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Story Publication logo September 4, 2013

Hungary's Wrong Directon


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Europe’s economic crisis has become intertwined with disturbing anti-democratic trends and the rise...

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Life in the capital, Budapest. Image by William Wheeler. Hungary, 2013.

A long-awaited measure from the European Union Parliament last month declared that Hungary's latest raft of constitutional changes, passed in March to widespread international condemnation, are in violation of EU standards. The EU called on the Hungarian government to take action or risk losing its voting rights in the union.

As the title of a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report suggests, Hungary has long been moving in the "Wrong Direction on Rights." Since winning an unprecedented two-thirds majority in parliament—with 53 percent of the vote—in 2010, the country's ruling Fidesz party used its super-majority to railroad through a new constitution and overhaul legal checks on its authority. According to HRW, these changes have not only undermined the independence of the judiciary but also interfered with media and religious freedoms and undercut the rights of women, LGBT people, and the homeless.

Last fall, I sat down with Zsigmond Perenyi, Fidesz's international secretary, to get the party's side of the story.

Perenyi began by saying that Fidesz had not won its super-majority based on any record of accomplishment, but rather as a public backlash to the abuses of the previous socialist government. He reiterated the party line that the dramatic constitutional overhaul, which independent observers note was undertaken without consulting minority views, had been necessary to complete the country's democratic transition from socialism.

Perenyi admits that Fidesz made some "mistakes," like failing to explain its goals, but he blamed Hungarian critics for unfairly stirring up international condemnation: outside observers labeled their changes as antidemocratic from afar. "A lot of journalists are not like you," he told me, "so they didn't come to Hungary to have research, to speak with different parties, to speak with us, to go and meet civil society or to really speak with the media here in Hungary [about] what's going on," he said. "In the last two years, we had four or five people coming to Fidesz and asking for an interview. So that makes it hard to communicate."

But during my time in Hungary, I did have a chance to interview representatives from different parties, from minority groups—including the homeless, the Roma and Jews—as well as journalists and other civil society groups. Together, they painted a picture of the ruling party as having used public support for some needed changes to consolidate its own control—for example, election laws were tweaked to diminish opportunities for corruption. In sum, they supported the view of Transparency International's Hungary branch, which described the ascendance of a narrow economic and political elite that has come to dominate public life in the country (Transparency International used the term "state capture").

Outside Hungary, it was the media law that drew the biggest backlash. It set up a five-member media control board—chaired by a party loyalist and former MP—that approves broadcasting licenses and can impose fines up to 700,000 euros for "imbalanced coverage," or content that "insults" or violates "public morality."

When I brought up this power to levy potentially devastating fines on media outlets, Perenyi dismissed it on the grounds that "the company [that] is getting these fees is not obliged to pay these fees because it can immediately go to the Hungarian court" to challenge a fine. "You cannot show me one single point in this law which you cannot find in the European Union in another country," he said.

I repeated what an analyst from Open Society Institute told me is a common saying in response to this argument: just because a door, a chair, a window, and a wall can be used to build a room doesn't justify using them to build a torture chamber.

His counter-argument was that, because it is rare to have a two-thirds majority in a European parliament, other countries are just feeling unnecessarily threatened by their power. With a two-thirds majority, he said, one could accuse every act of Parliament as being antidemocratic "because in reality you don't need, for anything, the opposition."

As proof that the media authority was not abusing its power, Perenyi said that the only media outlet that had been fined was a reality television show with no political message.

I had interviewed a number of journalists in print and broadcast who described a growing trend of self-censorship: on both sides of the political spectrum. They said that members of parliament often lean on editors who publish critical stories about their parties, and the editors fear losing government advertising in a depressed economy and the threat of massive sanctions that could cripple a news organization. This scares some news organizations from pursuing investigations into corruption, especially alleged ties between Fidesz and its powerful business associates.

A journalist at one broadcaster described Fidesz as having developed a much more sophisticated version of censorship. The unspoken rule, according to this journalist, is that an outlet must play by the party's rules in terms of its news coverage in order not to be sanctioned for its entertainment coverage.

At one point in my conversation with Perenyi, I pointed out that he seemed to be arguing that Fidesz's legal changes were not anti-democratic because they had won the seats in parliament to do as they pleased.

"No, it's democratic because we are a democratic party," he responded. "It's not democratic because you have a two-thirds majority. It's democratic how Fidesz leaders or the prime minister or the government feels, that we are a democratic party."

So the changes are democratic because the party considers itself to be democratic?

I suggested that when a party begins changing the rules of the game by which its was elected, some might view this as pretty radical.

"You can see it like that," he said. "But Hungary is a member of the European Union. Hungary is a member of NATO. I think that means that Hungary is part of the European community, of the worldwide community, and that Hungary is a democratic country and a democratic government. I think that should be enough."

So Fidesz is democratic by association.

In addition to the criticism that Hungary's recent changes drew from the U.S. and German governments, the European Commission, and the Council of Europe, many within the country disagree with Perenyi's assessment.

I talked with a young political blogger (online media is seen as operating more freely) who described widespread alarm that the country is headed in a dangerous new direction. Szabolcs Panyi told me that while older journalists and intellectuals worry about Fidesz's ideology and ties to the far right, the younger generation worries about the rise of political corruption and the move toward a Russian-style oligarchy.

"This is a totally new phenomenon. We've been a European country. We've never been anything like Ukraine or Russia," he said. "What is going on is really frightening."


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