Month: December 2010

Some historical perspectives on freedom of speech

József Debreczeni wrote an opinion piece in Népszabadság (December 24, 2010) entitled "At the end of the leash?" In it he outlines the possible consequences of one of the most notorious paragraphs in the new media law. The paragraph reads: "any statement in the media which is qualified as an overt or covert insult of persons, nations, communities, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities or any majority, in addition to any church or religious groups is punishable." According to Debreczeni, no such restrictive media law existed either during the dualistic period (1867-1918) or in the Horthy regime (1920-1944). And Debreczeni sets out to come up with some examples.

He begins with Ferenc Kölcsey, the author of the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem. I will quote first the original Hungarian and then give the important parts in English. Kölcsey writes in "The Second Song of Zrínyi": "Szív, lélek el van vesztegetve rátok; / Szent harcra nyitva várt az út, / S ti védfalat körűle nem vonátok; / Ő gyáva fajt szült, s érte sírba jut.” He calls the Hungarians "a cowardly nation." Kölcsey's lines can certainly be considered an insult, and it is not even a covert one.

His second example is from the author of the lyrics of "Szózat," considered to be the second Hungarian national anthem, often sung in public. Mihály Vörösmarty wrote the following in "Az ország háza" (Parliament): "A hazának nincsen háza, / Mert fiainak / Nem hazája (…) / Neve szégyen, neve átok: / Ezzé lett magyar hazátok.” Hungary's name is shame and curse. Debreczeni rightly points out that would mean a fine of at least ten million forints for the periodical Athenaeum where it appeared.

Or here is Sándor Petőfi in "Buda várán újra német zászló!" (German flag again on the Castle of Buda): "Tedd le azt a fegyvert, magyar nemzet, / Téged isten nem arra teremtett, / El onnan a csatatérrül, lódulj, / Messziről nézz csak rá, a kuckóbul! // Ha urad jön, térdepelj le szépen, / S csókold meg a korbácsot kezében, / S várd el békén, míg reád halált szól, / És kirúg a nemzetek sorából!” In brief, he tells the Hungarians that they are not fit for war or freedom. Instead they should kiss the whip of the oppressor and just wait until death comes.

He moves on to István Széchenyi, the greatest Hungarian. He would be lucky today because he wrote these words in his diary: "Honfitársaim nem is sejtik, mily gyengék, tudatlanok, sőt rosszak. A dicsőség útjára vezérelni lehetetlenség volna őket… És a hazának legszebb nevei… semmirevalók a szónak egész kiterjedésében. Nem eszelős az… aki hazánknak ily rohadtságát elismeri… Annyira elromlottak mágnástársaink s nemeseink egyáltalában, hogy nem is érzik… mennyire elaljasodtak… Egy rohadt nemzet reformja élén állok, az ár ellen úszva.” His compatriots don't have any idea how weak, ignorant and bad they are and here he is leading the reform of a rotten nation.

Here are a few words from Nagyváradi Napló from 1903. Endre Ady, the great Hungarian poet who was also a journalist, wrote them in an article entitled "Menjünk vissza Ázsiába" (Let's go back to Asia): "Az a gyalázatosságában is mulattató komédia, mely ez ország keserves parlamentjében tegnap lefolyt, bele fog kerülni a történelembe… Ilyen megríkató baromság megérésére mégsem voltunk berendezkedve, pedig elkészültünk mi már minden megérhetőre. Az immár legbalkánibb parlamentnek ez a botránya irtózatos, kegyetlen világosságot adott a mi szemeinknek… Szeretett úri véreim, Ázsia ordított fel tegnap bennetek. A nosztalgia, a nomád, baromi ember méla vágyakozása rohamba tört ki… Egy harsány szitok hallszik. Lengyel Zoltán kiáltott, egy ifjú együgyű, ki hiányos intelligenciájával más, kultúr-országban evőkészlettisztító sem lehetne. Meg Leszkay úr, meg Rakovszky úr, meg a többi jól ismert idióta. És Vázsonyi egyfogatú kocsin futtat el ebből a komédia házból, hova bekerülni idestova erkölcsi halál lesz.” Briefly: The ignominy that occurred yesterday in the parliament will make history. Asia cried out in that Balkanic parliament. Ady calls one of the MPs a man of scant intelligence. In another country of some culture he would be polishing silverware somewhere. And by name he calls two members of parliament "idiots." Being elected to parliament means "moral death." Debreczeni suggests substituting some names: try calling Péter Szijjártó a young man of scant intelligence and add that Gábor Vona and János Lázár are idiots. Debreczeni adds: "I don't dare to continue…." 

