Media Law Outrage Hungary's 'Orbanization' Is Worrying Europe

The move by Hungary's right-wing government to muzzle the media is the most recent example of a disturbing political trend in the country that was once hailed as a model for post-communnist development. Should Europe impose sanctions just as Hungary is about to assume the rotating EU presidency?

By Erich Follath and

Demonstrators in Budapest taped their mouths shut to protest against Hungary's new media law last week.

Demonstrators in Budapest taped their mouths shut to protest against Hungary's new media law last week.

The Hungarians have been Europe's heroes twice in the last few decades. The way they fearlessly faced off against Soviet tanks in 1956 and fought for their ideals remains unforgotten. In 1989, they courageously opened the borders that separated Eastern Europe from freedom. And in the initial years following the fall of communism, many saw Budapest as a possible model for the successful development of a democracy and market economy. Hungary, the land of the Magyars, was also a land of hope.

But that seems long ago now. The rotating chairmanship of the European Union, which Hungary assumes on Jan. 1, will not represent the culmination of a successful story. In fact, the opposite could be the case. Because of its policies, Budapest could now "be in for some serious problems," Martin Schulz, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats in the European Parliament said last Tuesday. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn went a step further, accusing the Hungarian government of violating "the spirit and text of the EU treaties." "The question arises," he continued, "as to whether such a country deserves to lead the EU. If we don't do anything, it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights."

A great deal of anger has been building up. The fact that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has just cold-bloodedly pushed through a law that muzzles the press, only a few days before he steps onto the pan-European stage, is just the final straw. It has been a last, and possibly decisive step towards autocracy.

No other European politician will have as much power to implement such drastic measures against critical media as Orbán, whose right-wing populist Fidesz Party has a two-thirds majority in parliament. The new, 170-page law attempts to regulate all television and radio stations, newspapers and Internet sites. It even applies to blogs and foreign media available in Hungary.

At the center of the control mechanisms is a new government agency staffed exclusively with Fidesz members. It has the power to impose fines of up to €750,000 ($983,000) for articles with objectionable content -- and it alone will decide what is deemed objectionable. The staff of public media organizations will be placed under government supervision.

Outraged opposition politicians demanded to know how this differs from censorship in the days of former Communist Party General Secretary János Kádár, and demonstratively taped their mouths shut in parliament. Some Hungarian newspapers have published empty front pages in protest at the law.

Government representatives assured critics that the new law would not be applied in a restrictive manner. But when a journalist of government-owned radio station MR1-Kossuth Radio used a minute of silence to protest the change in the treatment of the press, he was suspended.

There are many reasons for Hungary's descent into the ranks of countries that are only partially democratic, but archconservatives and the radical right wing are not the only ones responsible for this adverse development. The Hungarian left has committed a form of gradual suicide. For several parliamentary terms it had the chance to shape Hungary, most recently between 2006 and the spring of 2010. But hopeful steps were quickly abandoned as corruption and nepotism shaped the political scene. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány highlighted the dilemma in a 2006 speech, when he said: "No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have … We have lied in the morning, at noon and at night." It was only the failure of the Socialists that enabled the triumph of the conservative challenger, a seducer of the people.

A Populist Who Learns Fast

Viktor Orbán, 47, is seen as an exceptional political talent. The son of lower middle-class parents from the provinces, he studied law in Budapest and spent a year studying the history of English liberalism at Oxford. He dabbled in journalism and later worked for a government-run management-training institute. A free thinker, Orbán did not think much of the church and despised the communist political establishment. When he and a few fellow students founded Fidesz ("League of Young Democrats") in 1988, he initially wanted the new party to admit no one older than 35.

He won a seat in parliament in 1990, but then suffered a setback in the next election. Orbán took it in his stride and aligned the party more closely with the national conservatives and those who did not benefit from the fall of communism. He took advantage of the inferiority complexes of his fellow Hungarians and pandered to their dreams of the return of a greater Hungary. In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon had deprived Hungary, one of the losers of World War I, of two thirds of its former territory.

