As always, Hungarian Spectrum welcomes democratic voices from and about Hungary. Today Gábor Szabó, a well-known Hungarian environmental journalist, summarizes the experiences he gathered during his 37 years of work in this field. While the article describes the changes in the situation of environmental journalism, it reflects very well the tragic deterioration of the conditions for free media in all fields in Hungary. Gábor Szabó wrote this article at the request of the Hungarian NGO Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport).
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Under the old (Socialist) regime, between 1948 and 1990, the official standpoint was that the development of the economy and raising of living standards comes first, and “when we can afford” (in Communism?) we will protect the environment (in spite of the fact that environmental pollution had a detrimental effect on the quality of life). Facts about environmental pollution had to be hidden from the public. Hence environmental journalism was the least desired by the authorities, and articles about health damaging pollution cases practically did not exist until the 1980s.
Then, as the Socialist era began to collapse, it turned out that there were too many skeletons in the closet. As the limits for press got looser, more and more hidden facts came to daylight. Still, revealing a pollution case was automatically an anti-government action, not because the author was a revolutionary or an anti-communist but because it was the officials who let state-owned enterprises compromise people’s health. What else could show more evidently the inhumanity of the system? (In which it was declared that the most important value was the health of the working class.)
So it was quite natural that those practicing environmental journalism – beginning to flourish by the end of the 1980s – closely cooperated with civil society organisations (which until 1990 were informal groups, as they could not be registered officially). The latter gradually gained ground by the end of the Socialist era. Bad ambient air quality in the inner districts of Budapest brought thousands to demonstrate, the planned joint Hungarian-Czechoslovakian giga-investment of regulating the natural flow of the Danube river by an enormous dam led tens of thousands to the streets. Rising environmental awareness gave ammunition for the opposition. In other words: environmental issues were in focus when the old era collapsed.
After the collapse of the one-party system new environmental bodies were set up, new programs started and the NGOs gained numerous legal opportunities to have a say in legislation and control in their closer and often even their wider environment. Journalists had relatively good opportunities to report on environmental issues. Even so it took 5 years, till a new Environmental Law (Act 53 of 1995) was adopted by the Parliament. Meanwhile a relatively powerful ministry of environment was set up; powerful, among others, thanks to the competent environmental inspectorates. In contrast to the situation in the old times, now it was already possible to obtain relevant data, and quite often with the active assistance of the environmental authorities! Instead of “fighting” against them, a spirit of cooperation prevailed. It was a golden age for environmental journalism.
Just one example of the openness of those times: with the help of the Central Environmental Inspectorate in 1995, I was able to publish data about the ten companies emitting the largest quantity of air pollutants, the ten companies emitting the largest quantity of water pollutants, as well as the ten biggest hazardous waste producers, i.e. an unprecedented list of polluters.
Shortly after this action the head of the Inspectorate reaped the reward for his openness (not only to my request) – he had to leave his office. This was a clear sign, that almost immediately after the genie was let out of the bottle, a creeping regression started. The above-mentioned Law on Environment originally set practically no limits to the citizens’ right to know environmental facts. Moreover, the group of stakeholders was defined broad enough to let local residents, NGOs to take an active part in the process of granting environmental permits. No doubt, huge investments could be delayed this way even by a tiny group of grassroots environmentalists, but on the other side no polluting activity could easily be rammed down the throat of a local community.
The regression came, when the text of the Law was changed. Originally it said (§ 12): “Everyone has the right to know environmental facts and data, in particular the state of the environment, the degree of environmental pollution, the environmental protection activities and the effects of the state of environment on human health.” After 2005 it said the following (same para): “Everyone has the right to know the environmental information specified in separate legislation as public interest data.” (My translation. G. Sz.) Short sentence, but with two restrictions on open access to environmental data:
1) The “separate legislation” at present is Act 112 of 2011 (earlier it was Act 63 of 1992). This law gave rise to highly bureaucratic processes, and so obtaining the desired data can take months. (The questioner has to submit a form to the Information Authority, unlike in the original 1992 version, where the petition went directly to the environmental – or health – authorities.)
2) Since 2011 the questioner has to pay for the data and the authorities often use this possibility as a weapon against citizens and NGOs, grossly overcharging them. Some court cases started to clear the way for gaining back the citizens’ right to know public information, but the battle is far from being over.
Furthermore, according government decree 305/2005 certain types of information are to be published on official websites, including for example the decisions of environmental inspectorates, and the Central Inspectorate (which is the second instance as well). Government decree 311/2005 makes it compulsory to publish various environmental data. But practically no essential information is published, or, if any, it is not possible to search in the database, let alone to search archive files.
The above mentioned changes made it year after year harder and harder for journalists to obtain hard facts on environmental issues. The toughest period came after 2010, when the right-conservative government introduced the so called Regime of National Cooperation. As almost all government declarations, this formulation means the opposite in everyday practice: new laws and institutional systems are suddenly introduced, and “sold” to the public as a general wish, without consulting the interested and affected parties. The first radical change came in 2010, when the ruling parties changed the system of ministries and the Ministry of Environment deceased. Its tasks were taken over by the Ministry for Rural Affairs, wherein a State Secretariat for Environmental Affairs was set up, with limited power.
