Foreign journalists and politicians continue to press their case against the Hungarian media law. Let me call your attention to two pieces that appeared in The Washington Post yesterday and today. Yesterday's was an editorial entitled "Putinization of Hungary." Today an article appeared on the Op/Ed page by Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author specializing in Eastern Europe who happens to be the wife of Radoslaw Sikorski, foreign minister of Poland. The piece is entitled "Jeopardizing democracy in Hungary."
Naturally, Viktor Orbán has felt it necessary to respond to some of the negative reactions. On December 23 the Hungarian prime minister gave a fairly lengthy interview to Anette Szabó of HírTV. A day later Magyar Nemzet published an interview with Péter Csermely. In both cases the controversy surrounding the new media law figured prominently.
Anette Szabó began her interview on HírTV by inquiring about the opinion of two politicians, the German chancellor and the foreign minister of Luxembourg, both of whom warned Hungary that the media law is not acceptable in a democratic country belonging to the European Union. Orbán referred to them as two unfortunate characters. "The poor German chancellor" said nothing about the Hungarian media law. It was her "deputy spokesman" who spoke. Orbán tried to make his listeners believe that the spokesman simply conveyed his personal opinions. As for the foreign minister of Luxembourg, he really doesn't count because "the Luxembourg Socialist Worker's Party delegated him to the government." According to the prime minister of Luxembourg, Orbán continued, he didn't speak in the name of the government. Since then the foreign minister, who is also deputy prime minister, reaffirmed that what he said was not his private opinion.
To the question of whether he is considering changing this controversial media law the answer was a decided no: "We don't even dream of such a thing." The piece of legislation is a thoroughly European law, "there is not one paragraph in it that cannot be found in other European media laws." But if that is the case, why all this negative reaction, came the next question. "The reason is that very many people hate the idea that a right-wing Christian national party received a two-thirds majority in Hungary." This is their real problem even if they are talking about the media law. This kind of "noise" is normal. "Criticism from afar or from western Europe doesn't frighten us." Fear of foreign criticism "is characteristic only of countries that lack self confidence. We are not one of those." He is not a weak-kneed type, he added.
He continued in Magyar Nemzet with Péter Csermely. Orbán emphasized that he is willing to talk about the media law, but only in concrete terms. "But until now I have seen only bilious political attacks. There is no sensible discussion, no concrete objections." When Csermely brought up the fact that the members of the Media Council were all nominated by Fidesz, which might cause some consternation, Orbán's answer was his usual one: Fidesz has a two-thirds majority by the will of the people. Certainly they will not appoint people who sympathize with MSZP or LMP because after all they have to take responsibility for all the decisions. (It's interesting that he left out Jobbik as an opposition party.)
The next question concerned the supervision of the Internet. According to Csermely some people find the whole idea ludicrous, displaying an ignorance of the net. "We will see. This will be the responsibility of the Media Authority. The only thing we can do is to give them the opportunity to be successful." As for the print media, Csermely pointed out that the financial situation of newspapers is very bad as it is and therefore huge fines will mean financial ruin for most of them. Orbán's answer was evasive. He brought up some lurid examples of a sports magazine where children interested in sports are confronted with naked women. The follow-up question was an obvious one: If it is just a question of public morality, why didn't the law limit itself to specific instances of wrongdoing? Orbán denied that the law is too vague. "The goals of the media law are clear and unambiguous."
All in all, these two interviews showed a man full of self-confidence. Someone who cares not a wit what the world thinks of him. Yes, there is noise but he remembers what awful noise there was about the alleged lack of freedom of the media during the Antall government in the early 1990s. This upheaval is nothing in comparison. What Orbán didn't add was that Hungary's situation is very different today than it was almost twenty years ago. Today Hungary is a member of the European Union. Although Hungarian liberals complained a lot about József Antall and his ideas about the future of Hungary, Viktor Orbán simply cannot be compared to Antall, who with all his faults was a firm believer in the rule of law.
As for Hungary's status within the European Union, "the poor foreign minister of Luxembourg" today reaffirmed that the European Council is already studying the Hungarian media law. We of course don't know what is happening in the background. We have no idea what the Orbán government knows or suspects about the intentions of the Council. In any case, this morning Péter Szijjártó–and we must assume that he is speaking on behalf of the prime minister unlike his German counterpart–seemed to indicate that the Hungarian government "is willing to discuss the media law if the objections are presented in concrete and not in general terms." I don't know whether this is simply a reiteration of the prime minister's statement in the Magyar Nemzet interview or whether it presages a partial retreat on the media law. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.