Tag Archives: media freedom

Freedom of the press in Hungary: an American critique

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.

David J. Kostelancik / Source: zoom.hu / Photo: Viktor Veres

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.

October 17, 2017

The next victims of Orbán’s hate campaign will be the journalists

Hungarian commentators know from past experience that one ought to pay close attention to every word Viktor Orbán utters because his future plans are normally embedded in his speeches way ahead of time. Sometimes these references are too subtle to notice easily; more often, they are dropped in a phrase or two which those who listen to his speeches, especially the soporific ones, are likely to miss.

With the exception of the hired hands of the government media, all other commentators at home and abroad found that Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő-Băile Tușnad was on the dull side, containing practically nothing new. He refrained from announcing any controversial idea that would be greeted with consternation in political circles in the European Union. There was, however, something in that speech that upset Hungarian journalists to no end. Amidst the seemingly endless braggadocio there was one sentence that strongly indicated that, after the attacks on the NGOs and George Soros, the next victims will be journalists critical of the Orbán government, especially investigative journalists who have been unearthing the corruption endemic in Fidesz and government circles.

Orbán made no secret of the fact that, between now and the election sometime in April 2018, Fidesz’s “adversaries will not be the opposition parties at home.” In the forthcoming election campaign “first and foremost [they] will have to hold their own against external forces; against the bureaucrats of Brussels; the Soros mafia network and its media.” That last sentence sent chills down the spines of journalists working for media outlets considered to be unfriendly to the Orbán government.

Magyar Nemzet actually received information from Fidesz circles that this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán has expressed his strong disapproval of the activities of some journalists. Insiders reported that he often talked about the “liberal media” and its unwarranted bias and enmity toward the government, resulting in unfair reporting. The paper learned from several sources that this year’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad was the beginning of a new anti-media campaign. Thus far Fidesz’s targets have been media outlets owned by Lajos Simicska, but now they are apparently planning to go against individual journalists. The informants intimated that investigative journalists concentrating on economic matters will be in his cross hairs. A new enemy is needed after Brussels and George Soros, and the media is an obvious next choice. Especially since Donald Trump’s anti-media campaign has had its influence in Hungary, where the expression “fake news” is spreading in the English original.

Orbán has a point. The opposition in its current state is no threat to him whatsoever. If the chaos that exists on the political left isn’t resolved over the next nine months, Fidesz, especially with the assistance of Romanian-Hungarian voters, will be able to win the election easily and most likely will have the coveted two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats. By now the only threat comes from high-profile NGOs, who insist on legality and diligently pursue government wrongdoings. They keep going to the European Court of Justice or to the European Court of Human Rights, and more often than not they win against the Orbán government. It’s no wonder that Orbán wants to get rid of them. Investigative journalists are also “enemies” as far as Fidesz is concerned. They have been working hard to discover the sources of the newly acquired riches of the Orbán family and to unearth the criminal activities of the oligarchs who are actively supported by the prime minister. If these NGOs and journalists would just disappear, life would be a great deal easier for Orbán and friends.

But Hungary is still not like Russia or Turkey where journalists are killed or jailed. Orbán most likely will choose a different tack. The suspicion in Hungarian journalistic circles is that the plan is to undermine the reputation of the most active investigative journalists. The government will try to find some dirt and, if there is nothing juicy enough, they will create stories from half-truths. As for character assassination, we know that Orbán is a master of the craft. It is enough to think of how effectively he managed to create a monster out of Ferenc Gyurcsány simply because he believed him to be his only effective political foe in the country. In comparison to that, the task of finishing off some journalists’ careers will be child’s play.

The journalists who either work for the handful of media outlets owned by non-Fidesz businessmen or those who have been supported by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation are worried. They wanted to know more about the targets of the new campaign from Szilárd Németh, deputy to Chairman Viktor Orbán, who gave a press conference on the subject. Németh immediately got into an argument with the journalists who were present. He accused Gergely Nyilas of Index of not being a journalist but an emissary of Lajos Simicska, the owner of the internet site. According to Németh, Nyilas is simply performing the task assigned to him, which is attacking Simicska’s enemy Viktor Orbán. Another journalist representing the Simicska-owned HírTV didn’t fare better. He was accused of reciting his questions, which were actually written for him by someone else. Németh most likely again had Lajos Simicska in mind.

