Today David J. Kostelancik, minister counselor and deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, delivered a speech before members of the diplomatic corps and journalists at the headquarters of Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ / National Association of Hungarian Journalists). This was the second time since the installment of Donald Trump as president of the United States that the new Republican government, through its Budapest embassy, made it clear publicly that, contrary to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s expectation, Washington is not at all happy about the state of affairs in Hungary. The first time was in April when the U.S. Embassy in Budapest issued a warning in connection with the Hungarian government’s pressure on Central European University. A month later this message was reinforced by the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, who urged the Hungarian government to suspend its amended law on higher education law, which would place “discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary.” Today the topic was freedom of the media.
Before I summarize the speech itself, I should note one way in which the Hungarian government restricts the flow of information. In fact, this Kostelancik speech is an excellent example of a centralized media in the grip of an autocratic government. The method is simple and effective. Prior to the new media law introduced by the Orbán government, media outlets had to pay a fee for news gathered by Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), Hungary’s official news agency. After the change of leadership, access to MTI’s materials was made free. The downside was that MTI’s reporting became distorted in favor of the government, and the free access to MTI’s materials made certain that the same colored information reached all media outlets. So, if the authorities don’t want a piece of information to reach a wide audience, it is enough to instruct MTI to remain quiet. Or, it is possible that special coaching is not necessary because the people at MTI know what is risky to report on. Hungarians have experience with this kind of self-censorship from the pre-1990 days.
This is exactly what happened this time. The chargé d’affaires of the United States delivers an important speech titled “Freedom of the Press: Enduring values in a dynamic media environment” and MTI “forgets” to report on it. Well, I’m not entirely fair because, if one searches hard enough, one finds an MTI report on a press conference by Gergely Gulyás, the new leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, where Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV asked Gulyás his opinion of Kostelancik’s “comments on the state of Hungarian freedom of the press.” MTI added that, according to index.hu, the chargé of the American Embassy talked about the “alarming state” of Hungarian media freedom and about “the government’s responsibility.” End of reporting. This MTI report appeared in today’s Magyar Idők, but the details of Csuhaj’s question to Gulyás could be learned only from ATV’s website.
But let’s return to the speech itself, which was indeed hard-hitting. Perhaps the most important message was that “defense of a free press” is “fundamental to [U.S.] foreign policy interests.” Given Donald Trump’s frequent outbursts against the “fake news” concocted by mainstream journalists, one can only admire Kostelancik’s handling of this apparent contradiction. He admitted that the U.S. president “is not shy about criticizing the media,” but “in the finest traditions of our free press, those on the receiving end of his criticism are quick to respond and make their argument about why they think the president is wrong.” In brief, freedom of the press in the United States is still thriving.
He then listed the ways in which undemocratic governments attempt to silence their critics: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control and pressure on advertisers, attempts to manipulate the advertising market, or outright threats and intimation of journalists. Kostelancik indicated that all of these tactics have been tried in Hungary in recent years. He talked about “government allies” who have acquired control and influence over the media market “without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies,” having in mind Lőrinc Mészáros’s recent acquisition of all the regional papers. He is well informed about the central directives issued to the journalists who work for these papers. The U.S. Embassy hears “reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.” 888.hu’s list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros didn’t go unnoticed either. “In a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media.” Finally, he said that “the United States unequivocally condemns any attempt to intimidate or silence journalists.”
MTI didn’t want to cover the U.S. chargé’s harsh words on the lack of media freedom and therefore it simply disregarded the whole event. But the Hungarian foreign ministry could not afford to ignore the American message. On the contrary, the response from the ministry was practically instantaneous. Tamás Menczer, undersecretary in charge of “coordination,” suggested that Kostelancik get a translator, with whose assistance he can sit down and take a good look at the Hungarian papers, where he will find “numerous news items critical of the government every day.” He added that a few weeks ago the U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the modification of the Ukrainian law on education despite its restrictions on the rights of minorities. “We are forced to think that U.S. diplomats in Kiev and Budapest are ignorant of what they are talking about.” A typical response from the ministry of foreign affairs of the Orbán government, the kind of clumsy, gauche comment to which by now, I’m sure, the American diplomats in Budapest and Washington are accustomed.
What I find more worrisome is a sentence the much more courteous and diplomatic Gergely Gulyás uttered as an answer to Ildikó Csuhaj’s question about Kostelancik’s message: “It is harmful to America’s reputation in Hungary to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.” I wonder what the government’s next step will be. Perhaps once the anti-Soros campaign is over, a major anti-U.S. drive will come, picking up on the journalistic offensive the two government papers, Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, are already waging.