As of the 3rd of Jan 2011 a new draconian and essentially anti-democratic media law has come into effect in Hungary that may very well herald the end of media freedom in that country.
The current right wing government of Viktor Orban was voted in with an unprecedented majority that allows Fidesz (the majority right wing party) to not only pass any law they like but to also re-write the constitution. Orban is not wasting time and in a matter of months has clamped down on practically all the democratic institutions of the country: staffing all major decision making bodies with apparatchiks, severely curtailing the role of the constitutional court (that until now was one of the strongest checks on the govt), appointing Fidesz people to head institutions and now kicking in the guts the fourth estate.
The new law allows a small Fidesz staffed media body to bring down arbitrary decisions on the basis of ‘offense’ and ‘balance’ and fine media organisations with such a heavy fine that they cannot continue to function. Or they can force newspapers to out their sources (without which the press cannot truly operate). Essentially this means that the government can get rid of any newspaper or radio station at will or make their life impossible through intimidation and harrassment. According to experts the law is strongly authoritarian, serves no discernible democratic function and is the perfect tool for intimidation and silencing of dissent.
The opposition, the Left and media organisations not aligned with the government have started a loud protest and there are plans for demonstrations. Many magazines printed editions with blank covers in protest in December and the left leaning daily newspaper Népszabadság published its first edition of 2011 with a cover (see picture) that says ‘Freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end’ in Hungarian and in the other 22 official languages of the EU.
Several major European papers have re-printed the cover and articles and EU leaders have called for changing the law. The EU does not have many weapons to deploy here apart from shaming and perhaps taking away the rotating presidency from Hungary. Shaming will not work though: either the Hungarian constituency won’t care about the rest of Europe or, even worse, Orban will turn public opinion into a nationalistic anti-EU posturing.
The roots of the problem lie in poverty and a pile of unfulfilled needs in a people who have never seen ‘better days’. Desperation and lack of opportunity give birth to authoritarianism. The EU has little to lose, no effective powers to deploy and no real interest to make Hungary stand in line unless it starts seriously threatening European interests. Hungarians see few good alternatives to their current leaders who seem to offer a strong direction and law and order which seems appealing, even if some ‘nebulous democratic rights’ are trampled on. In any case the country is deeply politically divided, as soon as the Left protests against anti-democratic laws the Right will believe the opposite, so there’s no chance for a democratic dialogue.
I hoped that Hungary was closer to the Czech Republic and Poland in its values, but perhaps Ukraine and Belarus are closer in some ways. Yet, I want to believe that Hungarians will see a better way forward and will fight against such a tyrannical direction.
Germany, France and Brussels have called on Hungary to change the law, yet many commentators agree with me in that they don’t see much power in the hands of the EU and opposition can be used by Orban to fuel national sentiment further. Perhaps I gave EU leadership too little credit, there is building pressure and slowly growing lack of confidence in Hungary’s ability to lead the EU and represent it to non-EU countries.
Clever Hungarian organisers with the help of an independent politician and European journalistic bodies are plotting to forge an organisation that would both fund media attacked by the govt through the new law (so they can pay the ‘fines’ without going bankrupt) and are hoping to fund this through EU media charity, and help the organisation with legal advice. Creative interim solution I guess!