The European Union’s rotating presidency is hardly the stuff of international headlines. Few could name the last two countries presiding (Spain and Belgium). The position is largely honorific, lasts only six months, offers a few opportunities for self-promotion and the occasional memorable moment for the president’s home team.
Not so with Hungary. Perhaps not even the 1956 revolution attracted so much ink and airtime than the weeks leading up to Viktor Orbán’s accession to the EU’s presidential chamber. From the venerable Financial Times to South Africa’s New Age, the press has been on the attack; most of the German, Italian and Spanish papers have been fulminating since early November, and even the China Times has made disapproving noises. The Süddeutsche Zeitung went so far as to accuse the Hungarian government of “murdering” the free press.
The fuss is about new media legislation that sets out a series of rules that apply to all media, including online, and threatens one of democracy’s most cherished hallmarks: freedom of the press. The document is 180 pages long, most of it standard officialese, but it does contain a couple of doozies. Article 13, for example, states that “all media providers shall provide authentic, rapid and accurate information on local, national and EU affairs and on any event that bears relevance to the citizens of the Republic of Hungary and members of the Hungarian nation.” It goes on to demand that all media “provide comprehensive, factual, up-to-date, objective and balanced coverage of local, national and European issues.” It fails to mention according to whom. One viewer’s “balanced” can be another’s “biased.”
Article 17 includes, among those not to be offended by the media, all minorities but also nations, communities and majorities. Majorities? Further, the law orders journalists to reveal their sources, if asked by courts—or authorities. And the media’s behaviour is to be judged by a new, powerful Media Council, all of whose members belong to the ruling party. If the council, at its sole discretion, determines that someone has transgressed a rule, it can refuse to renew licences, or levy fines of up to $950,000—an amount that could bankrupt some of the current independent news sources in Hungary.
Of course, Hungary’s private media vigorously objected. Several magazines and journals issued editions with blank front pages. Some radio programs declared moments of silence. Two on-air personalities were summarily taken off the air because of silent protests before the legislation came into force. As for public media, the director general of MTI, the Hungarian news agency, declared that its staff “must be loyal to the government” and henceforward, all the public stations—radio and television—would broadcast the same centrally controlled news.
The passage of the media law was, of course, a foregone conclusion, as it is sponsored by FIDESZ, the party that won a whopping two-thirds majority in last April’s elections. And its leader, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s 47-year-old prime minister and, now, the new president of the EU, is ready for battle. He fought his way out of relative poverty. He remains a competitive soccer player. He earned his democratic spurs by protesting against the Communist government of the early ’80s and first came to prominence in the summer of 1989, when he spoke on behalf of the young victims of the 1956 revolution and demanded that Soviet troops leave his country. He studied at Oxford, courtesy of George Soros’s foundation. Ironically, U.S. billionaire Soros, who has financed democracy movements in Europe, has frequently spoken of the importance of a free press.
Those who know Orbán well were not surprised that he did not change his mind when faced with a barrage of international reaction. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso declared that “freedom of the press is a sacred principle, a fundamental value.” The British Foreign Office, the Czech foreign minister, the German and French governments, have all attacked the media law. Even Adam Michnik, a hero of the resistance to Communism and a former ally of Orbán, protested with his Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s largest circulation dailies: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Orbán remained steadfast. With a surreal sense of timing, the government passed the bill into law on Dec. 21, mere days before his assumption of the EU’s presidency. To add a bit of vinegar to his resistance, Orbán told the other Europeans to back off, “get real,” and allow his country to conduct its internal business as they do theirs. Zoltán Kovács, minister of state for communications, told me that all the criticism was premature. “We shall all have a chance to observe the Media Council’s work and judge it by its actions.”
Miklós Haraszti, writer, human rights advocate and former Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media, sees the new legislation as part of an Orbán government power grab and “its determination to do away with all checks and balances.” Other developments are ominous. For example, the country’s president should provide a check on the government, but Orbán has installed Pál Schmitt, a former Olympic fencing gold medallist who is publicly an ardent fan of the PM. Also among the recent changes has been the diminution of the Constitutional Court’s right to interfere in tax matters, which critics say is another example of Orbán’s desire for absolute control. As well, a series of government attacks directed at Hungary’s independent central banker has recently unnerved financial markets. Furious that András Simor ignored government wishes and raised interest rates, Orbán stripped some of Simor’s powers and slashed his salary by 75 per cent.
Amid Hungary’s current financial crisis, the Orbán government has also been busy on other fronts. It recently announced a reform of its pension plans, an effort that would funnel billions of forints to the Treasury—and a new “crisis tax” in October on large corporations. This came as a surprise to the huge foreign telecommunications, banking, retail and energy companies most affected. The ensuing howl from European corporate headquarters was as predictable as the government’s refusal to contemplate a rethinking of its decision.
Some Hungarian commentators have suggested that Germany’s unremitting attacks on the media laws may have been influenced by the pain Deutsche Telekom felt when faced with the “crisis tax” bill of $130 million in 2010. György Schöpflin, in the European Parliament since 2004, went so far as to say the reaction to the media law was “politically motivated.” (Several European firms have gone so far as to ask the European Commission to impose sanctions against the new EU presidential nation.)
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