Yesterday I promised to write about the reactions of the Hungarian government and of right-wing journalists to the latest report of Freedom House. Unfortunately I can only report on the immediate government reaction because the right-wing Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap decided that the best strategy was to say nothing. The far-right Magyar Hírlap shied away from the topic to such an extent that it refused even to republish the MTI report from Washington. Instead, the paper carried four lines from the fairly lengthy first report of MTI under the headline “Freedom House accuses.” It also abbreviated the Hungarian government’s statement after receiving the analysis and results of Freedom House. Obviously, the editors of Magyar Hírlap decided that the less said the better. Why dwell on unpleasant news?
Magyar Nemzet published only one news item in which the editors combined the description of the original report and the statement released by the Ministry of Justice in which Zoltán Kovács sharply criticized Freedom House as biased and untruthful.
The only new development is that György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, sent a letter to David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, in which he expressed his outrage that the report compared Hungary to Ukraine and talked about the “Putinization” of Hungary. “It is disappointing that someone with such extensive experience in human rights issues in the post-Soviet region describes Hungary in such terms,” wrote the ambassador. He accused the authors of the report of using biased political clichés. He claimed that the report was full of “hypotheticals.” I’m not sure what Szapáry was thinking of because I included in my summary practically everything that the Freedom House report had to say about Hungary. It doesn’t matter how hard I look, I can’t find any hypotheticals.
In any case, let’s return to the immediate official reaction to the report. It was most likely written by Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of communication with the outside world. One can say at least one good thing about Zoltán Kovács: his knowledge of the English language is remarkably good. He can hold his own in any television or radio interview. How convincing is he? I guess that depends on your political views, but he’s not an especially warm or sympathetic person. It seems that even Viktor Orbán realized that Kovács was not the best choice for government spokesman, a job he held for only a few weeks. He was replaced by András Giró-Szász. The explanation for the change was that Giró-Szász had a nice smile, which is a plus in a government spokesman. Indeed, Kovács doesn’t smile often.
According to Kovács the whole report is “groundless.” It is the latest manifestation of the fact that Freedom House “doesn’t show any understanding of the countries of the region that suffered under Soviet domination for so long.” It has no sympathy for Hungary’s efforts at reforms. These reforms were necessary and they were demanded by the large majority of the electorate. Hungary is a stable country led by a strong government and a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Therefore Hungary is “one of the the most stable and the most predictable countries” in Europe. Predictable? Not too many people outside of Hungary would think so.
Kovács then reminded Freedom House that Hungary was the only country in the region that “was unable to create a new constitution when the other former socialist countries did so already in the early 1990s. … Our nation had a temporary Stalinist constitution dating from 1949.” Well, it is true that it was labelled as temporary, but surely it wasn’t Stalinist because it was completely rewritten in 1989-1990.
The Orbán government usually accuses all its critics of ignorance. They don’t know the Hungarian legal structure and they are even unfamiliar with daily political events. For example, says Kovács, Freedom House wrongly states that the new constitution was accepted without “significant consultation.” The truth is that there was “national consultation,” and “extensive parliamentary debate” preceded its acceptance. Well, I’m afraid Freedom House is correct. Although there was a lot of debate on the constitution, in the last minute an entirely new constitution was pulled out of József Szájer’s hat (or rather off his iPad). Within two weeks the new constitution was voted on only by the government parties with the help of the neo-Nazi Jobbik. The democratic opposition parties had earlier walked out of the constitutional committee. “National consultation” for the Orbán government means a questionnaire listing a dozen or so questions which about a tenth of the voting population sent back. The population, by the way, was never informed about the results of the survey.
Kovács also complained about Freedom House’s assertion that the new electoral law is a step backward on the road to democracy. Naturally, Kovács doesn’t mention the gerrymandering of the new electoral districts and only praises the advantages of a system where there is a single round of voting with a simple majority winning the district. More about the new electoral law can be found here. The new system hugely favors Fidesz. In the future the situation might be even more lopsided if the government majority votes to require prior registration that would filter out “the ignorant ones” and those impulsive voters who decide to vote in the last moment.
Kovács then goes on about the excellence of the new media law that ensures perfect freedom of the press. We know only too well what the real situation is. I have written so much about this very serious problem that it is not worth repeating Zoltán Kovács’s fabrications on the subject. I would like to add here only that yesterday Neelie Kroes, European commissioner for digital agenda, expressed her exasperation with the Hungarian government. The Council of Europe suggested 66 changes in the law and the just revised bill corrected only 11 of them! So much for the excellent media law.
Kovács acts as if he didn’t understand the complaints about the independence of the judiciary. One of the chief complaints of the Venice Commission was that the appointment of judges depended on the decision of one person and that person was the wife of an important Fidesz politician and a personal friend of the Orbán family. This is still the case. Just yesterday after the National Judicial Council (Országos Bírói Tanács = OBT) unanimously suggested someone for a job, the head of the National Judicial Office single-handedly vetoed the nomination and appointed someone else. So much for democracy and the independence of the judiciary.
It doesn’t matter how much Mr. Kovács and Mr. Szapáry complain: the report of Freedom House is devastating.