Orbán, a master of the art of power politics, quickly learned lessons from his first, relatively unimpressive stint as prime minister, from 1998 to 2002. Colleagues say he is obsessed with the media and wants to become another Silvio Berlusconi, but without the scandals. However, Orbán, a control freak, insists on installing loyal supporters in all posts, even those of only moderate importance. He is able to gauge public opinion and sense the moods of voters -- anti-American, anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist.

During the election campaign at the beginning of 2010, he almost completely abandoned any attempt to distance himself from the xenophobic Jobbik Party, which agitates against the Roma. The radical right-wing party won close to 17 percent of votes, or almost as many as the discredited Socialists. Orbán's Fidesz Party won the election with 52.8 percent of votes, which is enough for a two-thirds majority in parliament.

'Orbanization' of Hungary

The victor called it a "revolution" instead of just a strong election result. And Orbán soon demonstrated what he was talking about, when he redrew the map of election districts to ensure that Fidesz would win 95 percent of mayoral elections after municipal elections in October. He has also approved new rules for the nomination of constitutional judges. He is apparently trying to radically change the entire country -- in what has been called the "Orbanization" of Hungary.

Those who refuse to toe the line are thrown out. President László Sólyom, who dared to cautiously criticize the prime minister, lost support prior to his bid for reelection, and was replaced by Pál Schmitt, a popular but politically inexperienced former Olympic champion in fencing -- and a quiet yes-man.

Leftist professors in official positions were thrown out, as were defiant theater directors. Orbán has had party funding rules rewritten to benefit Fidesz and the pension system nationalized, which enables him to cut pensions, even retroactively. He is offering dual citizenship to Hungarians living abroad, which is seen as a provocation by neighboring countries with strong Hungarian minorities.

The most visible sign of the new Hungary consist of 70-by-50-centimeter plaques that are now required to be displayed in government buildings, including ministries, military barracks other public buildings. "A new social contract" has developed "following the successful revolution in the voting booths," the plaque reads. "Hungarians have voted for a new system, that of national unity." The government, the plaque continues, will complete this unity "resolutely and without compromise."

'This is Dangerous'

Paul Lendvai, who lives in Vienna and is probably Hungary's best-known political author, is worried about his country. "There is currently not a single politician with so much power in all of democratic Europe. This is dangerous, because there is no one left in his circle who could warn him of the consequences of his policies," says Lendvai.

"The only real counterweight consists of the international public, the media and the financial world. Europe has to make it clear to Orbán that he must guarantee the freedom of the press. The presidency of the European Union is not just associated with the dignities of protocol, but also with political obligations. It must be clear to the government that in the coming months Europe will be looking at it as if it were under a magnifying glass."

Orbán has impressed the United States, but he also triggers anxiety in Washington. One of the classified US embassy cables, which originated at the embassy in Budapest, discusses a demonstration organized by Fidesz and the party's links to "violent protestors."

Originals: The Key Hungary Cables
Click on the headline below to read the full text...
Feb. 8, 2007, Budapest:
Important note on the dispatches...

<<95735>> 02.08.2007 07:07 07BUDAPEST163 Embassy Budapest CONFIDENTIAL


C o n f i d e n t i a l budapest 000163



Department please pass to nsc for adam sterling

E.o. 12958: decl: 02/07/2012 Tags: pgov, prel, econ, hu, kdem, asec Subject: the great barrier beef: opposition mp's "civil disobedience"

Ref: a) budapest 135 and previous b) budapest daily

February 7

Classified By: POL/C ERIC V. GAUDIOSI; REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)

1. (C) Opposition leader Viktor Orban lead approximately 100 MPs from his own FIDESZ party and their Christian Democrat (KDNP) coalition partner in an attempt to dismantle a security fence around the Parliament building February 2. Proceeding en masse from an opposition caucus, the MPs succeeded in disassembling a significant stretch of the metal barrier before the police reinforced their presence; police maintained a visible presence around Parliament through the night, with crowds estimated at several hundred - including a visible contingent of young skinheads - gathered in the evening. 20 arrests were reported in small-scale incidents during the week-end.

