Warning voices from abroad

I know that I said something about continuing to summarize Pál Schmitt's career, but after two articles I think we need a little breather. Sooner or later I will return to his years on the International Olympic Committee and how he ended up as a politician of sorts in the Fidesz camp.

But let's get back to the present. I mentioned earlier that the Fidesz super majority has dictated a very brisk legislative pace at the expense of thoroughness and detailed discussion. The opposition has practically no opportunity to study the proposals, and I don't think that the ordinary Fidesz backbenchers are in any better position. They just provide the necessary numbers, and most likely they don't have a clue what they are voting for. Not long ago János Lázár, head of the Fidesz delegation, announced that anyone who is absent when a very important vote (meaning legislative acts that need a two-thirds majority) takes place will have to pay a fine of 150,000 Ft (about $650). Quite steep by Hungarian standards.

A lot of analysts and commentators are wondering what this hurry is all about. There might be two explanations. One is that the Fidesz government wants to show their voters that they are a resolute lot. They promised action. So, here is action! In the past people complained that nothing was achieved in parliament (mind you, mostly because of Fidesz's obstructionism), but now! An amazing feat. These guys really work for their money as opposed to the socialists who did nothing except steal the country blind. The other explanation is that early in a four-year term, when the government is still popular, it is easier to pass those pieces of legislation that build the foundation for a regime in which the government will have no difficulty whatsoever governing without any hindrance. If the members of the constitutional court are their men, if the president comes from their ranks, if the head of the accounting office is a Fidesz wheeler and dealer who is accused of some shady business himself, then their years in power should be clear sailing.

Among the first legislative proposals was one which two Fidesz politicians brought to the floor (András Cseh-Palkovics, former associate spokesman of Fidesz and Antal Rogán, mayor of District V of Budapest): the media law. Or, as the Cseh-Palkovics-Rogán duo called it, "the media constitution." I already wrote about the media law, mostly about domestic opposition to it. We know that the Hungarian opposition is so weak that members of parliament can talk about their opposition to the bill until they are blue in the face but it will go through, period.

However, it is not a good strategy to alienate the media. Admittedly, the right-wing journalists close to Fidesz have been eating out of Viktor Orbán's hand until now, but even from these circles an opinion piece appeared that surprised the ever shrinking camp of left-liberal newspaper people. It was written by Szabolcs Szerető, one of the editors of the very loyal Magyar Nemzet. The title of his piece that appeared on June 21 was "The Great Democracy Debate" in which naturally he stood by the government that, in his opinion, in no way threatens Hungarian democracy. However, when it came to the media law he suggested caution. Perhaps, according to him, it wouldn't hurt to sleep on it for a day or two before the suggestions concerning "the right of answer" and the "duty to inform" are voted on. The adoption of such measures would be a big mistake because they "limit editorial freedom." He warned that the voters will consider such behavior a sign of "arrogance of power." And he warned that "in a democracy the last word is always theirs."

So, politicians can step on the toes of even those journalists who in the last eight years could hardly wait for the day when their favorites would be running the country. But, obviously, not in such a way that it would restrict their own freedom.

Although there are several associations created by right-wing journalists, the really important ones are still in the hands of the liberals, and these liberal journalists have connections with fellow journalists abroad. Also, as I mentioned earlier, some of the foreign news agencies and papers employ Hungarian-speaking journalists who are able to report on the daily political happenings much more effectively than those foreign journalists who spend a few days in Budapest and then report on whatever they managed to pick up from people who happen to know a foreign language. Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal all have local reporters. Thus the news about the proposed media law spread far and wide, and awfully fast.

As a result, the domestic outcry was followed by protests from international organizations. First came an announcement from the European Federation of Journalists condemning the proposed media law. The organization claimed that the new Hungarian government was planning "to turn back the clock" by "limiting freedom of opinion and freedom of speech." Aiden White, the secretary general of EFJ, expressed his opinion that "the new media law doesn't comply with norms of pluralism and reminds one of the time when Hungary was under Communist rule and in the shadow of the governmental supervision of the media." The Federation, together with the International Federation of Journalists, called upon the Hungarian government to withdraw the proposal in its entirety.

The next day came another demand for withdrawal of the proposal. This time from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE). Dunja Mijatovic, head of the organization's section on the freedom of the press, wrote a letter to Foreign Minister János Martonyi in which she emphasized that the proposed media law threatened the freedom of expression. Moreover, this legislation would be a violation of the obligations Hungary took upon herself when she joined the Organization. At the end, she kindly offered the OSCE's assistance in drafting an appropriate media law.

Two days later the International Press Institute's The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) issued a press release with the following title: "Hungary Parliament Due to Vote on Media Reform Package Threatening Press Freedom." According to Anthony Mills, press freedom and communications manager, "the proposed media reform legislation … constituted a throwback to the dark days of free media repression in the former Soviet satellite state."

He complained that the proposed Media Council would be headed by a person who "would be appointed by the prime minister." In addition four other members are to be appointed by a parliamentary committee, through a two-thirds majority vote in the absence of consensus, "paving the way for ruling party control of the body." Mr. Mills was well informed. He knew that under the new legislation officials "would have an automatic right of response to reporting they didn't like." He also mentioned another objectionable part of the proposed legislation that is supposed "to guarantee balanced reporting" and envisages the inclusion of "mandatory news items considered important for society."

Indeed, the worries expressed by domestic and foreign critics are not without foundation. It seems that the two parliamentary members who came up with the proposal, seeing the problems and the solid opposition of the Hungarian and foreign organizations representing journalists, have retreated somewhat. They took out the automatic right of response. They also excised the part about the mandatory publication of news deemed important for society by the government.

But while all this was happening in Budapest János Martonyi from Washington felt compelled to say a few wise words on the media law. He announced that "there is a fundamental misunderstanding" concerning the media package. The object of the new law is the "depolitization of the media." It seems that Martonyi knew neither the details of the legislation nor the international outcry except for the letter he received from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe. It also seems that he knew nothing about the changes Fidesz was forced to make since. And yet Martonyi went on promising that he would look into the matter and "naturally [he] will answer the letter appropriately." He then went on and explained to the Hungarian journalists present that he didn't think that "the media should be the object of bargaining among parties." It is always dangerous to talk without being fully informed.

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You report that one Mr Szabolcs Szerető has said ** “And he warned that “in a democracy the last word is always theirs (the voters).” ** This is the one thing that Fidesz’s model of government is designed to prevent. Under their model of government the last word on any subject will always be that of the leadership of Fidesz, or rather that of the ‘All Highest of Fidesz (and now of Hungary)’. The real hope will be that the new media laws are so flawed that the European Court will stamp on them when the time comes. There may well be another source of irritation for Fidesz in that foreign newspapers, journals and periodicals will not comply with their dictate. Can you imagine the stench that would arise if copies of ‘The Lancet’ or some other leading world journal were suppressed because they did not carry the articles required by the Government! One of the reasons for the present haste to legislate is that the ’Silly (Cucumber) Season’ is here. Every one is distracted. Holidays, the young men are now thinking about that which the young ladies have been thinking about all winter and are now in their full… Read more »
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