He also quotes Sándor Márai, "whom the Hungarian right often quotes but doesn't really know": "Ahhoz, hogy Magyarország megint nemzet legyen, megbecsült család a világban, ki kell pusztítani egyfajta ember lelkéből a »jobboldaliság« címkéjével ismert különös valamit: a tudatot, hogy ő, mint »keresztény magyar ember« előjogokkal élhet a világban… Mert ez volt a jobboldaliság minden értelme… Amíg ezeknek szavuk van vagy befolyásuk, Magyarország nem lesz nemzet." In order for Hungary to be an honored nation, one must destroy the strange something called "the ideology of the right," meaning the idea that "a Christian Hungarian man" has special privileges in this world. As long as these people have influence Hungary will not be a nation.

Finally, Debreczeni returns to Ady who wrote the following about Prime Minister István Tisza in 1913 ("Rohanunk a forradalomba" [Running toward Revolution]) in which he made two small changes "Szeressétek / Őt is, a vad, alcsúti bolondot, / A gyújtogató, csóvás embert, / Úrnak, magyarnak egyként rongyot. /Mert ő is az Idők kiküldöttje, / S gyújtogat, hogy hadd hamvadjon össze / Hunnia fideszes trágyadombja." Debreczeni changed "madman of Geszt" to "madman of Alcsút" (Orbán's birthplace)  and instead of "úri"  he put in "fideszes." Well, I would hate to think what would happen if this poem was published today. Ady called Tisza a wild madman, a scoundrel who is setting fire to the country. But the country might as well burn because the whole "Hunnia" is a dungpile of the Hungarian Christian gentry class.

Ady wasn't worried for a moment about what would happen to him because "the wild madman of Geszt" believed in the rule of law and liberalism. "As opposed to his successor from Alcsút," he adds. Debreczeni hopes that Orbán will not be allowed to muzzle the media. "Next year we will find out whether the members of the Hungarian media are worthy of freedom or their place is at the end of the leash."

From the reactions I'm getting from people I know, they are not going to take all this lying down.

The pressure on the Hungarian government continues

Yesterday I left off with Péter Szijjártó, the spokesman of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, suggesting that MTI’s reporters misunderstood the German government’s position on the Hungarian media law. He in fact phoned Angela Merkel’s office and talked to the deputy spokesman asking for an explanation. Subsequently, he gave a less than complete summary of the spokesman’s message to the Hungarian government.

The Germans in turn decided to make sure that there is no further “misunderstanding.” First, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle phoned János Martonyi and, to make sure that the message doesn’t remain a secret, Werner Hoyer, undersecretary, gave a radio interview. In it he emphasized the seriousness of a situation in which there is even the suspicion of government interference with the free flow of information.

Meanwhile the European Parliament also moved into action. Markku Laukkanen, chairman of the Sub-Committee on the Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), made the following announcement: “In a democracy, media must not be treated as enemies of the state. The Media and Communications Authority to be established in Hungary on 1 January is an alarming sign that Hungary wishes to police the media…. The PACE Sub-Committee on the Media will discuss the state of media freedom in Europe in January 2011. I do hope that the Hungarian government will have clearly set by then the limits on this new Media and Communications Authority which must not function like the censorship bodies sadly known in Hungary under communist and fascist rule. Media censorship has no place in the democratic Europe of today.”

Shortly after this announcement there came others. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal caucus of the European Parliament, released a communiqué in which he emphasized that the time when Pravda and similar party papers existed in Europe is gone. “This new law is unacceptable. Hungary must give an explanation and the European Council must act.”

Meanwhile the European and British papers kept going. The Times published three articles today, one of which was entitled “Press Ganged,” a historical term meaning to force a person to join the navy or army by a press gang or detachment of men used for that purpose. In the article which I could read only in MTI’s synopsis the author recalls that in the last years of communist rule the political leaders of Hungary thought themselves pioneers of liberalization of the system, yet they were incapable of understanding the real desire of the people for freedom. Their current successors, it seems, don’t respect the constitution and freedom of the press any more than they did. The populist Viktor Orbán’s regime hasn’t yet used the petty dictatorial practices of the communists, but they have already turned against the values of the family of European nations. The whole European Union must unanimously protest against this law.

Die Welt continued its criticism, and this paper’s very negative attitude must be a real disappointment to the Orbán government. Die Welt is a conservative paper in which articles about Fidesz used to show sympathy for the party and its leader. And yet here is the second very critical article. In the article “Führerstaat Ungarn gefährdet die EU,” meaning authoritarian Hungary threatens the European Union, the author Günther Lachmann gives a rather frightening picture of “fascist tendencies [in Hungary] that cannot be ignored.”