The journalists naturally wanted to know which media outlets are the latest targets of the government, but Németh refused to name them, claiming that both he and the journalists know full well which ones the government has in mind. However, in the course of the conversation he talked about “criminal organizations” that will have to be dealt with by the prosecutor’s office.

In addition to Szilárd Németh, the almost forgotten Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary of education, also spoke about the ill-willed, irresponsible journalists. While claiming that Hungary’s reputation in Brussels is improving, “certain journalistic organizations falsely accuse Hungary on many accounts.” She also seems certain that these journalists are following a prescribed script.

We can expect a heightened assault on journalists as well as NGOs. In fact, Orbán promised that much when answering a man in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad who demanded harsher treatment of NGOs. It sounds ominous.

July 26, 2017

The state of media freedom in Hungary as the citizens see it

Yesterday I wrote very briefly about a fascinating public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Research Institute between October 11 and 13. Thanks to the staff of The Budapest Sentinel the Institute’s findings are now available in English.

In my last post I indicated that I was comforted by the good news that this poll conveys: Hungarians, despite intense government propaganda to the contrary, know full well that media freedom is trampled on more savagely today than at any other time in the history of the Third Republic. Yet in December 2015 Orbán had the temerity to claim that “the freedom of thought, speech, and the press in Hungary is more colorful, more encompassing, and more profound than in countries to the west of us.”

Today, after thousands of people had gathered to demand media freedom, the cynical Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, had the gall to express his bafflement at the purpose of the demonstration.

The original poll can be found on the webpage of the Publicus Research Institute.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Publicus Institution, at the behest of Vasárnapi Hírek (Sunday News) conducted a survey of 1000 people representative of public opinion with regard to their attitudes towards freedom of the press and their opinion about the suspension of Népszabadság. The majority of respondents believe that in Hungary today the press is not independent of the government, even though nine out of ten respondents believe press freedom to be important.  85 percent of Hungarians have heard of the suspension of Népszabadság, but only one-third have heard that it had come under the influence of a company close to Fidesz.  Almost every second person surveyed said they read Népszabadság or nol.hu either regularly or intermittently.  Most respondents believe the reason the paper is no longer being published is because it criticized the government and governing party politicians and because Fidesz limits press freedom.  Two-thirds of respondents believe that currently Fidesz has the greatest influence over media, and nearly as many believe that of all the governments today, it is the Fidesz government which has greatest influence over media. Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe that the free press is seriously limited in Hungary today, and that state media coverage of the news is one-sided.

The majority of those asked believe that the press is not independent of the government in Hungary today.  On a scale of one to five, the situation of domestic press freedom scored 2.7, meaning Hungary’s media is judged as not being free.  It is rather MSZP voters who do not find the press to be free and independent.  On average their score came to 2.1.  Of all the social groups surveyed, only Fidesz voters thought the press to be free—their score averaged 3.4.

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Nearly nine (87%) out of ten respondents think it is important that the free press remain independent of the government.  On this question every societal group surveyed agrees.

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85 percent of those surveyed had heard that Népszabadság had suspended its operations, but only one-third had heard that it had come under the influence of a company close to Fidesz.

Almost every second (43%) of respondents said they read either the print or online version of Népszabadság.  The print version was rather read by MSZP voters, those over 60, and those with college diplomas.  The online version was mostly read by MSZP and Jobbik voters, and people under 45 with high school or college diplomas.

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The most common reason given by those surveyed for why the paper is no longer being published is because it criticized the government and government politicians (29 percent), or because Fidesz imposes limits on the free press (23 percent).  Out of ten people, two (22 percent) list among the cause the fact that it was loss-making.

