Return of the Iron Fist?

By Anna Porter
Maclean’s, January 25, 2011

Hungary’s crackdown on the media sparks a backlash at home and away

The European Union’s rotating presidency is hardly the stuff of international headlines. Few could name the last two countries presiding (Spain and Belgium). The position is largely honorific, lasts only six months, offers a few opportunities for self-promotion and the occasional memorable moment for the president’s home team.

Not so with Hungary. Perhaps not even the 1956 revolution attracted so much ink and airtime than the weeks leading up to Viktor Orbán’s accession to the EU’s presidential chamber. From the venerable Financial Times to South Africa’s New Age, the press has been on the attack; most of the German, Italian and Spanish papers have been fulminating since early November, and even the China Times has made disapproving noises. The Süddeutsche Zeitung went so far as to accuse the Hungarian government of “murdering” the free press.

The fuss is about new media legislation that sets out a series of rules that apply to all media, including online, and threatens one of democracy’s most cherished hallmarks: freedom of the press. The document is 180 pages long, most of it standard officialese, but it does contain a couple of doozies. Article 13, for example, states that “all media providers shall provide authentic, rapid and accurate information on local, national and EU affairs and on any event that bears relevance to the citizens of the Republic of Hungary and members of the Hungarian nation.” It goes on to demand that all media “provide comprehensive, factual, up-to-date, objective and balanced coverage of local, national and European issues.” It fails to mention according to whom. One viewer’s “balanced” can be another’s “biased.”

Article 17 includes, among those not to be offended by the media, all minorities but also nations, communities and majorities. Majorities? Further, the law orders journalists to reveal their sources, if asked by courts—or authorities. And the media’s behaviour is to be judged by a new, powerful Media Council, all of whose members belong to the ruling party. If the council, at its sole discretion, determines that someone has transgressed a rule, it can refuse to renew licences, or levy fines of up to $950,000—an amount that could bankrupt some of the current independent news sources in Hungary.

Of course, Hungary’s private media vigorously objected. Several magazines and journals issued editions with blank front pages. Some radio programs declared moments of silence. Two on-air personalities were summarily taken off the air because of silent protests before the legislation came into force. As for public media, the director general of MTI, the Hungarian news agency, declared that its staff “must be loyal to the government” and henceforward, all the public stations—radio and television—would broadcast the same centrally controlled news.

The passage of the media law was, of course, a foregone conclusion, as it is sponsored by FIDESZ, the party that won a whopping two-thirds majority in last April’s elections. And its leader, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s 47-year-old prime minister and, now, the new president of the EU, is ready for battle. He fought his way out of relative poverty. He remains a competitive soccer player. He earned his democratic spurs by protesting against the Communist government of the early ’80s and first came to prominence in the summer of 1989, when he spoke on behalf of the young victims of the 1956 revolution and demanded that Soviet troops leave his country. He studied at Oxford, courtesy of George Soros’s foundation. Ironically, U.S. billionaire Soros, who has financed democracy movements in Europe, has frequently spoken of the importance of a free press.

Those who know Orbán well were not surprised that he did not change his mind when faced with a barrage of international reaction. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso declared that “freedom of the press is a sacred principle, a fundamental value.” The British Foreign Office, the Czech foreign minister, the German and French governments, have all attacked the media law. Even Adam Michnik, a hero of the resistance to Communism and a former ally of Orbán, protested with his Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s largest circulation dailies: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Orbán remained steadfast. With a surreal sense of timing, the government passed the bill into law on Dec. 21, mere days before his assumption of the EU’s presidency. To add a bit of vinegar to his resistance, Orbán told the other Europeans to back off, “get real,” and allow his country to conduct its internal business as they do theirs. Zoltán Kovács, minister of state for communications, told me that all the criticism was premature. “We shall all have a chance to observe the Media Council’s work and judge it by its actions.”