While all this is going on, the Hungarian government is standing fast: it has no intention of changing the law. Or at least this is the government’s position at the moment because I still maintain that if more pressure is put on Orbán, he might change his mind. A threat such as taking away the rotating presidency of the European Union would surely change his mind in a hurry. I know people could say: it is impossible, it is too late. But let’s face it, the rotating presidency isn’t a very important political role. It is more a matter of protocol. The European Commission could make the decision to ask Belgium to continue its duties for another six months.

While the world is protesting the Orbán government’s undemocratic actions, Prime Minister Orbán announced on Facebook the ten accomplishments he is most proud of. So, let’s see what they are. (1) He managed to create the greatest national unity at the general and local elections in Europe. (2) The government introduced the greatest tax cut in the last twenty years. (3) They introduced tax deductions for dependent children. (4) For the first time in Europe they introduced a tax levy on banks. (5) After ninety years there is dual citizenship in Hungary. (6) They introduced the severest punishments for convicted criminals. (7) They managed to create worldwide solidarity after the disaster of the red sludge. (8) They put an end to outrageous severance pays. (9) They halved the number of politicians. (10) They allowed Hungarians to homebrew pálinka.

Practically none of these so-called great accomplishments has any foundation. The greatest tax cut is not so much a tax cut as a redistribution of taxes. The tax deduction for dependent children is helpful only to the better-off segment of society. It is not true that his government introduced a bank levy for the first time in Europe. It was actually the Gyurcsány government. They didn’t halve the number of politicians. In fact, there are more now than a year ago. Adding making pálinka at home as a great accomplishment is only laughable. Especially since he claims that this decision clearly shows the philosophy of his government, which tells the people “just do it.” A great ad slogan for Nike, a less compelling theory of government.

The country is in an economic mess, the European Union is outraged, and Orbán talks about the great accomplishments of his administration. Fitch, the international rating agency, downgraded the Hungarian state debt to just above junk status. One of the reasons for the decision was that Hungary again raised the paid maternity leave from two years to three. According to Fitch this move reinforces the feeling that the Hungarian government is not really committed to prudent financial management. And Fitch at that point hadn’t even heard what Orbán had to say about his plans on Facebook concerning support for the family. He promised that in a few years parents will not have to pay taxes at all on money spent on children. Wow! Hungarian children will be dependents of the Hungarian state. Meanwhile here we are at the end of the year and the government managed to spend 150% of the budget. Less money is coming in, more money is going out. And he is proud of his accomplishments.

Quite a day: Serious warnings for Hungary

This morning I did practically nothing else but read one article after another about the devastating reaction to the passage of the new Hungarian media law. The onslaught of very negative articles began already yesterday. I would like to quote a few representative opinions.

Let’s start with one of the earliest articles that appeared in El País that claimed that this media law “practically finishes off the freedom of the press.” According to the Spanish left-of-center paper the law borders on “censorship.” But the Spanish paper pales in comparison to Die Welt, a conservative paper. The title of the article dealing with the Hungarian media law is “Führerstaat Ungarn.” The article begins with these ominous sentences: “In Hungary, we can see how quickly a democracy can destroy itself…. It is as though a film in the authoritarian, anti-Semitic 1930s was stopped and I’m now rolling it again.” The author claims that “Austria’s Haider was an operetta interlude in comparison to what is happening in Hungary which is a tragedy.” The editorial complains that while in Austria’s case at least the Union did something, in the case of Hungary nothing is happening although this development has been in the making for a while. Hungary produced a Viktor Orbán who is “unscrupulous and power hungry.” In closing, the author quotes György Konrád: “At the edges of Europe chuckles madness.”

A few days ago Gazeta Wyborcza complained that only members of the media are up in arms while the politicians say nothing. Well, yesterday that situation changed. Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, gave an interview to Reuters while he was in Germany in which he urged swift action against Hungary’s media law. “The plans clearly violate the spirit and the letter of EU treaties,” he said and added that “it raises the question whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU. Until now there was only one dictator in Europe, Aljakszandar Lukasenka. If this proposal is signed into law the situation will be different.” Asselborn considers the law “a direct danger for democracy” because “the state will control opinion.” Asselborn is one of the longest serving foreign ministers in the European Union and what he says carries weight. Observers are certain that he had the backing of the European Union. And indeed, soon enough the deputy spokesman of Angela Merkel had a few words to say at the regular Wednesday morning press conference. Christopher Steegmans said–and here I’m quoting the Hungarian News Agency, MTI–that “the German government is carefully following the fate of the Hungarian media law.” He noted that Hungary has a special responsibility for the picture that emerges about the European Union in the world. It is self-evident that Hungary must remain committed to the values of the European Union. The title of the MTI report was: “Merkel reminds Hungary of the principles of constitutional democracy.” In addition, the spokesman of the European Commission also announced that the Commission will take a look at the bill in order to decide whether its provisions are in harmony with the laws of the European Union.