However, the final reason is only mentioned frequently (37 percent) by Fidesz voters.  Among MSZP, Jobbik and uncertain voters the most important cause for the suspension was that it was critical of the government, the governing party and its members (53, 35 and 28 percent, respectively).  Discounting Fidesz voters, every societal group examined believes limitations on the free press to be the second most important cause for the suspension (22 and 28 percent, respectively).

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Two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) believe that presently Fidesz has the largest influence over the media, and altogether 2 percent think the left-wing does.  In this question every societal group examined had a similar opinion.  The Fidesz influence is best seen by Jobbik and MSZP voters (77 and 72 percent, respectively), while the left-wing influence is mostly seen by MSZP and Fidesz voters (8 and 5 percent, respectively).

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Nearly two-thirds (59 percent) believe it is under Fidesz that the government exercises the largest influence over the press.  Only 16 percent think that it was under the MSZP government.

Even Fidesz voters agree (46 percent to 25 percent opposed), but especially MSZP voters see this (75 percent to 20 percent opposed).

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Nearly two-thirds of those questioned (59 percent) believe that in Hungary today the free press is greatly limited, and that state media is one-sided.  A similar proportion (58 percent) think this is the case of the news reaching the most people.

A small majority of Fidesz voters agree that the freedom of the press is greatly limited in public media (45 percent to 43 percent opposed), while the vast majority of MSZP, Jobbik and undecided voters (70 percent, 69 percent, and 60 percent, respectively) believe this to be the case.

More details about the results of the study can be found in the Sunday News appearing on Saturday.

October 16, 2016

After an attack on the media, an assault on Energiaklub

Today I will report briefly on some new developments that may add to our understanding of the current political climate in Hungary.

Still about the media

To continue with the sad state of the media. The announcement that Népszava, the daily that proudly calls itself a “szociáldemokrata napilap,” was sold couldn’t have come at a worse time, only a few days after the demise of Népszabadság. The Swiss Marquard Media, which bought the paper, is no stranger to Hungary. It has been present in the Hungarian media market ever since the 1990s. Currently it owns Playboy, Runner’s World, Men’s Health, JOY, and InStyle. In Poland Marquard publishes Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Playboy. In addition, the company owns several magazines in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Népszava will be an odd man out in Marquard’s portfolio, but we should keep in mind that in the 1990s Marquard owned Magyar Hírlap, which in those days was my very favorite Hungarian daily. At that time the editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap was the same Péter Németh who is heading Népszava’s editorial team today. He assures us that Jürg Marquard, whom he knows, would never in his life behave the way the private equity financier Heinrich Pecina has. Népszava had some very difficult times in the past, and one can only hope that the paper’s future will be ensured by this purchase. With the disappearance of Népszabadság, Népszava is now the only daily on the left. Mind you, when it comes to their attitudes toward the Orbán government, I see very little difference between the social democratic Népszava and the conservative Magyar Nemzet.

fedel-nelkul

Remaining with the topic of the media. The editorial board of Népszabadság made an absolutely brilliant move. The editorial team of the paper and regular outside contributors decided to write articles for the next issue of a weekly paper called Fedél Nélkül (Without Shelter), which is produced by homeless people and sold on Budapest street corners by about 1,600 of them. The journalists and contributors will take care of the added expenses, and all income from the sale of the papers will go to the licensed distributors of Fedél Nélkül.

There is a new enemy: The Energiaklub

Energiaklub is a well-established NGO concerned with environmental issues and alternative energy sources. It is a fierce opponent of building a new nuclear power plant in Paks. On September 29, 2016, the Baranya Megyei Kormányhivatal, a regional administrative arm of the government, accepted Paks II’s version of the environmental safety of the project. However, some key issues concerning the project are still questionable, and some of the government’s safety claims have no basis in fact. This is at least what Energiaklub and Greenpeace claim. These two organization will appeal the decision. Energiaklub’s experts “are convinced that Paks II will be a polluter” and that “it is dangerous and expensive.” In their opinion, “both in economic and social terms the expansion of nuclear energy is a dead end.”

