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Hungary's Democratic Credentials In Doubt As It Assumes EU Presidency

  • Daisy Sindelar

Hungarian students cover each other's mouths with their hands as they take part in a demonstration against the new media law in Budapest on December 20.

Hungarian students cover each other's mouths with their hands as they take part in a demonstration against the new media law in Budapest on December 20.

Just over 50 years ago, Hungary fought back against a bloody invasion by the Soviet Army. Just over 20 years ago, it hastened the fall of the Berlin Wall, granting East German refugees free passage to West Germany.

Now, Hungary marks another achievement in its transformation from a communist satellite to democratic republic as it assumes the presidency of the European Union on January 1, for the first time since joining the bloc in 2004.

Speaking recently in Budapest following a meeting with EU officials, Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, said a key priority for his country's presidency would be enlargement, which he said had given countries like his own the motivation to get their domestic affairs in order.

"We would like to return the impetus for EU enlargement," Orban said. "Enlargement will help solve the internal affairs [of new members], because those who enlarge, grow, and extend themselves believe in their future prospects. And what the European Union really needs today is to believe strongly in its own prospects."

'Special Flavor'

In particular, Hungarian officials say they would like to close accession talks with Croatia by the time their EU presidency ends on June 1. They also would also like to push the issue of Europe's Romany population back to the floor for general EU debate rather than pigeonholing it as a problem unique to Central Europe.

Perhaps most critically, they will also be looking to pass into EU law stringent new economic measures to prevent a repetition of the deficit crises in Greece and Ireland. Hungary's presidency comes at a precarious moment as the EU struggles to recover from the global economic crisis. Budapest -- which has seen its own public debt mount precipitously in recent years -- will be under intense pressure to guide the new economic proposals to successful passage, even as it struggles to get its own finances under control.

Focusing on the positive during the recent Budapest talks, EU President Herman van Rompuy warned that the presidency may be difficult but not without rewards for a country celebrated for its colorful contributions to European culture, like composer Franz Liszt, Tokaj wine, and the Rubik's Cube.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban: Read no evil.
"The rotating presidency is often referred to as a challenge, and it is. But I see this somewhat differently," van Rompuy said. "I think it's primarily an opportunity to present Hungary to the European Union, to prove your readiness to handle common matters in the common interest, and to add a special flavor for which Hungarians have always been well known."

But many in the EU are worried the "special flavor" that Hungary brings to the EU Presidency will come with a bitter aftertaste. Van Rompuy's words of support came as the Hungarian parliament was passing new media legislation that critics say will return the country to communist-era levels of state control.

Protecting The Media?

Hungary's new law on media services and mass communications will hand authority for supervising all broadcast, press, and Internet outlets to a new media council composed exclusively of appointees from Orban's ruling Fidesz party.

The council, which has the right to impose summary fines of tens of thousands of dollars, is expected to use its new powers to protect the media from unspecified attacks on "human dignity" and "unbalanced" news coverage. It will also reintroduce cumbersome registration procedures that leave media outlets vulnerable to state pressure.

The new law has been sharply criticized by journalists inside the country, with many dailies publishing blank front pages to protest the move. The international community has been vocal as well. The OSCE said the law violates media-freedom standards and has the power to "silence critical media and public debate in the country." The watchdog Freedom House said the legislation would be a "major setback for press freedom in Hungary."

Hungary's Public Administration and Justice Ministry responded to criticism of the law in a statement on January 3, saying critics were poorly informed about the text and leveled "unfounded, at times outright absurd accusations."

It said the government "in no way wishes to stifle the opposition's views."

Hungary's largest-circulation daily, "Nepszabadsag," announced on its front page on January 3 that "the freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end" in all the official languages of the 27-member EU.

The left-leaning "Nepszava" daily similarly called on the EU to help defend freedom of the press in Hungary.

Miklos Haraszti, a Hungarian writer and journalist who served two terms as the OSCE representative on freedom of the media and recently co-taught a course on global press issues at New York's Columbia University together with its president, Lee Bollinger, calls the new media law a "great shame" -- a rollback to communist-style restrictions after two decades of a pluralistic media environment.

"The government of Viktor Orban has tasked the media with providing the 'proper coverage' of political reality -- that's the wording," Haraszti says. "Twenty years after democracy began in this country, they have reintroduced what, philosophically, was the most typical assumption of the former one-party regime -- that journalism is there to serve the [unity] of the nation."

Common Values

The move surprised many who remember Orban as a fierce anticommunist activist and, more recently, as the popular alternative to Hungary's deeply disgraced Socialist government, which lost resoundingly to Fidesz in parliamentary elections in March.

Orban's center-right party now enjoys a two-thirds supermajority in the country's National Assembly and has the power to change the Hungarian Constitution -- something it did to facilitate the new media law. Orban has also used his party's dominance to cut funding to the national audit office and stripped powers from the country's Supreme Court.

Such moves have caused considerable frustration in other European countries, which see the outpouring of international criticism as an embarrassment to the EU Presidency. The year 2011 marks the first year that two new EU members will helm the presidency -- Poland being the second -- and the Hungarian controversy has many "old" European countries evoking the principle of common democratic values.

The European Commission is investigating the new law, and Germany's human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, urges Hungary to rethink its policy, saying all EU member states should "stand up for freedom of the press and actively protect it."

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and an influential member of the European Parliament, says that as EU president, Hungary "not only needs to accept and endorse, but also defend, all democratic principles that we [in the EU] commonly share."

But Haraszti says Orban believes his country's presidency will have a "mitigating effect" on the critical uproar and calculated the timing of the media law accordingly.

Haraszti says Hungary's rise to a position of political influence in the midst of a media crackdown should be a sign to the European Union that it must do more to set concrete expectations for its members' actions if it means to preserve its reputation as an outpost of democratic values.

"Inside the European Union, a full-fledged illiberal democracy has been born," Haraszti says. "It is absolutely imperative for Europe to step forward and create clear and accountable benchmarks in terms of democratic values and stop the optimistic assumption that being inside Europe means, by default, that those values will not be infringed upon."

In interviews with Hungarian media, Orban has rejected the international condemnation, saying his country's new law is similar to other European media laws and adding that "criticism from afar or from Western Europe doesn't frighten us." But in a last-minute move, the country's deputy secretary of state for European affairs, Gergely Proehle, on December 31 invited the OSCE for talks on the media law.

Germany has hailed the move as a "step in the right direction." But for now, doubts about Hungary's commitment to democracy are likely to darken the mood as that country assumes the presidency and as its media law takes effect.

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