2. (C) Ambassador Foley met with FIDESZ MP (and Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chair) Zsolt Nemeth just after the initial incident. Coming directly from the Parliament (and an impromptu run-un with PM Gyurcsany), Nemeth proudly displayed a small cut on his hand from "trying to take apart the fence without the right tools." (Note: Another contact confided to us that Nemeth had cancelled a scheduled meeting with her by "calling from the fence with a cellphone in one hand and a wrench in the other." End Note.) He characterized FIDESZ's move as a blow for the right to assembly and commented that "even the liberals should support us." Echoing Orban's public statements, he discussed waiving his parliamentary immunity from prosecution on potential misdemeanor charges.

3. (C) The government strongly denounced the opposition's foray, with the police pressing formal charges (deemed incomplete by a Budapest court upon initial review) and the MFA circulating a note verbale to the diplomatic community condemning "the infraction of regulations in force by virtue of the law of the Republic of Hungary" and expressing "serious doubts" over the opposition's "commitment to the ideals and practice of democracy" beneath the "ill-fitting cover of civil disobedience" (full text faxed to EUR/SCE). President Solyom released a statement emphasizing that "the rule of law cannot be served by illegal methods."

4. (C) Public reaction was predictably mixed, with some of our interlocutors describing the opposition's action as "ridiculous" and others expressing concern that the government's response risked alienating the public. A great deal of attention has focused on the incident as a reflection of the dynamic within the opposition. We understand that the plan was closely held in Orban's inner circle and presented to the opposition caucus with no advance notice. Many, including conservative commentator Anita Orban, see the incident as a loyalty test, pointing out that prominent moderates including MPs Lajos Kosa, Janos Ader, and Antal Rogan were conspicuous in their absence (though Rogan has since released a statement of solidarity). A consistent critic of the FIDESZ leadership's "divorce" from center-right intellectuals during the party's shift toward populism, Orban believes this is the latest effort to whip up enthusiasm and enforce party discipline before Parliament reconvenes on February 12. Ultimately, however, she believes the party is "louder - but weaker - than the MSZP." Indeed, the Deputy of the KDNP Caucus became the first to break openly with the opposition's "excommunication" policy toward the Prime Minister, commenting publicly on February 6 that the time has come to work together with the government for the good of the nation.

5. (C) Comment: Although the ultimate disposition of the land around Parliament is an issue, the opposition's latest actions add little to either the substance or the tone of the debate. With the recent release of a lengthy report on the fall demonstrations which highlights FIDESZ's links to the violent protestors (ref b), their latest act of "civil disobedience" will likely underscore questions regarding their commitment to the rule of law. Much as we saw Viktor Orban at his best in a recent meeting with Ambassadors (ref a), this escapade shows that he is still equally liable to play with fire. End Comment.

Jan. 22, 2010, Budapest:
Important note on the dispatches...

<<244871>> 1/22/2010 11:03 10BUDAPEST34 Embassy Budapest CONFIDENTIAL


C o n f i d e n t i a l section 01 of 02 budapest 000034


Department for eur/ce jamie moore. Nsc for jeff hovenier.

E.o. 12958: decl: 01/21/2015 Tags: pgov, hu Subject: opposition leader viktor orban confident of upcoming electoral victory in introductory meeting with ambassador

Classified By: Political Counselor Paul C. O'Friel for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) SUMMARY. Opposition Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban is clearly confident of his victory in April's upcoming national elections in which he hopes to crush the Socialist party. He is also confident that he can defeat any challenge by Jobbik, telling the Ambassador in their January 19 meeting that "The best defense against the extreme right is good governance by the center-right." The Ambassador welcomed the opportunity to work with Orban if his party wins the election as expected. END SUMMARY.

Lower turnout favors the right ------------------------------

2. (C) The Ambassador's introductory meeting with opposition party leader Viktor Orban found the Fidesz leader energetic and confident of his success in next April's national elections. Handicapping the political race, Orban said he was hoping for a low turnout, which had traditionally favored the right. Noting that he had won in 1998 with a 56 percent turnout, and lost in 2002 and 2006 with a 68 percent and 72 percent turnout, respectively, Orban said, "The best for us is no more than 62 percent, otherwise it starts sliding in the other direction."