On October 13 representatives of the National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV) appeared at the offices of Energiaklub. Without much ado or explanation they packed up all documents related to one of Energiaklub’s projects called “Answer to climate change, local climate adaptation.” The leadership of the organization is convinced that “this is the second act of the Norwegian affair” because this particular project is funded by Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein. Orsolya Fülöp, policy director of Energiaklub, believes that NAV’s unexpected visit is not so much against Energiaklub as against Norway.

I, as an outsider, see it differently. I see a connection between Energiaklub’s decision to appeal the verdict of the Baranya Megyei Kormányhivatal on the environmental safety of Paks II and NAV’s sudden interest in one of the organization’s projects. Moreover, the appeal was not the Energiaklub’s only “sin.” They have been calling attention to the corruption that surrounds the Paks II project. According to one of the organization’s energy experts, at least 10% of the projected €12 billion will end up in private pockets. My guess is that the Orbán government had enough of this pesky organization’s criticism of the prime minister’s pet project. Or perhaps they are planning to kill two birds with one stone.

Hungarians and freedom of the press

The Publicus Research Institute came out with a poll* conducted between October 11 and 13 which asked 1,000 people about their attitude toward freedom of the media and the suspension of the publication of Népszabadság. The results are surprising. Almost 90% of the Hungarians surveyed consider the existence of an independent press very important and 85% had heard about the suspension of Népszabadság. Two-thirds of the people think that Fidesz has a substantial influence on the media. Moreover, they said that since the collapse of the Kádár regime, government power over the press has never been stronger.

Another surprise is that 43% of the adult population read Népszabadság more or less regularly. Even 37% of Fidesz voters did so. Naturally, MSZP voters were the most faithful readers of the paper (57%), but Jobbik voters were not far behind (47%). Another interesting finding is that more readers were between the ages of 18 and 44 than over 45.

The great majority of the people are convinced that Népszabadság had to be silenced because it criticized the government and Fidesz politicians, or because Fidesz limits the freedom of the press in general, or because it was an opposition paper. Only 22% believe that the reason for the shuttering was financial. So, there is hope.

*The poll was taken for Vasárnapi Hírek. The detailed results can be found on the website of the Publicus Research Institute.

October 15, 2016

The attack on the media is backfiring

The events of the last few days in Hungary have already aroused the interest of the foreign media as well as international organizations concerned with the media and civil society in general. János Lázár might insist that he put no pressure on the CEO of Origo Zrt. to remove Gergő Sáling, the editor-in-chief, but journalists unanimously told AFP that Sáling “was forced out” for political reasons after the site published a story about the extravagant travel expenses of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff. Transparency International also considers the Origo affair “intimidation aimed at stifling the voice of civil society and democratic oversight.” And this is just the beginning. One can be sure that in the next few days important German- and English-language papers will have articles about the Hungarian government’s heavy-handed interference with the distribution of Norwegian Fund grants and the pressure it put on the management of Origo.

Meanwhile the scandal is growing, as scandals usually do. After the firing of the editor-in-chief, András Pethő, deputy editor-in-chief, resigned. He was the author of the article that incurred the wrath of János Lázár. Soon afterward Péter György, the founder of Origo, also resigned from the governing board. He is the head of the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Graduate Program at ELTE.  Deutsche Telekom naturally refuses to bear any responsibility for what happened at the subsidiary of its subsidiary, Magyar Telekom, while Origo Zrt. steadfastly denies any connection between the editor-in-chief’s firing and the article about Lázár’s trip. So does Lázár, who tries to portray himself as a man of honor who would never put political pressure on the media. In fact, according to 444.hu, political pressure on Origo has been constant over the last three-four years. Ever since Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary.

There are always people who are convinced that the Hungarian public will swallow anything and everything this government does. They claim that Hungarians have difficulty with the concept of solidarity. In brief, nothing will ever change. I don’t agree with this assessment of the situation. I’m convinced that there will be a tipping point. We don’t know what will prompt a widespread response to an abusive and dictatorial authority. The tipping point can happen at any time and over any issue, but I would say that launching a broadside attack on the media is not a bright move on the part of the government.

