Quite a day: Serious warnings for Hungary

This morning I did practically nothing else but read one article after another about the devastating reaction to the passage of the new Hungarian media law. The onslaught of very negative articles began already yesterday. I would like to quote a few representative opinions.

Let’s start with one of the earliest articles that appeared in El País that claimed that this media law “practically finishes off the freedom of the press.” According to the Spanish left-of-center paper the law borders on “censorship.” But the Spanish paper pales in comparison to Die Welt, a conservative paper. The title of the article dealing with the Hungarian media law is “Führerstaat Ungarn.” The article begins with these ominous sentences: “In Hungary, we can see how quickly a democracy can destroy itself…. It is as though a film in the authoritarian, anti-Semitic 1930s was stopped and I’m now rolling it again.” The author claims that “Austria’s Haider was an operetta interlude in comparison to what is happening in Hungary which is a tragedy.” The editorial complains that while in Austria’s case at least the Union did something, in the case of Hungary nothing is happening although this development has been in the making for a while. Hungary produced a Viktor Orbán who is “unscrupulous and power hungry.” In closing, the author quotes György Konrád: “At the edges of Europe chuckles madness.”

A few days ago Gazeta Wyborcza complained that only members of the media are up in arms while the politicians say nothing. Well, yesterday that situation changed. Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, gave an interview to Reuters while he was in Germany in which he urged swift action against Hungary’s media law. “The plans clearly violate the spirit and the letter of EU treaties,” he said and added that “it raises the question whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU. Until now there was only one dictator in Europe, Aljakszandar Lukasenka. If this proposal is signed into law the situation will be different.” Asselborn considers the law “a direct danger for democracy” because “the state will control opinion.” Asselborn is one of the longest serving foreign ministers in the European Union and what he says carries weight. Observers are certain that he had the backing of the European Union. And indeed, soon enough the deputy spokesman of Angela Merkel had a few words to say at the regular Wednesday morning press conference. Christopher Steegmans said–and here I’m quoting the Hungarian News Agency, MTI–that “the German government is carefully following the fate of the Hungarian media law.” He noted that Hungary has a special responsibility for the picture that emerges about the European Union in the world. It is self-evident that Hungary must remain committed to the values of the European Union. The title of the MTI report was: “Merkel reminds Hungary of the principles of constitutional democracy.” In addition, the spokesman of the European Commission also announced that the Commission will take a look at the bill in order to decide whether its provisions are in harmony with the laws of the European Union.

Gazeta Wyborcza‘s editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik, was once a friend of Viktor Orbán, back when the Hungarian prime minister was fighting for a democratic Hungary in the late 1980s. But now, he wrote, the same man has introduced a bill that will kill the free media. Orbán began traveling on a road that leads to Lukasenka’s Belarus. Michnik considers Orbán a great deal more dangerous than Jörg Haider was because of “the combination of nineteenth-century Pannonian missionary zeal and nationalism mixed with populism.”  On Gazeta Wyborcza‘s front page, as a sign of solidarity, the text was printed in Hungarian.

The Romanian Romania libera described the situation as the Hungarian government stepping with a heavy boot on the neck of the Hungarian media (“Guvernul ungar pune cizma pe gâtul presei”). The Italian Corriere della Sera called the media bill a “muzzle law.” As for adopting a law just before Hungary is taking over the presidency of the European Union, the paper considers the move “unusual and surely embarrassing.” La Repubblica‘s article dealing with the Hungarian media law carried the title: “Muzzle Law in Hungary: The right’s censorship of the press.”

Deutsche Welle naturally also spent some time on the Hungarian media law. It reported that Martin Schulz, the leader of the socialists in the European parliament, promised that “we shall measure Hungary against the European standards of press freedom.” Alexander Alvaro, who represents Germany’s Free Democrats in Brussels, announced that “the Hungarian government must ask itself whether it is absolutely committed to the European Union venture, endorses its values, and can assume the EU presidency next week.”