3. (C) Enthusiastically parsing the electorate, Orban described the typical Fidesz voter as committed politically, married, better-educated, employed, home-owning, not dependent on state largess, and wanting more economic freedom. The typical Socialist voter, according to Orban, is largely apathetic politically, not as well-educated, from a lower socio-economic class, and dependent on the state whether for a pension or an unemployment check. The problem the Socialist party leadership, whom Orban derisively called "billionaire ex-Communist nomenklatura," faced was how to mobilize and energize their base.

4. (C) Using the example of the Socialist party billboards springing up around Budapest, Orban observed that the Socialist party's logo was tucked away in a corner. Fidesz candidate billboards, however, proudly boasted of their party affiliation.

Going for the jugular ---------------------

5. (C) Displaying his go-for-the-jugular political instincts, Orban vehemently seconded, "Yeah, we'll crush them," when his senior foreign policy advisor, Janos Martonyi, predicted that the Socialists would only get between 15 and 25 percent of the vote and perhaps disintegrate as a political party. The Socialists' demise, Orban said, would be for "the good of the country," since the party only reflected the interests of former Communist party elite.

6. (C) Orban was dismissive of his competitors, saying that none of them had any "political weight." "No one has heard of (Socialist Party prime ministerial candidate) Attila Mesterhazy," Orban said. He vowed he would not compromise with the Socialists once he attained power. "We (Fidesz) stand for values. My base would never support any deal with the (ex)Communists."

Good governance best defense against extremism --------------------------------------------- -

7. (C) Orban was equally dismissive of the far-right Jobbik party, saying, "They don't have any programs; all they have to sell is hate and intolerance. If you want a program, you have to turn to us." Orban noted that throughout Europe only the center-right was capable of taking on and defeating extremist movements. "Look at Chirac and Le Pen in France," he said, adding, "The best defense against the extreme right is good governance by the center-right." (Note: Martonyi predicts that Jobbik will obtain 8-12 percent of the vote. End Note.)

8. (C) Looking ahead to his anticipated victory, Orban said what he hoped to do was inject a new sense of optimism and security in Hungary. The challenge, however, was to govern effectively. "It will be an exciting time," he promised. The Ambassador welcomed the opportunity to work with Orban once he had won the elections and formed a new government.

Budapest 00000034 002 of 002

She also highlighted the need for a welcoming business environment.

9. (C) Deputy Chief of Mission, who also attended the meeting, expressed appreciation for Fidesz's support for the Bajnai government's decision to accept a Guantanamo detainee and to increase the size of Hungary's Afghanistan contingent. Martonyi said there was broad cross-party consensus on Hungarian foreign policy objectives and that there would be little change from one government to another. (Note: Orban confirmed that he intended to name Janos Martonyi as his Foreign Minister. End Note.)

10. (C) COMMENT. Orban, even though he leads by a wide margin in every poll, is clearly obsessed with decisively defeating the Socialists, his long-time nemesis. We expect that, as one of Hungary's shrewdest politicians, this bare-knuckled political brawler will leave nothing to chance as he mobilizes his party faithful in the march to long-awaited victory. Despite Orban's hope for a smaller turnout on election day, lower voting numbers may also favor a stronger showing by Jobbik, reducing Fidesz's chance for a hoped for two-thirds parliamentary majority and increasing the chances that the extreme right may enter Parliament. Kounalakis

"Much as we saw Viktor Viktor Orbán at his best in a recent meeting with Ambassadors, this escapade (regarding the protest march - editor's note) shows that he is still equally liable to play with fire."

The populist sells himself to Washington as a bulwark against the Jobbik ultra-nationalists, saying: "The best defense against the extreme right is a well-functioning center-right government."

Germany Worried About Media Law

Berlin is also very concerned about Hungary's new media law. German politicians are particularly incensed over the fact that in November Orbán issued assurances that Hungarian domestic politics would not get in the way of his country's EU chairmanship. And now the press provocation. There has already been speculation over possible sanctions, not unlike those issued against Austria in February 2000, when Jörg Haider's xenophobic Freedom Party became a minority partner in a new government.