Yesterday one may have been disappointed that only 1,000-1,200 people decided to protest the government’s actions against the media. But by today the opposition to the government looks much more impressive. More than sixty media outlets joined forces against the introduction of  taxes on advertisements. And, what is most important, not just left-of-center TV and radio stations, newspapers, and web sites got together but right-wing media as well: not just RTL Klub but also TV2 and HírTV. Among the radio stations not only Gazdasági Rádió but also Katolikus és Lánchíd Rádió. Among newspapers not only Népszabadság and Népszava but also Magyar Nemzet, Nemzeti Sport, and Metropol. Among online newspapers not only Hír24 but also Mandiner.hu.  And many, many others. Tomorrow the television stations will be dark for a while and newspapers and online newspapers will be blank. I think János Lázár and his boss made a big mistake. They managed to turn even friendly, often servile media against them.

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And the Orbán government is facing other problems at the moment. I will mention a few. Lately the European Court of Human Rights handed down several decisions that found the Hungarian government in violation of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Although the Orbán administration swears it will not abide by the court’s rulings, one has the feeling that they might be forced to change their minds. Then there is the Norwegian case. It looks as if the Norwegians are not about to be pushed around by Viktor Orbán and his chief-of-staff, János Lázár. Today the Hungarian ambassador to Oslo was called in by the Norwegian foreign ministry. After the conversation Géza Jeszenszky could only say that he hoped the misunderstanding would be cleared up soon.

And let’s not forget the infamous monument which, though still not erected, continues to provoke criticism. This monument, which was supposed to serve as a symbol of Hungary’s loss of sovereignty on March 19, 1944, has been strongly opposed by historians, the Jewish community, and the center-left political forces. Even American Jewish congressmen and senators got involved and wrote to a letter to Viktor Orbán asking him to sit down and discuss the issues surrounding the idea of the monument. Viktor Orbán just answered the American legislators and told them that the monument will stand regardless of what the whole world says, including the Hungarian public. According to Medián, more than 55% of the Hungarian population thinks that the monument falsifies the country’s history. Yet he goes ahead.

Finally, there is the question of Viktor Orbán’s strong objection to Jean-Claude Juncker for the post of president of the European Commission. More and more it looks as if the anti-Juncker forces will not prevail, especially since Angela Merkel is under strong pressure to stick with Juncker, the choice of the European People’s Party. In order for the British-Swedish-Dutch-Hungarian anti-Juncker forces to succeed they would have to gain the support of 55% of the member states and 65% of the population. Somehow I don’t think they will be able to convince that many heads of state to vote for another candidate.

Hungary is fighting battles on so many fronts that it might seem strategically suicidal to open up two more fronts: the Norwegian Fund and the media. There is, however, one possible explanation for the government’s aggressive behavior. The European Union right now is between two administrations and occupied with an internal struggle between the European Parliament and the European Council. Perhaps Orbán decided that under these circumstances Brussels would be too busy to care much about Hungarian domestic problems. Given the latest developments, however, it seems that Brussels is still functioning and is quite capable of acting against the Hungarian government if it does not abide by the rules. And the “domestic disturbances” are turning out to be a much bigger deal than Orbán and Lázár thought.

The first draft of a “party program” of the Hungarian democratic opposition. Part II

Yesterday when I left off I was talking about the opposition’s concern over the very low Hungarian birthrate, which is resulting in a steadily aging population. At the moment the Orbán government is discussing a scheme by which every woman over the age of 18 who gives birth to her first child would receive a sizable amount of money–the most often heard figure is 300,000 forints–in addition to a flexible scheduling of the subsidies already given to women after childbirth. Most people don’t think that this scheme would make families rush to have children given the current economic situation. As I mentioned, the democratic opposition doesn’t have any better ideas on the subject except that they want to put an end to the current unfair distinction between legally married and unmarried couples who have children. In addition, they promise to put an end to child hunger.