The second big change occurred in 2015, when even the environmental inspectorates disappeared. The ten – till 2012 twelve – watershed-based inspectorates merged into the 19 county offices of the government, becoming a department of them each. The consequence for journalists is that inquiries are to be submitted to the county office, and all direct contacts with the environmental authorities had been cut. It is hard to get rid of the feeling, that an essential reason for this organisational change was just that: the farther the press is from the sources of information, the better. When I tried to make a strictly background interview with my old contact person working now in a county office, she said: “Do me the favour, please, erase my handy number from your list and never again call me on this phone. Ask rather the press officer or my boss.” That I did for a while, but no press officer at any government body gave ever a usable answer. Concerning the bosses, they have also lost their right to direct contact with journalists. (An apparent sign of this is the everyday routine formula of the press: “till our deadline we couldn’t get the answer from the responsible persons”.)
Another method of depriving the power of environmental regulations was invented 11 years after the Law on Environment was adopted, and the related new law, symbolically enough, had the same numbering. Act 53 of 2006 made it possible to introduce thousands of exceptions to the general rules. The so-called priority investments (“investments of outstanding importance for the national economy”) get the needed permits from the authorities more smoothly, quickly, no niggling is allowed. To pave the way for these “absolutely important” investments, permits at the first instance are to be granted in extra short time, the competent authority is assigned by the government, and the right of stakeholders is limited. A bright example of this practice is the permit for cutting out 286 trees around the Parliament in 2012. There was no way to appeal against it, the fourth day of the permit saw the execution of the ruling. Four months later the ombudsman declared his serious concerns about granting the permit. This had no legal consequence, and today the square at the Parliament is a stone desert, one of the hottest climate-islands of Budapest as a conspicuous example of environmental legislation in practice.
At present practically any investment can be declared priority investment: a kosher plastic greenhouse, a meat factory, enlargement of a police station, a test track for cars, the investments to commemorate a famous Hungarian poet in the municipality of Nagykőrös, several processing plants, various sport centres, development of a horse breeding farm, development of various industrial zones, building a new campus of the Sports University, building a new high school, refurbishment of the State Opera, building a new wing at the Buda Castle, upgrading several stadiums, building of new stadiums, erecting a fence at the Hungarian-Serbian borderline (thus killing out almost all of the highly endangered endemic mole-rat, Spalax sp.), setting up a Museum at an unused railway station, permitting new devices to combat hail at rural districts, a real estate development in South Buda at the Danube bank (the area belongs to a friend of the Prime Minister) – to mention just a few of the 2 cases in 2006, 1 in 2007, 5 in 2008, 4 in 2009, 4 in 2010, 8 in 2011, 13 in 2012, 30 in 2013, 32 in 2014, 44 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 in 2017 (till May 2). Thus, granting the status of priority investment is already not an exception, rather the rule itself.
It is also not rare that a law on a priority investment annuls important provisions of other laws. For example, the government (actually, rather the Prime Minister) decided to relocate several museums to the City Park (Városliget), a popular green area of Budapest, destroying a large part of this popular green area of Budapest. (The relocation became “necessary” because the Prime Minister wants to move his office to the Castle Hill, 70 meters above the Parliament.) To pave the way for eating up the green area, the Parliament adopted a law which says: concerning this priority investment the regulations on spatial planning in Budapest are void.
As a result of declaring so many investments “priority investment”, the environmental and other authorities generally decline to answer in essence to the questions and comments of journalists, stating that it is the law which requires them to implement the investment at all and in the way prescribed.
To pave the way for investors, other rules have been significantly eased by other methods as well. In contrast to the earlier regulations, today getting a permit for erecting a building is in most cases just the applicant’s and the respective authority’s business, neighbours in most cases have lost their right to be handled as clients according to the Government decree 482/2016 (replacing decree 155/2016). One usually even doesn’t need a permit, there is just an obligation to officially report the planned construction activity in advance.
Protection of the built national heritage disappeared since the annihilation of the Heritage Protection Authority in 2012. Its tasks were partly taken over by an office, but this office also deceased in 2016. There is no existing heritage protection authority. Concerning natural heritage the situation is similar. National Parks have no administrative rights in this respect, and the county offices lack professional knowledge. These changes serve nothing else than creating a favorable legal environment for various investments considered useful by the government or by those, who stand close to the government. This also makes it practically impossible for a journalist to get any information from state sources on the investment concerned.
As a consequence of all these changes, not much space was left for environmental journalists. The harder it was to get information on environmental issues, the less transparent the environmental administration was, the more diminished the group of environmental journalists. The Society of Environmental Journalists, established in 1997, ceased to exist. Press organs changed their policies as well: environmental issues have appeared more and more rarely in the mainstream media. As a logical consequence, at present there are not more than half a dozen of journalists who still possess the professional skills of environmental journalism.
July 3, 2017