All this upheaval in Europe was hidden from the listeners of Magyar Rádió’s MR1 (Kossuth) station until about 2 p.m. today when at last MR’s reporter from Brussels summarized the events, including the reactions of the European Union, Angela Merkel, and Jean Asselborn. While the Hungarian public radio was silent on the issue, the Bavarian Radio’s lead story this morning was the Hungarian media law.

What do the bigwigs in the Hungarian government think? Are they surprised? What will their reactions be? I think that to some extent they are surprised. I don’t think that Viktor Orbán expected such a violent reaction from politicians. I’m sure that he knew that the journalists would be very harsh; after all this is not unexpected. But, the way I figure, he has been traveling all over Europe and has had pleasant little chats with the prime ministers of the EU member countries. Everybody was pleasant when he told them what a great president he will be. How he will tackle the gravest problems of the European Union and how lucky the Union is that such “creative” people as the Hungarians will be in charge for six months because after all they “are great problem solvers.” I assume that he thought that a few days before the beginning of Hungary’s rotating presidency European politicians wouldn’t raise a stink. Otherwise, I doubt that he would have pushed the media law through at this particular juncture.

Up to date the only official reaction came from Péter Szijjártó, who was surprisingly meek and mild which is not exactly his wont. He criticized–and it was a mild criticism–the journalists of MTI who were “bitten by the revolutionary enthusiasm that is present in European politics.” How did this revolutionary enthusiasm present itself? They gave the misleading title “Merkel reminds Hungary of the principles of constitutional democracy.” He embarked on setting these young revolutionaries straight. He talked to the deputy spokesman of Angela Merkel on the phone who sent him the transcript of the press conference. The only thing the spokesman said was that “as the future president of the European Union Hungary has a special responsibility for the picture that emerges about the European Union in the world. It is self-evident that Hungary must remain committed to the values of the European Union.” That’s all he said, and therefore the title evinces “minimum misunderstanding.”

Szijjártó was also dissatisfied with the way MTI presented the European Commission’s “investigation of the Hungarian media law.” This is also misleading because it turns out that “this is not an official investigation. The Commission will simply analyze, evaluate the document whether it is in harmony with European Union laws.” He then reiterated the government’s conviction that the media law is European to the core and there can be no question that it does conform to European expectations. Every one of the provisions can be found in the media laws of all countries in the European Union.

At the very end of the press conference, Szijjártó mentioned that Viktor Orbán during the break in the cabinet meeting phoned Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, who assured him that the foreign minister’s pronouncements are not the official opinion of the Luxembourg government. And in any case Asselborn is a member of the socialist party of Luxembourg, added Szijjártó by way of explanation.

From all this it seems evident that Orbán is somewhat worried. Szijjártó’s rather mild comments on the “misunderstanding” of the journalists of MTI and the subsequent nitpicking seems to me a pretty light-handed move. As for the transcript of the press conference of the chancellery, we don’t know how much Szijjártó quoted from the text. As for the Luxembourg foreign minister’s statement, it cannot be merely his personal opinion, especially in light of Angela Merkel’s simultaneous warning to Hungary.

If Orbán had any sense, he would instruct his puppet, President Pál Schmitt, not to sign the bill but to send it back to parliament for reconsideration. Thus he could show that all those rumors about Pál Schmitt’s subservient position are not really true and at the same time he could have a second chance to fiddle with the media law by taking out a few especially egregious passages. But I wouldn’t bet on it. It would be too sensible a course to take.

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Minusio
Guest

In another article, „Hungary – a disgrace for the European Union”, WELT-ONLINE writes today that the EU Commission totally failed to spot and deflect this development in Hungary which “had been foreseeable for a long time”.
It also noted that this embarrassment reveals a construction flaw in the procedure of accepting new members: Prior to accession the EU Commission is able to enforce high standards. Once a country is a member there are few instruments to guarantee that this level is maintained.
This is all very true, but I would like to add: For years, reporting about Hungary was slipshod and the media did nothing to point to the fact that the Hungarian development was foresseable. So the ‘fourth power’ has to share the blame.

