The latest nefarious plan of the Orbán government came to light yesterday. Népszava learned that the government has been considering the establishment of a chamber of journalists (sajtókamara). Apparently, the government was originally planning to introduce the idea a year ago, but in view of the upheaval surrounding the shuttering of Népszabadság, they tabled it.
The government, which is surely the instigator of this plan, is remaining in the background and letting its obsequious supporters in the profession do the dirty work. The leaders of the Association of Hungarian Catholic Journalists, the Association of Protestant Journalists, and the Association of Hungarian Sportswriters have been meeting over the past few months to come up with a chamber of journalists that would suit the Orbán government’s ideal of an obedient press. The largest interest group of journalists in Hungary is the Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ), with a membership of 3,000, but MÚOSZ was left out of these behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Membership, unlike in the case of the Orbán-government-created chambers of teachers, doctors, and healthcare workers, wouldn’t be compulsory for everyone, but the benefits of membership would encourage publishers of newspapers and magazines to join. Publishers with membership in the chamber would receive a substantial reduction in their tax obligations. Some publishers would have no choice but to join. For example, publications with a nationwide distribution could lose their status if they didn’t become members.
Publishers who join the chamber would have to fulfill certain obligations. For example, they would be required to sign an ethical code. They would be able to hire only journalists who are also members of the chamber, and journalists’ membership might be restricted by such criteria as educational attainment or journalism school attendance. As far as internet publications are concerned, it looks as if the publishers of “larger ones,” I guess like 444, Index, and HVG, would have to be members, but smaller ones and bloggers could escape membership and, with it, restrictions on their activities or their privileges to access of information.
The man who is behind the idea of setting up a chamber of journalists is György Szöllősi, formerly the communication director of the Puskás Academy in Felcsút. It is pretty easy to figure out that he is just a conduit for the plans and desires of Viktor Orbán. Szöllősi is a much favored character in the Orbán orbit. As soon as Nemzeti Sport, Orbán’s favorite newspaper, was taken over by Mediaworks, Szöllősi was made the daily paper’s editor-in-chief. He was also named a roving ambassador, whose sole job is to promote the fame of Ferenc Puskás, the idol of Viktor Orbán.
Tamás Szele, who writes for huppa.hu, outlined in an opinion piece some of the dire consequences of this latest scheme of Viktor Orbán. In the last eight years independent journalists buried the Hungarian media several times, but “this is the moment when the pall is already prepared; they are nailing the coffin, and the day of the burial is fixed.” In his analysis of the information Népszava obtained, Szele posits several possible consequences of having a chamber of journalists. First and foremost, there would be a stark distinction drawn between those who were allowed to join and those who for one reason or another were barred from the organization. For example, a “registered” journalist of Magyar Hírlap would have extra privileges, although the readership of this right-wing, pro-government paper is smaller than some of the so-called “small” internet publications. The government could, for example, restrict the attendance of non-chamber members at press conferences. László Kövér, president of the parliament who has often resorted to excluding journalists from independent media outlets in the past, after the establishment of such a chamber could simply announce that only members of the chamber could enter the parliament building. Marianna Biró of 168 Óra is equally pessimistic. “The autonomy morsels of the media might be at stake in the election on April 8,” she writes. “If Fidesz again receives two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, we are finished.”
In 2010 the Center for International Media Assistance, a project of the National Endowment for Democracy, published a study in 2010 by Steven Strasser titled “Registering Reporters: How Licensing of Journalists Threatens Independent News Media.” Licensing and registering journalists is one of the ways by which “governments control the press.” Such licensing practices are especially prevalent “in the developing world, where governments feel they must control the power of the press as an element of their countries’ domestic and national security.” Strasser also notes that “the echoes [of licensing or registering] still help shape media policies in some of the remains of the communist world.” So, Orbán can choose into which group he would like to place his country: the developing nations or the former member states of the Soviet Union, like Belarus, Azerbaijan, or Kazakhstan.
Almost all commentators call attention to the fact that Hungary once had a chamber of journalists. It was in 1938 during the Imrédy government. The chamber was the brainstorm of “Christian” right-wing journalists who set up membership requirements on the basis of race and ideology. When it was established, almost two thousand Jewish and left-wing journalists didn’t receive admission to the chamber. Initially, membership of Jewish journalists was limited to 20%. A year later the share of Jewish members was further restricted to 6%.
Some people might consider the comparison between the chamber of journalists in 1938 and the Orbán government’s “sajtókamara” in 2018 far-fetched, but there are haunting similarities. The proponents of the present chamber of journalists come from groups who identify themselves as Catholics or Protestants, which in Hungary means not Jewish. Could it happen that journalists who are not members of either the Catholic or Protestant association of journalists and who are critical of the present government would find themselves outside the favored group of chamber members? Either by choice or by design? I would say yes, easily.