society.

We analyzed the number of times government politicians and authorities were represented in the mainstream media during that period, as opposed to opposition politicians, and we have seen that the overall majority of airtime, print and online space was occupied by the former. It is important to note that the government also mobilized a bunch of “friendly” experts who regularly spoke about the crisis. These experts were security analysts, so most of the time they evaluated the events from an anti-terrorism and security viewpoint; therefore, the choice of these experts also helped to frame the issue according to the government’s wishes.

In your study, you mention the government’s intentional use of visual elements which could also define the refugee issue as a threat to national security and even to people’s health

The visual representation of refugees and migrants contributed to their criminalization and stigmatization. These images created fear and prevented empathy and solidarity from being built up towards them. They were shown as criminals who illegally crossed the border, were detained by the police, and were made stand in line next to a wall, or received by personnel equipped with masks and white gloves. They were almost always shown in groups, never represented as individuals, simple human beings who were fleeing war zones. Many of these photos were distributed by the police, whose communication loyally followed the government’s narrative, the narrative of securitization. One interesting observation was that the criminalization of migrants and refugees and their media representation showed the same signs, the same elements that we have seen before with the Roma population. The narrative framework in which Roma have been represented in the media as criminals and a threat to society was now being implemented with regards to the migrant issue.


  1., Bedarálva A menekültekkel kapcsolatos kormányzati kampány (Grinded – the government’s campaign concerning refugees. 2015/3 accessed December 1 2015 
  2. The authors of the paper: Gábor Gábor, works for the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, founder of the Roma Press Center which he managed until 2003. Vera Messing is works for the Social Sciences Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and is a visiting researcher at the CEU Center for Policy Studies.
  3., Orban demonises immigrants at Paris march, January 12 2015, accessed December 1 2015
  5., UNHCR calls on Hungary to protect, not persecute, refugees, May 8 2015, accessed December 1 2015
  6., Hungary’s poster war on immigration, June 14 2015, accessed December 1 2015
Attila Mong

Attila Mong

is an editor of the V4 Revue. Attila is also currently working as editor for an innovative investigative journalism NGO, and a researcher for Mertek, a media think-tank in Budapest. He also does journalism trainings in Asia and Africa for the DW Akademie,

Vera Messing

Vera Messing

is a research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies since 2008 as well as a research associate of the Institute of Sociology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since 2004. She earned her PhD studies in Budapest, Corvinus University in 2000. She has over 15 years’ of experience in empirical research on ethnicity, minorities, social exclusion, media representation of vulnerable groups and ethnic conflicts. Her work focuses on comparative understanding of different forms and intersections of social inequalities and ethnicity and their consequences.