Paul
Guest

“At the edges of Europe chuckles madness.”
Now THAT is what should be posted in every public building in Hungary.

kormos
Guest

George Urkuti writes:
“…. Anyway, there is not a single sentence in this new media act that is not in effect in many other member states. And all fines can be subject to litigation at any Hungarian court of justice. Fines will not have to be paid unless an independent court decides to do so. So I really do not understand why there is so much fuss about it.”
So what causes the big outcry?

Minusio
Guest

The original of the György Konrad quotation reads: „An den Rändern Europas kichert der Wahnsinn.“ This was meant to evoke the senseless and eery giggles you may hear in a lunatic asylum…
I had not read this before but it makes me think. How well do we know the people with whom some well-meaning postwar humanist politicians intended to build a European Union?

Paul
Guest
Couldn’t find this in any of the UK papers, so I Googled it and got this from the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704774604576035681357321692.html?mod=googlenews_wsj This appears to be up-to-date, but I can’t find a date/time stamp on the article. Also, this is apparently from the European edition of the WSJ, so I don’t know if American readers will have seen this. (Incidently, Éva, Hugarian Spectrum was the second link Google gave!) I’m rather ashamed (although not surprised) that this hasn’t been reported in the UK papers. But then you’re talking about a country where 99.9% of the population couldn’t actually point to Hungary on a map. As for OV’s timing on this, I suspect that he is so Hungary-centric in his power happiness that he just doesn’t realise that a) the rest of the world won’t applaud his actions, and b) he has (had) no idea that draconian measures like this at home might just bugger up his European presidency. Any sane and rational proto-dictator (if this is not an oxymoron) would have delayed disturbing stuff like this until his Precidency was over. Another thought, for what it’s worth: We are in Hungary at the moment, so I’ve been trying to get… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “Incidently, Éva, Hugarian Spectrum was the second link Google gave!”
Very happy to hear, of course.

Paul
Guest
Sorry to hog the blog, but the WSJ article also mentions the “growing rift between Fidesz and the central bank”: “Meanwhile, financial markets are worrying about the growing rift between Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party and the country’s central bank, which has been demanding the government use more fiscal restraint and has been increasing interest rates despite government objections. The tensions risk resurrecting memories of Hungary’s financial crisis in 2008, when its near-meltdown roiled other emerging markets. Mr. Orbán snubbed an offer of aid from the International Monetary Fund earlier this year, claiming that the country could regain fiscal stability on its own. Capital Economics analyst Neil Shearing said Hungarian interest rates might now have peaked. “But tensions between the government and the National Bank are high and rising,” he said. “Accordingly, Hungarian assets will continue to carry a hefty risk premium well into 2011.”” PS – good question, Minusio, I suspect the answer is “not very well at all”. As someone who has had to spend the last 10 years trying to understand the Hungarians (both en masse and personally!), I can testify that, as much as they might look like ‘normal’ Europeans, they are actually very different proposition, once… Read more »
Minusio
Guest

Paul: So you wouldn’t buy a second-hand car from OV, I guess? 🙂

Kirsten
Guest
@Paul: “For instance, I’m pretty sure no other European country, including Slovakia, Poland, etc, would have given an obvious confidence trickster like OV a landslide victory.” I would not be so sure, the other ex-Communist countries have also a lot of “remarkable” politicians (and other EU countries as well), perhaps no one has showed up with such assertiveness as OV. In the other countries perhaps the burden of the past was lower (the unfortunate Trianon trauma) and the break with the Communist parties more decided (either immediately or during the 1990s). The more gradual transition in Hungary has been considered a sign of how advanced Hungary is compared with the others; now of course one thinks whether this gradual change made the emergence of a strong liberal alternative to MSzP difficult (in the other countries most people would never have wanted back the pre-1989 times, so even left-leaning people have searched for alternatives). A weak public has also been a problem of other ex-Communist countries from the early 1990s (all have low voter turnouts). For me Hungary does not appear that different as regards the average “political maturity” of voters but the change in the institutions stopped rather quickly in… Read more »
Pete H.
Guest

