Fear and Self-Censorship

In 2010, the Hungarian parliament voted for a new media law that gives great powers to a new Media Authority to impose fines and revoke licences, with no possibility of appeal. There have also been cuts in public media followed by dismissals and appointments that by many are seen as politically motivated. Eszter Babarczy, media researcher and essayist, reports on the situation for the media and for the freedom of speech in Hungary.

December 13 2011 Text and translation from Hungary: Eszter Babarczy

Friends and journalists outside Hungary often ask me to sum up what is wrong with the new Hungarian Media Law. Of course, there are passages in the law that are unsavoury and dangerous to democracy, but to understand what really is frightening we have to go beyond the text.

There was little doubt who would win the general elections in March 2010. The coalition that had governed between 2002 and 2010 had lost all credibility after a period of rather inept government, of the demonization of police actions during the riots in the autumn of 2006, a referendum initiated by Fidesz against the government in 2008, and some tumultuous years for the Hungarian economy. The main opposition party, Fidesz, did not have to lift a finger during the campaign. In fact, the main strategy of the party leader Viktor Orbán was to keep silent and to avoid any debate. Fidesz just kept on feeding its hopeful messages: one million new jobs, economic growth, and instant solutions to crime and public safety to the increasingly desperate electorate, but refrained from commenting on any specific issue or outlining how to achieve these goals.

However, a few major news anchors took the opportunity to ask leading representatives of Fidesz a few unpleasant questions on prime time public television. These anchors—together with their editors and occasionally the whole crew—are now without jobs. They were fired from public media either in the days after Hungary handed over the EU presidency to Poland on July 1, 2011, or later, in November, during the second wave of downsizing the public media.

When I told a friend (a prize-winning and absolutely apolitical reporter), who works in the Hungarian public media, that I was writing this piece, and asked him how he would sum up the situation of the media in Hungary, he wrote: “I feel like puking every day. I am still here, I am still a news reporter but I see how news are produced every single day. I hear people are on their knees promising anything to keep their jobs. If you don’t, you go, which is made clear. It is suffocating. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare.”

The leaders who decide on who has to leave are new appointees. For example, the central news division of all public service media set up in accordance with the new media law by abolishing formerly independent newsrooms is led by 32-year-old Dániel Papp. In 2003 Papp worked as the media expert of Jobbik, the extreme right-wing opposition party in Hungary, a fact that is almost never mentioned. Just two days before his rise to this important post, Papp reported on a press conference at the European Parliament at which German Green Party MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit criticized the Hungarian government for its new media regulations. Papp, however, cut the report so that Cohn-Bendit was cast in an unfavourable light, seemingly walking out of the press conference when faced with old charges of alleged paedophilia. The report went on the air. The next day the online news outlet Index and several bloggers compared footage from the report and the venue and proved that the former had been manipulated. Nevertheless, Papp went on to become the head of the centralised news department.

Eszter Babarczy is a new media researcher, cultural historian, journalist, essayist, and translator, currently assistant professor at Moholy-Nagy University for Art, Budapest. She frequently writes for Hungary's largest political-economical weekly magazine, HVG. She is also an activist of the “One million for the freedom of press in Hungary” movement.

 

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The new Hungarian Media Law in fact consists of two separate pieces of legislation and several modifications of already existing texts. Together they set up a highly centralized structure for the public media, which concentrates control over all media: television, radio, the printed press, and online outlets including bloggers. A Media Authority was established and both the members and the leader were swiftly appointed for nine years by the two-thirds majority of Fidesz. This authority has the power to interpret the law, to provide guidelines, define public interest or public morality, receive and adjudicate complaints, impose fines, withdraw licences, and make investigations, since it is granted access to all internal documents of “content producers” and “media services.”

Since the draft proposal was submitted by MPs belonging to Fidesz and not by the government, the process was not unduly complicated by comments or criticism from trade organizations; public consultation before submitting a piece of legislation for parliamentary debate is only mandatory if the bill has been introduced by the government.