Miklós Haraszti, writer, human rights advocate and former Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media, sees the new legislation as part of an Orbán government power grab and “its determination to do away with all checks and balances.” Other developments are ominous. For example, the country’s president should provide a check on the government, but Orbán has installed Pál Schmitt, a former Olympic fencing gold medallist who is publicly an ardent fan of the PM. Also among the recent changes has been the diminution of the Constitutional Court’s right to interfere in tax matters, which critics say is another example of Orbán’s desire for absolute control. As well, a series of government attacks directed at Hungary’s independent central banker has recently unnerved financial markets. Furious that András Simor ignored government wishes and raised interest rates, Orbán stripped some of Simor’s powers and slashed his salary by 75 per cent.

Amid Hungary’s current financial crisis, the Orbán government has also been busy on other fronts. It recently announced a reform of its pension plans, an effort that would funnel billions of forints to the Treasury—and a new “crisis tax” in October on large corporations. This came as a surprise to the huge foreign telecommunications, banking, retail and energy companies most affected. The ensuing howl from European corporate headquarters was as predictable as the government’s refusal to contemplate a rethinking of its decision.

Some Hungarian commentators have suggested that Germany’s unremitting attacks on the media laws may have been influenced by the pain Deutsche Telekom felt when faced with the “crisis tax” bill of $130 million in 2010. György Schöpflin, in the European Parliament since 2004, went so far as to say the reaction to the media law was “politically motivated.” (Several European firms have gone so far as to ask the European Commission to impose sanctions against the new EU presidential nation.)

As for Orbán, he said that the fate of large companies operating in the country must be connected to the fate of Hungary itself. “We will cry together,” he said of the large foreign-owned firms, “and we will laugh together.” It’s hardly fair, he added, that they should be laughing while the rest of the country cries. But tears may be the order of the day: despite Orbán’s folksy expression and the promise to review these “temporary measures,” investors are reluctant to put their cash at stake in an environment where a new “crisis tax” can simply eliminate profits. Tamás Király, deputy head of mission at the Hungarian Embassy in Ottawa, admitted that dealing with investor complaints was one of several challenges he had to deal with. The other, of course, is the pesky new “framework for all media.”

Some critics are also fearful that the government’s new constitution—previously expected to be introduced on March 15, Hungary’s National Day, it has been delayed until late April—will further entrench FIDESZ in power. Other initiatives have simply left observers scratching their heads. Among them is the recent move to change the rules of access to the former state security archives, which contain thousands of tapes, files and over 50,000 names. How to deal with such sensitive documents has been a problem for all former Communist countries once they shook off their former masters, but none have allowed individuals to eliminate the evidence of the past. Under Hungary’s new rules, though, citizens who were spied upon would have the right to remove their own files.

History professor Christopher Adam of Carleton University, who has worked in those archives, says he cannot imagine what would lead a government that ostensibly espouses democracy, and is led by a man who was no doubt a victim of those pre-’89 spies, to allow its history to be dispersed. Why are they so afraid of what someone might find in those files? “Imagine if the government of the new federal Germany had decided to allow all the victims of Nazism to remove their own files,” Adam says. “We would now have scant record of those times.”

Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán is polishing his plans for the EU during his six-month turn on the main stage: an enhanced energy security program (he has always been wary of too much reliance on the Russians), an eastern partnership with such outlying countries as Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and, in a well-aimed kick at Nicolas Sarkozy’s French government, a Europe-wide program of aid for the Roma. (It was Sarkozy who angered the EU’s bureaucrats when, last year, his country expelled some Roma and returned them to Romania and Bulgaria.) But on Jan. 12, in a move destined to annoy everybody, the Orbán team also installed a giant 202-sq.-m carpet, featuring a map of historic “Greater Hungary,” in Brussels’ Justus Lipsius building, where the EU’s 27 leaders meet for summits. Greater Hungary is the pre-First World War country that included Slovakia, and much of Romania and Serbia, all cut away by a peace treaty that most Hungarians still feel was grossly unfair. (Any notion of restoring the old borders has been met with derision by Hungary’s neighbours.)

In a Dec. 23 HírTV interview, Orbán made it clear that he was not cowed by outside attacks. Fear of foreign criticism, he said, “is characteristic only of countries that lack self-confidence. We are not one of those.” But criticism is rampant among Hungarians as well. The question, according to the blog Hungarian Spectrum’s Eva Balogh, is whether “it’s problematic to have a country leading the European Union that is in violation of democratic principles.” The next six months should be interesting, both for the EU, and for Hungary.