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The voice of liberal democracy needs to be preserved in Hungary

When the Media Law of the authoritarian Hungarian government meets with strident criticism in the free press of the world, and from heads of established democracies, as a major attack on the freedom of speech, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his people ask for time, arguing against the avalanche of criticisms that no one should assume that the Media Council established in 2010 will abuse the unheard of powers with which it was endowed until it has shown an inclination to do so. Meanwhile they are eager to export their ideas.

True, the few free voices of democracy that existed at the time Orbán came to power still exist, although intimidated and in financial distress, as exemplified by the independent talk and news station, Klubrádió, which has lost virtually all its revenue after the last election, when government-affiliated companies, followed later by private businesses, did not renew their advertising contracts. Although everyone knew that the government was acting out of a paranoid desire to silence this courageous free voice, nothing could be proved until last week.

The Courts’ rulings against the Media Council 

On March 14 the Media Council (MC) revealed its true goals. After it lost its appeal on a lower court decision which ensured that Klubrádió could remain on the air on its present frequency, the MC continued its campaign to silence it.

This campaign began in February 2011, when the license of Klúbradió for the 95.3 MHz frequency expired and instead of renewing it or writing out a new tender, the MC only extended the station’s license by two months at a time. This meant that the station could not sign longer term advertising contracts, which is an assured means of financial strangulation.

When the intentions of MC became transparent, it announced, in June 2011, a new, totally unanticipated tender that called for music and local interest broadcasting. As a consequence, the frequency that Klubrádió had had for ten years, serving well a growing number of listeners, was awarded by the MC to a new company with unknown leadership and an unclear financial background. The MC justified this award on the grounds that the start-up company earned more points by offering a somewhat higher yearly frequency fee and agreeing to commit 60% of daytime programming to music, while Klubrádió agreed to only 40%. It is important to note that the 95.3 MHz frequency until then had had no such programming restrictions, and that Klubrádió had functioned very successfully with minimum musical inserts.

It should be noted that Klubrádió applied for and was awarded another frequency (92.9Mhz) and the station signed the contract for it back in 2010. But then, after the inauguration of the Orbán government, the contract was not honoured. Recently the Court decided against the MC in this case as well, but the MC has not honoured that decision either, and on February 28 appealed it on the grounds that the court did not say by what date this frequency should be granted to Klubrádió. This delaying tactic condemns the station to slow death by starvation.

Given the clear intent of the MC and the government to silence the voice of dissenting statements, the frequent statements from the Media Council claiming that it has no intention of curtailing free speech are also transparently cynical, since the requirement for a talk radio to fill 40% or even 60% of its daytime programming with music, in and of itself, represents a major infringement of the basic right of free speech and the democratic principle of media pluralism.

Furthermore, without a long-term license, this month-to-month existence also made members of its staff uncertain of their future, especially as the financially strapped station is behind in paying their salaries. Several good people had to seek other jobs to support their families. Others stayed and fought back, taking up the Klubrádió case expressly in order to alert the international forums of the concerned. For example, one of the most prominent call-in-show hosts mentioned the dire situation of his station on this online forum under the name of gybolgar in a comment. He and the head of the station also accepted invitations to speak in person in several western debates.

The symbolic significance of Klubrádió and the devious attempts to silence it

Klubrádió’s struggle for survival not only represents a test case of how far the government is willing to silence any opposition to its authoritarian aspirations. The station has also been endowed with a symbolic value: as long as we hear its broadcasts, we are able to sustain our hopes that all is not lost. My fear is that if this station is silenced, the democratic opposition will be even more discouraged than it is already.

A glimmer of hope arose this week, when the Appellate Court ruled on the March 14 in favour of Klubrádió against the MC. This could have been regarded as a victory for democracy and free speech, except for the fact that the news release of the MC indicated that it will not give up its war against an independent voice on the air. Thus, this ruling can at best maintain our belief a little longer in the independence of the judiciary, even though the 2/3 parliamentary majority of Viktor Orbán decapitated it by sending the most experienced senior judges into retirement, and of course intimidating those who remained.

The hearing was instructive inasmuch as it revealed that the MC is every bit as big a threat to the freedom of the press as the defenders of democracy – domestically and abroad –feared when the right wing autocratic Orbán government announced its establishment and staffed it entirely with its own people, shortly after it took office in the spring of 2010.

It became apparent that the government was reluctant simply to withdraw the frequency of this free voice, knowing that this would provoke a strong reaction from the defenders of democratic values in Hungary, Brussels, and around the world. It chose instead the route of financial strangulation, which would allow Orbán’s people to wring their hands over the corpse of their nemesis, professing how sorry they are that this radio station could not withstand the pressures of the free market.