The suspension of political contacts with Vienna was lifted after about seven months, after it had become clear that excluding Vienna from the European family was not very feasible, and that it only strengthened radical elements. But under the Treaty of Lisbon, a "serious and lasting violation" of European basic values can lead to a suspension of voting rights, a penalty that would deal a serious blow to Budapest's prestige-conscious premier.

But not everyone in Brussels is interested in allowing politics to spoil the seasonal calm. Last Tuesday, the day the new law restricting the media was ratified in the Hungarian parliament, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy paid an official visit to Budapest, where he also paid his respects to the prime minister. The chief European politician didn't utter a word of criticism about how his host was dealing with press freedom. Instead, he gave a somewhat abstract talk about "the power of ideas" and "Europe's values." Van Rompuy had nothing but praise for Orbán. He congratulated him on his country's upcoming assumption of the European Union presidency and predicted "excellent cooperation."

"I am here to celebrate," the affable politician from the European headquarters said. "I will return to Brussels with an excellent impression."


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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muley63 12/28/2010
1. US Bill of Rights
The first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution including freedom of speech was critical in the development of democracy and justice in the United States. I'm ignorant of Russia's and Hungary's constitutions, but fundamental protection of basic human rights like freedom of speech by a strong judicial system appears to be lacking. The first 50 years of judicial history in the United States was rocky and did nothing to prevent a civil war, so I'm willing to say these anti-democratic impulses are just growing pains, but it does worry me that these countries are on the road to fascism.
zrx8 12/28/2010
Articles like this are very useful for Hungarians like me, as it clearly shows how much (actually how little) the news from mainstream global media has to do with truth. Too bad, readers from other places of the world, being less informed about Hungary may give credit to it. This article is obviously a 'suggested' one. There is no doubt, who the false whistleblowers were. They are called euphemistically "hungarian liberals", but let me call them "the ancient regime" of simply "political mafia", first for brevity, second because this term better converges to the sad reality of the past 8 years of Hungary. It is obviously an aching situation for the liberals and socialists in Hungary that the political class is no more allowed to loot the country, and they are not placed above the law anymore. They have been forced into opposition as a penalty from the people. They grab every opportunity to strengthen their positions, even if it makes harm to the country (a side effect that they never really cared about), by spreading lies and making mischief at home and abroad as well. I would be already satisfied when the new media law could accomplish, that - there won't be mature audience rated scenes on TV in the daylight period (as it commonly happens today) - pedophile content can be effectively swept away from websites - notoriously drug- and alcohol addicted people won't be allowed to host reality shows on tv (thus they can't become role models for the target audience), after they had caused several almost fatal traffic accidents driving drunk (as it goes nowadays, on a channel closely associated to the liberals) Too bad, that these laws - which are actually unknown to its foreign protesters I suppose - will not even have the strength to reach these objectives. So the bottom line is: you better learn the real situation before shouting "wolf!". Especially, if the real wolf tells you to shout, from the other side of the village.. (I post this comment on several forums, as these media seem to be sharing the same baseless accusations)
AlexanderChurchill 12/28/2010
"The son of lower middle-class parents from the provinces..." I feel like I'm reading The Times circa 1935. Nobody uses this kind of language in the English media nowadays. Modernise yourself Spiegel!
spiegelei 12/29/2010
4. thanks for all the worries
It is nice to see all these worries for the democracy in Hungary from the left-wing media, left-wing journalists and left-wing politicians all over the world. Anyway the last 8 years of left-wing government in Hungary was everything but not democratic - it was a long chain of scandals and abuses, including the abuses of the public media and the freedom of press. All these great people were very quiet in the last 8 years, but now all of them are very concerned. That could mean that they are just scared that things may change - things could get better.
BTraven 12/30/2010
Bad luck for Orban that he is not as clever and skilful as Sarkozy who has solved the problem politicians have with the freedom of press in a much better way – he used his connections to replace all editors whose newspapers have dared to criticise him with loyal ones. Since Mr. Folliath had participated in writing the article it is highly likely that many Hungarians have already answered the report. I think the article will confirm his bashers to accuse him of hating the country.
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