Paul, quite a few Hungarians are thinking about it. A new facebook page was started today in support of press freedoms.
Egymillióan a magyar sajtószabadságért
http://www.facebook.com/index.php?lh=0c13470729d94fb96a5230073a7fd070&eu=QvzWQSYnSEj6fw-1DV-z-Q#!/pages/Egymillioan-a-magyar-sajtoszabadsagert/169854769717975
Already there are about 19,300 subscribers to the page. Most of the subscribers are young (16 to 35). This makes sense since they are the majority of facebook users in Hungary. There must be many other older Hungarians who share their outrage but are not expressing it in facebook.
Read the comments (if you read Hungarian), and you’ll see that many Hungarians are very upset and aware of the implications of this law. People are also posting artwork, cartoons, and photos that capture the attitude of many.
I don’t know if this facebook page will have any practical impact beyond spreading awareness through the social network. However, it is certainly a place where people are freely expressing themselves.

Paul
Guest

Minusio – a good comparison to pick, and one I have nearly used several times recently. But I didn’t because, oddly, it’s Gy who behaves more like a used car salesman.
No one would touch anything being sold by someone with OV’s body language, obviously, but Gy comes over as such a reasonable bloke that you would trust him not to do you – i.e. just the sort NOT to buy anything from!
I guess what I’m saying is that they are both politicians, and Gy is just a lot better at it than OV.
And presumably OV recognised this, which is why he gave up politics.

Member

Pete H: “Already there are about 19,300 subscribers to the page. Most of the subscribers are young (16 to 35). ”
I just wen there and the following message is posted:
“FIGYELEM:
Rosszindulatú feljelentések eredményeképp letiltották az adminisztrátorok publikálási jogosultságát*. Így bár sokan gyűltünk össze az oldalon, nem tudunk mindenkihez szólni.
A Facebook szabályzata szerint amennyiben kérvényezzük ennek feloldását, adatainkat automatikusan továbbítják a feljelentőknek. Valószínűleg nekik éppen ez a céljuk: megtudni kik vagyunk.
Egyelőre szeretnénk megőrizni anonimitásunkat, ezért arra kérünk minden támogatót, írjon a Facebooknak, vázolja a helyzetet, és kérje az adminisztrátorok jogainak visszaállítását.”
I guess it started…

Pete H.
Guest

Regarding the “Egymillióan a magyar sajtószabadságért” page.
Is 20,000 subscribers a lot for a facebook page? It is just under 1% of the Hungarian facebook population(2,333,640). I can’t find any info on subscribers stats for Hungarian facebook pages, so I can’t answer this question. Keep in mind it is just the first day.
http://www.checkfacebook.com/
However, the page is growing at a rate that is near the top growth rates for pages.
http://statistics.allfacebook.com/pages
How are people finding out about the page and sustaining the high growth rate. A couple ways, including seeing their friends subscribe to it. In addition, facebook subscribers are likely “suggesting” the page to their facebook friends. There are also a few online newspapers and blogs that have posted info about the page.

Paul
Guest
kirsten, I’m afraid you missed my point – probably because I didn’t make it very well. As has been said on here before, Hungarians have no history of democratic politics, or indeed of national freedom (not for hundreds of years, at least). There are parallels here with Bush’s big mistake in Iraq. He assumed that Iraqis would behave exactly like democracy and freedom loving Americans – once their evil dictator was removed, they would rush to the polling booths and elect a democratic government. And we in the West assumed much the same thing about those countries under the communist yoke. Once free, they would automatically want to behave just like us. And in most cases, they did. True, they didn’t quite do it as we would have liked, and a fair few loonies have been elected along the way. But mostly these people have been removed again by the same democratic process that put them in power. Madmen and weirdoes have come and gone, but the democratic process has survived. Except in Hungary. There wasn’t exactly a huge enthusiasm for it in the first place. Had it been left to the people, there probably wouldn’t have been a change… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Pete – OV is destroying democracy under your very noses, and you start a FACEBOOK PAGE?????
I bet Fidesz are quaking in their collective boots.
Get out on the street. That’s the only language Fidesz understand.
There are more people protesting about student fee increases in the UK than there are people on the streets in Hungary. And that says all too much about Hungarians.
Fight for democracy or lose it. The choice is yours.