Naturally, they pay a great deal of attention to the welfare of the large population over the age of 65. They promise not only to raise pensions to match the rate of inflation; they also plan to reintroduce a “premium” that would be indexed to economic growth. They make a renewed promise of free public transportation to everyone over the age of 65. They would also again allow pensioners to work while drawing their pensions and would allow people to work beyond the retirement age. Out of these promises the only one I object to is free public transportation for everybody over the age of 65. I think that forcible retirement is untenable in a democratic society and that in certain professions it is outright injurious to the public interest. I am thinking of judges and university professors, for example.

The next topic of the provisional party program is healthcare, and I must say that it is one of the weakest points of the program. Here we have only vague generalities. I understand, however, from a television interview that the hospitals would remain in state hands and that the new government would stick with a single centralized state insurance system. Only yesterday I was listening to an interview with Erzsébet Pusztai (earlier MDF, now a member of Lajos Bokros’s conservative party) who was won over to the idea of privatizing healthcare. What does she mean by that? Basically, that doctors would be the owners of their own practices. Having doctors as state employees guarantees failure, she contends. I tend to agree with her. Therefore I don’t expect any great positive change in the quality of Hungarian healthcare as a result of a change of government. In the first place there is no money to raise salaries and, even if they did, the problem lies not only with low salaries but with attitudes.

The MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM negotiating team / MTI, Photo Lajos Soós

The MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM negotiating teams / MTI, Photo Lajos Soós

Naturally, the democratic opposition wants to put an end to the Kulturkampf introduced by the Orbán government and they make all sorts of promises of state subsidies to make culture readily available. As for the state of the media and the media law, which they surely want to change, they said nothing about MTV, MR, and Duna TV. I’m afraid that these organizations would need a complete change of personnel; otherwise the new government will end up with a far-right state media of low quality.

The Internet wasn’t left off the list either. They promise to pay special attention to making broadband available everywhere in the country and to encourage Internet usage and computer literacy.

These two parties at least don’t want to take away the voting rights of the new Hungarian citizens from Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia. The reason I didn’t include Slovakia here is that Slovakia introduced legislation that forbids dual citizenship and therefore there were very few people who applied for Hungarian citizenship and, if they did, it was in secret. I personally wouldn’t support that right and from what I read on the subject a lot of people would vote along with me on that issue. The document does make special mention of the democratic forces’ opposition “to the use of  the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries as instruments of Hungarian political parties,” but as long as voting rights are ensured there is no way of preventing party politics from spilling over the borders. On that issue, I’m with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció.

Finally, the democratic opposition pledges its support of European values and Euro-Atlantic cooperation. They realize the changing nature of the European Union, but Hungarian national interests must be protected in cooperation with and not against the European Union. Hungary wants to be a partner in the building of a stronger and better European Union.

* * *

Commentators, on the whole, responded positively to the beneficial effects of the joint declarations and the parties’ willingness to work together. Most of them think that once the first step toward an electoral alliance is taken the number of undecided voters will drop and support for the opposition will increase.

In addition to this document the opposition came out with another one that deals with the nomination of MP candidates. I will spend some time on that document in the future, but until then suffice it to say that this particular document pretty well ensures that there will be a single common party list, which is an absolute prerequisite for any success against Fidesz at the next election.

Breaking News: Sándor Csányi, CEO of OTP, the largest Hungarian bank and the premier holder of Forex mortgages, dumped almost 2 million shares yesterday, allegedly to invest in his other businesses. OTP stock has been under pressure recently as a result of rumors about a new government scheme to help the approximately 100,000 people who are currently incapable of repaying their Forex loans. This generous assistance would come at the expense of the banks. Since details of the plan are unavailable, we don’t know how large a haircut the banks would have to take, but the hit might be substantial. I guess that Csányi, who by the way has been a big supporter of the prime minister, decided to bail while he still had some equity left. In the wake of his mega-sale (and I assume that sooner or later we’ll find out who was on the other side of that block trade–again, rumors are flying), OTP stock lost about 9% today.

