József Debreczeni and the UD Zrt.: A strange Hungarian affair

First a brief summary of the affair I dubbed "A Hungarian Watergate?" and wrote about earlier. The National Security Office became suspicious that a company called UD Zrt. was engaged in the illegal gathering of government secrets. Among the evidence they found were several telephone conversations between the owners of the firm and Ervin Demeter, formerly minister in charge of the National Security Office. Their connection went back for years when the owners of UD Zrt. were still part of the Hungarian national security team. Ervin Demeter in these telephone conversations asked the owner of the company to spy on the government in order to gather certain information that the opposition wanted to have.

It looked like an open and shut case, but it turned out that it was UD Zrt. that came out victorious in this tug of war between people allegedly working for Fidesz and the government. Eventually the accused was not UD Zrt. or Ervin Demeter but the socialist minister György Szilvássy and the head of the National Security Office who himself was the object of the illegal investigation. UD Zrt was found completely innocent according to the Hungarian prosecutor's office. This decision came after a mere six days of investigation. That is record-breaking time even in countries with a speedier justice system than Hungary's. In a country where everything takes years to investigate the speed in this case was a real outlier.

UD Zrt.'s alleged misdeeds became public on September 12, 2008. On September 21 József Debreczeni wrote an opinion piece in Népszabadság entitled "The shadow of dictatorship." Using the information available at the time Debreczeni concluded that "using secret service instruments against political opponents is totally opposed to democracy and the rule of law. This is the world of dictatorship." He added that the party that uses such instruments is poised to form a government in a year or so. He meant of course Fidesz.

UD Zrt. after the favorable treatment it received from the prosecutors felt that it could move into counterattack mode and among others sued József Debreczeni for slander. On March 2 Debreczeni was found guilty by the court of Budapest's II-III districts. (Honestly, I'm getting mighty confused about the structure of the Hungarian court system. Not long ago I found out that there is a Pest Central Court. First I thought it was sloppiness on the part of the newspaper and actually the journalist meant the Budapest Central Court. No, there is such an entity as the Pest Central Court that takes care of the ten districts on the Pest side of the city. Never fear, there is also such a thing as the Buda Central Court. And now I find out that there is a II-III. District Court, I assume under the Buda Central Court. Why this court? I guess because UD Zrt.'s offices are located in that part of Buda.)

Anyway, Debreczeni was found guilty of slander and was fined 100,000 Ft. (€375.00 or $515.00). The judge figured that this amount was the equivalent of 200 days in jail at 500 Ft a day. Right now Debreczeni is seriously thinking of not appealing but rather spending 200 days in jail. This might not be so easy because Debreczeni is also on MDF's list of parliamentary candidates. Péter Kende, not the man I wrote about many times but a famous political scientist who left Hungary in 1956 and settled in France, who was present at the trial didn't want believe his ears.Kende Peter  He announced that this decision is "the shame of the Hungarian justice system that people will remember for decades as the prime example of stupidity and narrowmindedness."

Debreczeni in his anger with the verdict said that with this judgment the "future is already here." A reference to the 2002 campaign slogan of Fidesz. The National Council of Jurisdiction (Országos Igazságszolgáltatási Tanács/OIT) immediately reacted and rejected Debreczeni's charge that the court's decision was politically motivated.

Analysts are divided over whether Debreczen was actually guilty of slander. According to some people I heard he wasn't careful enough and he assumed the information available in newspapers as fact when none of the charges was yet proven or disproven. Others are outraged that a publicist is being punished for simply expressing an opinion.

The article in question begins with these two crucial sentences. "Let's look at the facts. As a result of the information of the National Security Office and the investigation of the police it became known that UD Zrt., a private security firm, set up a secret network of information gathering via illegal means." After these introductory sentences Debreczeni spends the rest of the 2,200-word article on Fidesz. Let's keep in mind that it isn't Fidesz that is suing Debreczeni but UD Zrt.

I assume that the judge looked at the text and the very first sentence stuck in her mind: "'Let's look at the facts." However, the next sentence makes it clear that these "facts" are available to Debreczeni and any reader of the media on the basis of the information released by the National Security Office. Therefore, I am inclined to stand on the side of Péter Kende and others who consider this judgment outrageous. If it keeps on going like this no publicist will dare utter a word about anything. As it is, newspapers have been found guilty for publishing negative opinions expressed by one public figure about another public figure. Let's say that a politician in a public speech makes accusations against someone else and a paper reports his remarks. If the first politician is found guilty of slander the paper that reported what he said is also guilty of slander. That goes against common sense. But this is how the media law is written.

I have no idea what József Debreczeni is going to do. First he has to calm down because he is mighty upset at the moment.