Pete H.
Guest

Paul, I didn’t start a facebook page. I just suggested it was one way to judge concern. It is the modern equivalent of political pamphleteering. Maybe it goes no where, maybe it leads to some other action.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Yesterday evening ARD the first German TV chain opened it’s newsreel at 20h with reporting about new Hungarian media law and with the critical declaration of the spokesman of chancellor Angela Merkel on the Hungarian media law.
I seldom predict. But in this case I am almost sure, that some Hungarian scribbler is to discover that Mrs. Merkel is a cryptocommunist.

NWO
Guest

It is a welcome development that various EU and other leaders and the European press has come out forcefully against the law. It is also welcome that a very small groundswell of protest has arisen in Hungary. Sadly, however, two things will temper this. First, the EU as an organization and the 27 leaders of EU governments rather have a relatively “painless” next six months under the Hungarian Presidency. As such, criticism in the end will be muted (the Government heads could never agree joint action). Second, the Hungarian people by in large don’t give a damn. They never trusted the press, and they never believed the press was truly independent. As long as the media counsel does not interfere in X Factor or the like, the chance of real public anger over this is limited.
The good news is that restrictions like the Government is trying to put in place are much less likely to work now than they would have in the past.

Paul
Guest

Pete – I was using the plural ‘you’.
We badly need a proper plural you in English!

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “Pete – I was using the plural ‘you’. We badly need a proper plural you in English!”
The southerners in the United States solved this: “you all.”

Joe Simon
Guest

Paul – I disagree. As he assumes the presidency of the EU, there will be questions addressed to him, and Orbán will have an opportunity to explain why his government found it necessary to bring in the media law. Let him explain. He will have to come up with some reasonable explanations. I want to hear them too.

Paul
Guest

I bet you do ‘Joe’, I bet everyone in Fidesz is on tenterhooks wondering how OV is going to talk his way out of this.
He won’t have his usual docile Hungarian audience, so it will have to be something special.
Let’s hope he does a lot better than the last time he faced an intelligent, knowledeable questioner in public, four years ago!

Paul
Guest

Éva, I think there was a plural ‘you’ in old English, with some relics of this still used in regional dialects. This is said to be where the Yorkshire ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ comes from.
But I’m not sure of any of this, especialy which is which!
I don’t understand why we lost the plural, life would be a lot easier if we didn’t constantly have to qualify which ‘you’ we were using. I’ve heard it said that English (at least prior to 1066), was simplified German, but I think we went a bit too far there.

GDF
Guest

Eva: ‘The southerners in the United States solved this: “you all.”‘
It is frequently used as y’all (for example when you and a companion leave a store they say “y’all come back”).
In the north one can also hear the expression “you guys” being used, even when women are in the group being addressed…

Kirsten
Guest
@Paul, we may really be talking about different things, I meant that there are difficulties of the transition to democracy that all the countries seem to share (I am not that sure that the other countries have already escaped their past…). You mentioned that people of other nations are not “like us”. In my impression also the people in the democratic West have often only a vague idea what that “like us” means in practice (although there is certainly a shared set of values but often implicitly). The democratic principle is only one of a number of defining moments of democratic societies and the West does not always give the best clues as to what exactly is indispensible in a “democratic” society (the US has also a very strong executive). It is very much underrated that “democracy” automatically is thought of not only to include “participation” but also an independent judiciary, a police independent of the political parties, “checks and balances”, protection of minority rights etc (from an institutional point of view) and some system of political values shared by a critical mass (from the mindset view) – all things that in most countries that are now democracies have taken… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul, here is something on thou ~ you, etc.
THEE and THOU
The pronoun of the second person in English grammar used to break down like this:
Nominative singular: THOU
Nominative plural: YE
Objective singular: THEE
Objective plural: YOU
In the Middle Ages, people began to use plural forms in all cases, at first as a sign of respect to superiors, then as a courtesy to equals. By the 1600s, the singular forms had come to represent familiarity and lack of status, and fell from use except in the case of a few dialects, notably in the industrial north of England.

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