It was a year and a half ago that I first wrote about one of my favorite essayists, András Nyerges, in a piece entitled “Back to 1939: The Hungarian right-wing press.” For a number of years Nyerges had a column first in Magyar Hírlap and later in Élet és Irodalom called “Color Separation.” His specialty is the Hungarian right-wing press between the two world wars. Reading his pieces, one can’t help but realize that the Hungarian right hasn’t changed all that much in seventy or eighty years. In fact, there are uncanny resemblances between the ideology and the vocabulary of today’s extreme right and the fascist or semi-fascist political groups and their journalists of the 1930s and 1940s.
Nyerges unfortunately stopped writing his pieces on the press of the interwar years some time ago, but it seems that the current controversy on the freedom of the press and the media law must have inspired him to return to the subject. The title of his article that appeared in today’s Népszava is “Curtailing all that ranting.” The title paraphrases a sentence by Joseph Goebbels as recorded by Johannes Öhquist, a Finnish devotee of Hitler, in his book The Empire of the Führer. According to Goebbels the state mustn’t be misled by “the rantings of the so-called freedom of the press.” The Nazis didn’t immediately curtail press freedom because they had devilish plans: “We didn’t attack the press. We want them to feel secure for a while.” But within a few months they closed down some of those newspapers that “caused them so much annoyance.” Yet not everybody got the message because “some of them didn’t realize that there was a revolution here.”
Hungary lagged behind in restricting the press. It was during Gyula Gömbös’s premiership (1932-1936) that Béla Marton, the organizer of Gömbös’s new party, the Nemzeti Egység Pártja (Party of Hungarian Unity), expressed his desire to get rid of organs that “are not serving the future of the nation.” But the Hungarian extreme right had to wait for the fulfillment of his wish. It was only in May 1938 that the right-wing government of Béla Imrédy made a frontal attack on the free press. The right-wing Új Magyarság complained that the liberal left-wing press was already deploring the possible consequences of a proposal before parliament about regulating the media. As the author of the article said: “Why all this wailing? It is time to repeat the statements of right-wing strata of society for whom the freedom of the press is sacred but the undisturbed expression of the great national goals is even more sacred! Therefore the public will not shirk from curtailing the freedom of expression’s liberal interpretation.”
By 1939 a few “modest decrees” were enacted. Mihály Kolosváry-Borcsa, in 1947 executed as a war criminal alongside Ferenc Szálasi, explained that the new “modest decrees” were intended only to make sure that public morality is safeguarded and that the press will not be preoccupied with excessive coverage of crimes and scandals. It sounds familiar. The defenders of the present media law emphasize these aspects of the law: they simply want to make sure that children are not forced to see naked women on magazine covers. Or, television news must spend less time on crime-related activities.
Kolosváry-Borcsa was in charge of enforcing the new media law. When he was asked whether the independence of the press wasn’t impaired when he shut down certain media outlets, his answer was simple: “The press is not independent when the owners are well known capitalists whose influence on the Hungarian public is in contrast with the foreign policy interests of our country.”
The goal of the media law of 1939, says Nyerges, wasn’t very far from the law currently in force. In 1942 in a Transylvanian publication Nyerges found the following: “The new press policy inaugurated by Mihály Kolosváry-Borcsa wants to prevent the separation of the media into different camps. He wants the family of the Hungarian media to march together on the same road and in the same direction. All the papers and all the journalists.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?