The Pricetag Of A Better Life?

Hungary’s government is cracking down on the free media. Prime minister Orban has offered his citizens a deal: Give me your liberties in exchange for a better life. Yet if this seems like a bargain to some, they are mistaken. No democracy can function without a free press – and already self-censorship is returning to Hungary.

„The press seems to behave as if it had only a broken horseshoe or a magnet with a negative pole. It overdramatizes everything, it shows only tragedies and calamities, it is full of ignorance and bad taste. We have to take care of it if we want to make (…) our five year nation-building plan a success” – said János Kádár, Hungarian communist party leader during a Politbüro meeting in 1985. And he took care of the issue by creating the 1986 press law which regulated print press until now.

The press is the enemy

The press is once again taken care of. This time by an ambitious politician who as a young opposition figure fought against János Kádár for the freedom of the press. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also has a nation-building plan and problems with the press. In his (and his fellow politicians’) view it is full of drama, bad taste and negativity which his plan does not deserve. He speaks about „a revolution which took place in the polling booths” in 2010 giving him a two-thirds majority in Parliament to change the country „after 20 confused years of transition”. And the deal he offers to Hungarians – unsatisfied with the economic success of the democratic regime – is this: give me part of your civil liberties in exchange for a better life. Part of the deal is media freedom. Magnets with negative poles might hamper his efforts.

Press is an enemy – this is what you can read out of the controversial media law which is now in its full force after the 6-months „period of patience” (interestingly coinciding with the Hungarian EU presidency) ended. In the hindsight the communist era press legislation – with all the sloppiness of the party regime’s last few years – seems more liberal than the one we have now. By the way Hungarian media is well-regulated without this law too: civil code, libel or personal data protection laws are severe, journalists are liable before courts. Audiovisual media was under the scrutiny of an authority created in 1996, its members were delegated by all parliamentary parties. This new law however creates conditions unseen in Western democracies.

The new „media constitution” lists in vague terms the values journalists must follow from defending public moralities to protecting minorities and even majorities, whatever these terms mean. It prescribes the same standards for all media from print to even certain blogs. It creates a „super” authority which can decide what good or bad journalism means and can immediately impose huge fines. The authority is filled with cronies of the governing party, their mandate is for nine years.

The chilling grip of the new law

You can already feel the chilling grip of the new law in editorial rooms. Public media resembles more and more a propaganda machine, where loyalty to the government is a must, several hundred journalists were sacked on political bias just recently. Out of fear of fines, private media outlets warn their journalists to be extremely careful (meaning less edgy, less provocative) in their work. It can reinforce existing tendencies of self censorship which survived communism as a cultural trend. This legislation together with the cultural context of a country where dictatorship ended only 25 years ago is a dangerous mix for free press. All this in the heart of the EU which was unable to protect its basic values.

The only hope is the conviction that no political system can be successful without a well-functioning, free press. Look at János Kádár and the magnets with the negative poles he so much disliked! His system collapsed just five years later.

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