An appeal for contribution to keep galamus.hu alive

Dear Readers of Hungarian Spectrum:

I hope you will consider making a contribution, however modest, to ensure the survival of Galamus. Zsófia Miháncsik, the journalist and translator who founded the news and opinion site, has a sterling reputation as a woman of high principles. Her sharp-eyed political analyses are almost always on target. She refuses to make compromises with the powers-that-be and jealously guards Galamus’s independence.

I was privileged to be one of the founding members of the Galamus Group and therefore its fate is close to my heart. Unfortunately, after a while I had to stop being a regular contributor. Writing daily articles for Hungarian Spectrum simply took too much of my time.

I am sure that you are all familiar with the names of the regular and guest contributors and appreciate the quality of their writings. But, in addition, Galamus’s contribution to the cause of free media in Hungary is enormous in other key ways. Thanks to the linguistic talent of Júlia Horváth, a new addition to the unpaid staff, readers of Galamus have access to articles about Hungary that appeared in the German, French, English, and Russian press. This is especially important today when MTI, the national news agency, is under government control and rarely reports on foreign news about Hungary.

I find Zsófia Miháncsik’s comments accompanying the news especially important. These kinds of articles are found nowhere else in the Hungarian media. That is why I was honored to be asked to sign an appeal alongside of such luminaries in Hungarian cultural and political life as György Dallos, Ágnes Heller, Péter Kende, György Konrád, and Paul Lendvai.

I am happy to announce that offering financial assistance to Galamus is very easy nowadays.  www.galamus.hu/tamogatas will take you to the site where through PayPal you can easily make a contribution. The only thing you need is a credit or debit card.

I do hope that you will help Galamus. I would surely appreciate it. Thank you.

Eva S. Balogh

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                                                                                                            25 January, 2013

Dear Madam, Dear Sir, Dear Friend,

The Hungarian Galamus Group website (www.galamus.hu), a sophisticated Hungarian-language independent opinion and news site featuring daily updates, was created by ten Hungarian intellectuals – philosophers, linguists, lawyers, journalists, sociologists and computer experts – in December 2008. Over the last three years, the site featured several thousand valuable in-depth and analytical articles written by members of the group and, increasingly, by a growing number of contributing guest authors about not merely the processes of Hungarian politics and public life but also the advance of the extremist right wing and racism. With its 24/7 meaningful foreign and domestic news service and its news commentaries exploring various connections, the website also serves as a tool for informing readers. It is unique among Hungarian internet and printed newspapers in that it offers a daily selection of articles and commentaries carried in the foreign press about Hungary and Hungarian affairs in translation.

Over the past three years, thanks to the daily analyses about events, public life and politics written by members of the group and guest authors, a free, alternative and mainly left-wing liberal yet nonpartisan intellectual forum has been created, something that is very much needed in contemporary Hungary.

Operating the website does, however, have its costs. The authors do not receive remuneration and in the first year and a half covered the costs of the site from their own sources. Later on, galamus.hu operated with financial support from its readers. Now, however, in an ever impoverished Hungary that has a state-influenced advertising market, the Galamus Group is threatened with termination: it not only is unable to develop, it is also doomed.

We would therefore kindly ask you to help the survival of Galamus: please support the site, if possible. Should there be enough of us who sacrifice money for an independent, high-standard internet site that is not funded by anyone, we would be promoting the survival not merely of the Galamus Group but also of the diverse Hungarian press as well. Both of these are greatly necessary in contemporary Hungary.

Publisher of the Galamus Group and account number:

Editor Galamus Kft.

CIB Bank

CIBH-HU-HB

EUR: 10700419-66493934-50000005 (IBAN: HU25-1070-0419-6649-3934-5000-0005);

USD: 10700419-66493934-50100002 (IBAN: HU04-1070-0419-6649-3934-5010-0002)

Sending a contribution through PayPal is available at www.galamus.hu/tamogatas

Éva S. Balogh, historian, Connecticut, United States

György Dalos, author, Berlin

Ágnes Heller, philosopher, Budapest

Péter Kende, historian, external member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences MTA, Paris

György Konrád, author, Budapest

Paul Lendvai, journalist, editor-in-chief of Europäische Rundschau, Vienna