The MC almost succeeded in this at the end of last year when the station’s staff received before Christmas only a fraction of the wages they had been owed for many months. By then, some of them had had to be let go or had had to find other (even menial) jobs to support their families. The station’s utility bills were unpaid and total financial collapse was days away when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund of New York came to the rescue, providing emergency funding equal to three months of operating expenses. However, longer term financing is still unresolved, as only a fraction of the listeners can afford to make even small contributions (the equivalent of 3-5 dollars) and the few who could afford more are afraid to call the attention of the authorities to themselves.

The possibility of renewed Radio Free Europe broadcasting to Hungary

Seeing how desperate the situation of Klubrádió was and what a setback to democratic aspirations the loss of a voice independent of the government’s “news factory” would be, Mark Palmer, former US ambassador to Hungary, and Charles Gati of John Hopkins University made a private appeal to the US Congress for the reinstatement of the Hungarian broadcast of Radio Free Europe. The appeal was terminated in 1993 in the tragically vain hope that it would never be needed again, since democracy had taken root in the former satellites of the Soviet dictatorship. I can well see the motivation of these friends of Hungary, who, together with Miklos Haraszti, a free speech and media advocate, argued well in support of this need in The Washington Post. 

However, technical problems and/or the cost of such broadcasts seem to be prohibitive, since it is unlikely that the Hungarian Media Council would give Radio Free Europe a local FM frequency that could be received by all radios currently used. Broadcasting from outside Hungary, presumably from Prague, where RFE headquarters now are located, would be relatively inexpensive on short wave, but there are very few radios in Hungary that can pick up these frequencies, and they are very expensive. Most radios have middle wave capacity, but broadcast on this frequency domain, even within a radius of a few hundred kilometres, requiring energy expenditures in the megawatt range, at very high cost.

It would be much more cost effective, therefore, to provide financial support to electronic and printed media already existing in Hungary, at least until the next election a couple of years from now, to prevent the strangulation of the voices of the democratic opposition.

The broader implications of stifling dissent in Hungary

Statements made by Viktor Orbán and members of his inner circle over the course of the past several months clearly reveal his aspiration to export his particular brand of autocratic nationalism and anti-capitalist, anti-Brussels doctrine. He has been targeting for his revolutionary fervour first the former socialist block, where liberal democracy and free market economy have not yet taken deep roots and there are sizable right and radical right forces. His utterances, which at first may not seem to make sense, reflect his conviction that all of Europe will have to see the superiority of his ways, and he is building up a propaganda machinery to facilitate this.

The “peace march” in support of Orbán and his government held on January 21 was not just for domestic consumption, as demonstrated by the bilingual, mostly Hungarian and English banners protesting western colonization and alleged infringement of national sovereignty by the European Union, which we joined after a plebiscite showed over 80% support for it.

Some Orbán worshipers abroad used this colourful happening to try to discredit western concerns over the infringements of basic human rights by Orbán’s parliamentary supermajority, which was achieved mainly by protest votes and the effects of the financial crisis, without Orbán facing his opponents in even a single debate or presenting his party’s programme in a meaningful campaign. Some pro-Orbán propaganda in the western media takes almost verbatim the misrepresentations and outright lies manufactured by the propaganda machineries of the office of the prime minister, his ruling Fidesz party and the Government -- collectively called the 'parrot commando' by those who are thoroughly fed up with the gibberish they repeat ad infinitum in the (far)right and radical right dominated domestic media, with very little voice of dissent in the shrinking, besieged independent media. This seems to have less of an effect on the over-sixty population because Hungarians had more than 4O years of practice disregarding government propaganda. And the younger age groups seem to be more impressed by the demagoguery of the far right Jobbik and its neo-Nazi fringes. Orbán can find receptive audiences domestically only in his shrinking camp of aficionados, which is why he began to extend his reach beyond our borders, first just into neighbouring states, but more recently also through the wider Hungarian diaspora and beyond them by proxy.

