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Weekly grassroots newspaper aims to buck Hungarian government propaganda

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Hungary, an estimated 90% of the media is believed to be under the influence of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling party. And as the country prepares for an election on Sunday, Hungarian newspapers, radio and TV appear focused on getting Orban reelected. But as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, one grassroots organization is distributing what it deems real news one mailbox at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's a sound familiar to anyone who's delivered a newspaper. But here in the rural Hungarian town of Dunabogdany, it's not just the dogs who view this deliveryman with suspicion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: As Kornel Klopfstein is about to slip a leaflet into another mailbox, its owners tell him not to bother. They're not interested in politics. He slips it into their mailbox and moves on.

KORNEL KLOPFSTEIN: It says, I don't want any leaflet. But I'm going to put it anyways (laughter). So you know...

SCHMITZ: Klopfstein is the co-founder of Print-it-Yourself, a weekly newspaper printed on a single sheet of A4-sized paper that's distributed by thousands of volunteers throughout rural Hungary, where people's access to news is typically limited to government propaganda.

KLOPFSTEIN: We are distributing these leaflets to show them that there is another reality out there. There is actually other news, corruption cases or how the health care system is doing or how the economy's doing.

SCHMITZ: Print-it-Yourself - called Nyomtass Te Is in Hungarian - has been around for four years. They printed up more than a million copies for their latest edition. It's funded by private donors and foundations, including George Soros' Open Society. This week's edition carries stories about official corruption, the platform of the opposition candidate to Orban and tells people where to vote. The paper is inspired by the samizdat tradition from the 1980s, when dissidents printed, copied and distributed news to counter communist propaganda. Hungary media expert Miklos Haraszti (ph) says today's threat to independent media in Hungary is no different, but that what's most frightening to him is that this top-down media consolidation has happened inside what is supposed to be a liberal democracy.

MIKLOS HARASZTI: It's a country where you have parliament, where you have elections and where you have market forces. And nevertheless, they could turn the part of the media which they sponsor into a totalitarian propaganda model.

SCHMITZ: And that, says Haraszti, has erased a crucial forum for public debate.

HARASZTI: Two generations have now grown up without experiencing what debate, what parallel measurement of arguments means.

SCHMITZ: Print-it-Yourself co-founder Klopfstein says he's encouraged by a survey that found 10% of Print-it-Yourself recipients change their opinions after six weeks of reading his paper.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHMITZ: But that is not the case for Marika Varga (ph). Klopfstein just gave her a newspaper. And as she reads it, she provides pro-government counterpoints. Like everyone I talked to in this town, Varga says she'll vote for Orban's party because she believes he has improved the country's economy. I ask her what she thinks of Klopfstein's newspaper. She answers through an interpreter.

MARIKA VARGA, BYLINE: (Through interpreter) I'm sure there's people who like it.

SCHMITZ: Not a glowing review but a better reaction than that of the first man Klopfstein delivered his paper to.

He took your flyer. He ripped it up. And then he put it under the windshield wiper of the car that you arrived in.

KLOPFSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, it's quite shocking - right? - I mean, that people just see, like, a newspaper and it makes them so angry. I mean, sometimes - yeah - I'm like, wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: As we ponder the ripped-up newspaper, the man comes out of his house and yells at Klopfstein.

KLOPFSTEIN: Oh. I'm going to be, like, in the war. I'm going to catch some bullet. That's what he says.

SCHMITZ: OK.

KLOPFSTEIN: Well, I'm not going to reply.

SCHMITZ: We get in the car with the man still yelling. Klopfstein shakes his head, sighs and says, this is Hungary in 2022.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Dunabogdany, Hungary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.