The second piece of legislation was passed in the early hours of December 21, 2010. Already on the 20th protests began with a spontaneous flashmob of students. Within the next three months, a small protest group on Facebook grew into a loose civil movement that could draw 25–45 000 people to its demonstrations. Western media, and, increasingly, important political leaders within and outside the EU, were listening. The government was caught by surprise.

In January 2011 Hungary took over the presidency of EU's Council. This was a much awaited opportunity for the Orbán government to become the focus of attention as the host of many important negotiations. But they did not expect the wave of criticism, often very harsh, published or reflected in almost all European papers, featured on national news channels—news that often reached as far as Japan or Australia, or smaller papers in the US and Canada.

The first reaction of the government was to shrug off the criticism as ignorance or malice or both, incited by internal opposition parties and a few liberal intellectuals. In a memorable moment Orbán called Angela Merkel “the poor chancellor” who, according to Orbán, had not expressed any criticism. The German Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs had to remind the Hungarian government twice that they indeed would like to see the government cooperating with its critics. The Luxembourg Minister of Foreign Affairs had denounced the law in no uncertain terms; Orbán dismissed this as ignorance combined with socialist manipulation. Other critics’ statements, such as statements by the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon or the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were passed over. News concerning the media law was tightly supervised in Hungary; any news item in the public media had to be approved by a senior editor appointed by Fidesz. However, it soon became apparent that talking down to critics would not improve the government’s image abroad.

Eventually, the government prepared an English translation of the two acts and took up the fight. It claimed, and has been claiming ever since, that there is no provision in the new media legislation that could not be found in comparable regulations in other EU countries. To deflect attention, they also decided to move slowly and declared that the new regulation would not be extended to the printed press and online publications until June 2011. Grudgingly they also made some very minor adjustments to the law.

 

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A very broad coalition of international professional organizations arrived in Hungary in early November 2011 to examine the present media landscape and offer some more criticism. On November 15 Fidesz-appointed head of the Media Authority, Annamária Szalai, met the leader of the international team, Aidan White, who was the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists from 1987 to 2011. The next day the authority issued a press release in Hungarian (and Hungarian only), saying that the international delegation had not asked any questions concerning the regulatory practice of the authority and had had no propositions related to it. Annamária Szalai also presented the official view and the system of co-regulation in Hungary.

The Media Authority might want us to believe the opposite but the delegation did have a few things to say. One of their concerns is the provision that journalists are required to disclose their sources. A recent example shows how extremely difficult it became for even the toughest of the tough to do investigative journalism under the present conditions. Tamás Bodoky, editor of atlatszo.hu (“átlátszó” means transparent in Hungarian), a website dedicated to investigative journalism, is frequently harassed by the police to disclose his anonymous sources on some corruption cases. In theory, journalists are obliged by law to disclose their sources only if “national security” is at stake. Although Annamária Szalai was instructed—or so I assume—to refrain from using her power as long as there is still some interest in the sorry state of the Hungarian media (and as long as there are better means to threaten the media), the police are nevertheless already running amok. The government, however, seems to need more reassurance; they proposed a new secret service that would have access to all—yes, all—documents. Thereby, any inquest concerning the media (or any corporation and person) is, by definition, an issue of national security.

The other point Aidan White emphasized was the danger of co-regulation. Co-regulation is of course a form of regulation that could work really well since it provides more autonomy for media organizations to create their own rules based on the general principles of the law and the suggestions of the Media Authority. Surely it is better to regulate ourselves than to have the authority do so?

In fact: no. Not now, not in Hungary. Co-regulation is the game of negotiations: the authority that has licensing powers and distributes frequencies can talk privately to media enterprises. They understand.

Perhaps the most revealing moment of Aidan White’s visit was his interview with atlatszo.hu. He said: “There were hardly any questions from journalists this morning in the press conference.” He explained he had the impression that journalists as well as owners of media outlets were afraid.

