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?
Von Erich Follath und Christoph Schult
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.

Foto: Balazs Mohai/ dpa

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

"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."

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