The effort to export Orbán’s sacral-nationalist patriotism to other countries

Orbán’s rhetoric and propaganda machinery has noticeably shifted its focus of attention to regions beyond our borders. We find in western sites texts that could pass for translations of materials coming directly from the government and Fidesz spokesmen. Let me just give one example: Erika Gösi writes in European Affairs about the “unjust” criticism of the Basic Law of Hungary, without mentioning that it was pushed through parliament last year without any chance for meaningful debate, frequently not allowing enough time for the representatives to read the bill or its amendments before they had to press the voting button according to instruction from above. Gösi tries to justify this rape of democratic principles and the falsified need to write the Basic Law instead of preserving the well-functioning democratic Constitution by quoting one of the standard lines of Orbán’s propaganda machinery: “The constitution had not received a major overhaul since 1948”, she writes. This is simply not true. While for good reason its date was not changed, the 1949 constitution was almost entirely rewritten in 1989. But you don’t have to take my word for it: László Sólyom, who was instrumental in the preparation of the Constitution of 1989 and some of its amendments in the 1990s, said at Central European University on January 27 in his lecture, that at the national roundtable of 1989 [which paved the way for democratic free elections] a fundamentally new Constitution came into being that is fully consistent with European norms and has nothing to do with the old [1949] communist basic law, with the exception of the statement that the capital of Hungary is Budapest. One could not imagine a more reliable expert on this subject than László Sólyom, given the fact that he was President of the Constitutional Court of Hungary  from 1990 to 1998 and even today he is politically very far from the present left-liberal opposition of Orbán.

Actually Ms. Gösi used the occasion of the so-called “peace march” to reiterate Hungarian government propaganda and paint a glorified picture of Viktor Orbán as someone who is devoted to democratic principles and fair play for all. True, she was not the only one who apparently did not notice or just does not want to acknowledge that among those leading the procession as well as among its organizers there were many far-right elements, including some openly anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy hatemongers.  Instead, she made a completely biassed, misleading statement: “In a show of support, a peace march was held in Budapest on Saturday,January 21 2012. Hungarians wished to show the world their unity, and overwhelming support for Viktor Orbán and the government.” She forgets to mention that the demonstration in favour of Orbán and his government was in response to another one on January 2, at which tens of thousands of unpaid people (as opposed to those who were bussed up, even from outside of Hungary, and were otherwise provided for on January 21) were mourning the demise of the republic and our Democratic Constitution and were demonstrating against the rape of democratic parliamentary principles that sired the monstrosity of the Basic Law of Hungary, which was designed by its creator, the Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán, to concentrate all power in the hands of its leader.

These two demonstrations illustrate well how deeply divided Hungary has become over the course of the eight years when the now ruling Fidesz party organized even bigger rallies with far-right, neo-Nazi support while in opposition, to bring down the socialist-liberal coalition government. Tens of thousand of us felt it necessary on January 2 to mourn the replacement of our democratic Constitution of 1989, which brought communist dictatorship to an end. It was now replaced with a Trojan horse of a Basic Law that smuggles in elements under which autocratic and -- if we don’t watch out -- eventually dictatorial single-party rule can be introduced. Whether this will happen or not depends first of all on whether the democratic opposition can gain a strong enough voice to warn of the imminent danger residing in the curtailment of the freedoms that constitute human dignity, ranging from the freedom of speech and expression to reproductive rights.

The export of Orbánism to Eastern Europe and beyond

Whether an autocratic regime, especially in a country as small as Hungary, can slide into true one-man rule or dictatorship also depends on whether the would-be-ruler can find allies, since the established democracies can effectively stand up against one or even a couple of isolated hubs of even the most infectious ideas. But once these hubs begin to coalesce or form an axis this effort becomes progressively less effective. This is why dictators always want to export their ideas.

Very revealing in this respect was the second peace march on March 15, which coincided with the celebration on the 164th anniversary of our Revolution of 1848 and the war of independence that followed. On this occasion, the organizers invited two thousand far-right or, more precisely, radical-right admirers of Orbán from Poland, seeking their support at the celebration or - more probably – to encourage them to spread the 'teachings' of this self-appointed messiah and the leader of the war of independence against Brussels, when they return home.

Of the some eight-hundred people who boarded a special direct train to Budapest, none of those who were interviewed for television hid their radical right leanings, nor their awe of Orbán and what he represents for them. One of them even proclaimed emphatically: “We need a Viktor Orbán too.” Apparently they do not find among their many right of centre and far right, radical leaders - one as committed to the cause as Viktor, who demonstrated his rhetorical courage when he mentioned a new way and the battle for freedom, and of course the impending decline of Europe, repeatedly to the celebrating multitude. The western press gave a mostly fair, realistically critical account of Orbán’s militant, far from diplomatic speech. 

I want to mention only two relevant aspects of it. Firstly, referring to our great national figures of 1848, he said that in one’s youth one is radical, like the poet Petöfi, who wanted to hang the Kings, but in adulthood one is more likely to be soberly ready for action like Kossuth, who was instrumental in organizing the war of independence against Austria. Secondly, one is likely to bend toward wisdom and deliberate programmes furthering advancement, like Széchenyi, who had the first bridge built between Buda and Pest and was called the greatest Hungarian by Kossuth.

