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.