I really thought that the Hungarian media law no longer interested the world. The European Commission did as much as it could, which wasn’t much. Hungarians, I figured, will simply have to live with the consequences. Perhaps, but there’s a new wrinkle–the UN.
Let’s first set the stage on the Hungarian side. During the heady days when everybody was fixated on the media law a new face appeared on the scene: Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of government communications in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. I always find it necessary to explain what this new ministry is all about. Basically, its task is to run the government. It is headed by Tibor Navracsics, the former head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, who was ordained by Viktor Orbán to be the de facto prime minister without the title, while the actual prime minister would be above such mundane matters as managing the everyday affairs of the government. If something goes wrong, one can always blame Navracsics instead of Viktor Orbán himself.
That was the original idea, but I don’t think that the plan fulfilled the expectations that were attached to it. While the Orbán government is as unpopular at the moment as the Gyurcsány government was in the spring of 2007, the disappointed electorate doesn’t blame Tibor Navracsics but Viktor Orbán. Even among Fidesz voters Orbán’s popularity dropped from 92% to about 70% within a few months.
But back to Zoltán Kovács and a brief background. He received a degree in history and geography from the Lajos Kossuth University of Debrecen in 1993. Subsequently he received his M.A. from the Central European University, located in Budapest and financed by George Soros. He spent some time in London and in the United States, but I have no information about the details. He speaks English well and German tolerably. His last job was as assistant professor of history at the University of Miskolc. But it seems that Kovács was always more interested in politics than in history. As an undergraduate he was very involved with the student union. The nationwide network of student unions seems to be a breeding ground for future Fidesz and Jobbik politicians. He was also involved in local politics and became a Fidesz member of the Debrecen City Council, a good launch pad for someone interested in nationwide politics. After all, Lajos Kósa is the mayor of Debrecen. He also represented the Association of County Seats on the board of the Hungarian Television. I hope you all remember how Fidesz used these board members to make sure that no president of MTV would ever be elected while the party was still in opposition.
Zoltán Kovács is the government’s point man on the Hungarian media law. So when a foreign visitor from some official organization visits Hungary to discuss the media law, his official contact is Kovács. Kovács is not a negotiator, as is evident from his conversations with Olga Kálmán on Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) on ATV. Here is one example from today.
Kovács is the classic slippery government “communicator” that we encounter worldwide. In this particular interview he repeats at least three times that the latest nosy visitors from the High Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations were actually invited by the Hungarian government. But that is not the whole truth. The two rapporteurs first wrote to the Hungarian government in January expressing their desire to visit Budapest to have a chat about the controversial media law. When they received no answer, they wrote again. After a while the Hungarian government had to extend an invitation.
Meetings between representatives of the Hungarian government and visitors from international organizations are normally described in such understated diplomatic terms that one has to read between the lines in order to find out what actually happened behind closed doors. But Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion expression, was a great deal less diplomatic. As he said, he was “a bit shocked, to say it politely, at some of the positions I heard…. Different government officials were speaking with full honesty and speaking their mind, but it does seem to me that there is a framework of control. I think this is very dangerous.” In brief, members of this government don’t realize how unacceptable the Hungarian government’s position is on certain issues–for example, control of the media. Something that sounds perfectly reasonable to them sounds horrific to foreign observers.
Just to highlight the gravity of the situation, these rapporteurs normally don’t visit European countries. Not long ago La Rue visited Egypt, Algeria, South Korea, South Africa, and from Budapest he is traveling to Kenya.
Today La Rue and Zoltán Kovács gave a joint press conference. Kovács made it clear at the beginning that the UN representatives didn’t come to Budapest “to investigate” but “because we invited them.” Kovács repeated as he does time and again that there is absolutely no reason to change anything in the media law. The fault always lies with the other side which is ignorant of either the law or the particular Hungarian situation or both.
Kovács wasn’t impressed by La Rue’s strong warnings about limiting the freedom of the press by appealing to morality or hate speech. Not surprisingly, La Rue was somewhat taken aback by the fact that the members of the media council were appointed solely by the government, initially for nine years and renewable for another nine. “This is eighteen years, practically a whole generation.”
He also addressed the issue of balanced coverage. La Rue said attempts by governments to dictate balanced media coverage often lead to censorship. “Every time we hear about balanced coverage or objectivity of the press … it inevitably becomes, with time, a form of censorship regardless of what the initial motivation was. The press is accountable … to the public and never to the state and much less to the government.”
The UN investigators came and went, but apparently they will return. For what? I have no idea. Meanwhile Zoltán Kovács keeps repeating that the Orbán government will not change a thing. Mind you, we’ve heard that earlier straight from the horse’s mouth and a few months later, behold, under pressure changes were made. We will see.