Where does Orbán see himself on this scale? Considering that he had this annual remembrance moved from the steps of the National Museum, where according to legend Petöfi first recited his poem that has in its refrain the line “enslaved we will no longer be”, to Kossuth square, one wonders whether he regards himself as being in transition between wanting to hang the Kings who have more power than he and becoming a man ready for action. He may also be convinced that the age of wisdom is still ahead of him, as one hopes is indeed the case.

Another revealing moment in his speech came when, amidst cheers, he mentioned many countries, which, according to him, stand by him against those who criticize him unjustly or otherwise stand in his way. There were some cheers as he mentioned them, but he received the largest ovation when he shouted: Glory to Lithuania, God bless Poland, and even said a few words in Polish.  This was an understandable gesture based on our historic alliance with Poland, particularly during our war of independence against the Austrian monarchy, which we celebrated on March 15. The mention of Lithuania had no similar historic explanation. Although Orbán might have been catering to those in his camp who feel an affinity to that country’s longstanding Nazi orientation and anti-Semitic views.

It should be noted that according to most reporters his militant speech was tantamount to a declaration of war on Europe or at least the“colonizing” Brussels.  It seems a reasonable assumption that besides wanting to please the crowd before him, Orbán was courting potential allies, since regardless of how self-confident or even conceited we assume him to be, we cannot assume that he wants to fight this war by himself. It is more reasonable to assume that he wants to be its ideologue, instigator, strategist and chief of staff. And more importantly he wants to be the one who rouses the people of all nations with fiery speeches (whether they understand him or not) to resist subjugation and colonization, like Kossuth, the fiery leader of 1948.

It seams that the seeds of Orbanism, his particular brand of populism, and nationalism have already been sown, at least in some countries of Eastern Europe - although his utterances imply that he believes that all of “bankrupt Europe" or maybe the whole world will follow his new but yet undefined economic system and social policy, which is based on the strengthening, even at the expense of the poor, of the middle class, which he believes to be his firm electoral base.

History tells us that demagogy that captures thousands can reach millions if it bides its time.

Right now very few people seem to take the possibility seriously that Viktor Orbán’populist rhetoric will make him an actor of consequence on a broader European let alone world stage. But we should remember the past: there have been such exalted men before, whose ideas were regarded as too farfetched to be taken seriously. However, as the times changed, mostly because people fell on hard times, they won great multitudes of followers.

The people of Hungary unquestionably fell on hard times a few years ago, but many other circumstances contributed as well to Fidesz’s 2/3 majority in parliament, as I have already described it.

While Fidesz has lost considerable support because of its autocratic and erratic governance, this has not been reflected by an increase in support of the democratic opposition. This is due to a large extent to the fact that it has very limited means of reaching the people with its messages, since much of the media, from newspapers to television, is under the control of the far-right. Losing Klubrádió would make this playing field so utterly uneven that Fidesz would essentially be assured another election victory. In fact, the new election law favours the winner even more than the one that gave them 2/3 of the mandates in 2010 with less than 53% of the votes.

One more victory of such magnitude would not only make Orbán feel totally invincible and act accordingly, but would also boost his aspiration to extend his influence beyond our borders to build up an effective alliance with elements from the far-right for his war of independence against “colonization”, the new buzz word that seems to mobilize devotees of “patriotic nationalism”. What this and the many other catchy phrases used in the newspeak of today’s radical-right really means does not seem to matter to people who want to have a leader who can think for them.

These people will be even more difficult to reach if Big Brother continues to tighten its strangling grip on the few remaining voices of democratic values. But there are the millions of undecided people who are disillusioned with politics and are caught in a state of apathy. Those who want to silence the voice of dissent want to make sure that no other truth than theirs reaches these people, because they too know Jefferson’s adage that “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will”.

About the author

László Bitó was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1934. In the communist dictatorship after WWII, his family was among the many thousands marked as bourgeoisie, reactionaries, enemies of the working class, and in 1951 they were deported to a small village in eastern Hungary. In ’54 László was drafted into a forced labour unit to work in a coal mine. In ’56 he and his comrades disarmed their guards to join the revolution, but when it was crushed he recognized that he could no longer live in the hopelessness of a returning dictatorship. Escaping from Hungary, he ended up in New York, where he earned a Ph.D. in Medical Cell Biology and Biophysics at Columbia University. He then joined Columbia’s Research faculty where his work led to the development of a new approach to the reduction of eye pressure that saved the sight of millions of glaucoma sufferers. Upon retirement from Columbia as Emeritus Professor, László Bitó returned to his native Hungary and has started a second career as a novelist and journalist.

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