Indeed, they are. As public media is in the process of yet another downsizing (an excellent opportunity to fire anyone who speaks up or is simply a journalist of some quality), people did not take the risk. As I write these lines, I keep revisiting my words. Censorship reaches this far: I censor myself so that others who have told me about their experiences in private can keep their jobs. If the government’s supporters ask why always the same names show up in this context here is the answer: there are only a few people willing to take the risks—people who have nothing to fear or have nothing to lose.

 

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So, what is wrong with our Media Law? It contains many pitfalls, threats and all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways of meddling with the freedom of the press. But the problem of the media in Hungary is not really the content of this piece of legislation. The story is this: even if it is called a law, the media regulation is a political weapon, one among many, in a country drifting towards lawlessness. In Hungary laws can be modified every other day now. It became obvious as early as Summer 2010, to the consternation of many, that Fidesz is not above enacting laws to favour one or two cadres or supporters. They will not apologize for creating a powerful authority and stuffing it with extremely loyal people. When the Media Authority is an all-in-one solution covering all three branches of government and when attempting to regulate the fourth then the all-important question arises: who is on top?

The ruling party has all the reasons—and the tools—to keep media in check, but this is only part of the story. They also need some safely quarantined critics because they thrive only if criticism can be labelled as the ugly work of their political enemies. On the surface there is a free press market in Hungary. There are papers, one television channel, and a radio station (although its frequency licence has been withdrawn and the station operates in a kind of limbo now) that are openly critical. The Internet, that goes without saying, is beyond real control even if the new media regulation made some attempts to reign it in.

Here is my interpretation of the media strategy of Fidesz (or rather, of Mr Orbán). Fidesz would not shut down all the newspapers and the radio stations even if it were possible to do so. The most favourable media environment for them is the present one: two echo chambers, a very small one for the opposition and a large national echo chamber for the government. The latter includes all public media: all major television channels, most news production, and all of the largest daily newspapers in circulation.

This model reflects the model of Mr Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy. Most of the papers, the radio stations, and the Internet outlets are commercial companies. Fidesz’ core have bought them by means of their financial backers, who support them through some government advertising, or both—a strategy that has been quite clear since the mid-90s. The foundational myth of the right-wing in Hungary is that the former MSZMP (the official party of the one-party state) has influence and power in all areas of the economy, the media, and society. Fidesz started building its own society by duplicating almost all the Hungarian institutions in the nineties.

By controlling free daily newspapers (such as the Metro) and the public media, the men surrounding Orbán dominate the media market of the poor. By making repeated attempts to buy up shares of commercial television stations, or simply by bribing them, or threatening them—whatever it takes—they can control the news that reach millions every day, mostly the less educated and the young. The rest is for the intelligentsia; they can share their bitterness on the Internet or in small papers. That will keep them busy.

This is, of course, only my interpretation. There is no way I can prove it. Can I prove though that all those appointed by Fidesz are political appointees? I know they are, we all know. If you scrutinize their past and present actions perhaps you can point to a pattern. A foreign journalist or the leader of an international coalition of watchdog agencies will be told, as Aidan White was and many before him, that the appointees are excellent people with a long professional history to prove it.

As we frequently joked in early 2011 the first real mistake the Government made was to pass the Media Law and make it obvious thereby for all who can read that they want to control the media. They could have done without it, really—perhaps it would have required more pressure, or more political bribery, but intimidating the media in Hungary had not been very difficult under the earlier regulation either.

However, the Media Law, or rather the international attention and criticism it drew, proved that those in power are not completely free to rewrite reality whenever they feel the need. Paradoxical as it is, for those of us on the ground who fight against political intimidation and klientelism of any colour, the story of the Media Law is a triumph. The government may have destroyed public media, but the Media Law is a weapon they have not yet dared to use.