Gazeta Wyborcza‘s editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik, was once a friend of Viktor Orbán, back when the Hungarian prime minister was fighting for a democratic Hungary in the late 1980s. But now, he wrote, the same man has introduced a bill that will kill the free media. Orbán began traveling on a road that leads to Lukasenka’s Belarus. Michnik considers Orbán a great deal more dangerous than Jörg Haider was because of “the combination of nineteenth-century Pannonian missionary zeal and nationalism mixed with populism.”  On Gazeta Wyborcza‘s front page, as a sign of solidarity, the text was printed in Hungarian.

The Romanian Romania libera described the situation as the Hungarian government stepping with a heavy boot on the neck of the Hungarian media (“Guvernul ungar pune cizma pe gâtul presei”). The Italian Corriere della Sera called the media bill a “muzzle law.” As for adopting a law just before Hungary is taking over the presidency of the European Union, the paper considers the move “unusual and surely embarrassing.” La Repubblica‘s article dealing with the Hungarian media law carried the title: “Muzzle Law in Hungary: The right’s censorship of the press.”

Deutsche Welle naturally also spent some time on the Hungarian media law. It reported that Martin Schulz, the leader of the socialists in the European parliament, promised that “we shall measure Hungary against the European standards of press freedom.” Alexander Alvaro, who represents Germany’s Free Democrats in Brussels, announced that “the Hungarian government must ask itself whether it is absolutely committed to the European Union venture, endorses its values, and can assume the EU presidency next week.”

All this upheaval in Europe was hidden from the listeners of Magyar Rádió’s MR1 (Kossuth) station until about 2 p.m. today when at last MR’s reporter from Brussels summarized the events, including the reactions of the European Union, Angela Merkel, and Jean Asselborn. While the Hungarian public radio was silent on the issue, the Bavarian Radio’s lead story this morning was the Hungarian media law.

What do the bigwigs in the Hungarian government think? Are they surprised? What will their reactions be? I think that to some extent they are surprised. I don’t think that Viktor Orbán expected such a violent reaction from politicians. I’m sure that he knew that the journalists would be very harsh; after all this is not unexpected. But, the way I figure, he has been traveling all over Europe and has had pleasant little chats with the prime ministers of the EU member countries. Everybody was pleasant when he told them what a great president he will be. How he will tackle the gravest problems of the European Union and how lucky the Union is that such “creative” people as the Hungarians will be in charge for six months because after all they “are great problem solvers.” I assume that he thought that a few days before the beginning of Hungary’s rotating presidency European politicians wouldn’t raise a stink. Otherwise, I doubt that he would have pushed the media law through at this particular juncture.

Up to date the only official reaction came from Péter Szijjártó, who was surprisingly meek and mild which is not exactly his wont. He criticized–and it was a mild criticism–the journalists of MTI who were “bitten by the revolutionary enthusiasm that is present in European politics.” How did this revolutionary enthusiasm present itself? They gave the misleading title “Merkel reminds Hungary of the principles of constitutional democracy.” He embarked on setting these young revolutionaries straight. He talked to the deputy spokesman of Angela Merkel on the phone who sent him the transcript of the press conference. The only thing the spokesman said was that “as the future president of the European Union Hungary has a special responsibility for the picture that emerges about the European Union in the world. It is self-evident that Hungary must remain committed to the values of the European Union.” That’s all he said, and therefore the title evinces “minimum misunderstanding.”

Szijjártó was also dissatisfied with the way MTI presented the European Commission’s “investigation of the Hungarian media law.” This is also misleading because it turns out that “this is not an official investigation. The Commission will simply analyze, evaluate the document whether it is in harmony with European Union laws.” He then reiterated the government’s conviction that the media law is European to the core and there can be no question that it does conform to European expectations. Every one of the provisions can be found in the media laws of all countries in the European Union.

At the very end of the press conference, Szijjártó mentioned that Viktor Orbán during the break in the cabinet meeting phoned Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, who assured him that the foreign minister’s pronouncements are not the official opinion of the Luxembourg government. And in any case Asselborn is a member of the socialist party of Luxembourg, added Szijjártó by way of explanation.

From all this it seems evident that Orbán is somewhat worried. Szijjártó’s rather mild comments on the “misunderstanding” of the journalists of MTI and the subsequent nitpicking seems to me a pretty light-handed move. As for the transcript of the press conference of the chancellery, we don’t know how much Szijjártó quoted from the text. As for the Luxembourg foreign minister’s statement, it cannot be merely his personal opinion, especially in light of Angela Merkel’s simultaneous warning to Hungary.

If Orbán had any sense, he would instruct his puppet, President Pál Schmitt, not to sign the bill but to send it back to parliament for reconsideration. Thus he could show that all those rumors about Pál Schmitt’s subservient position are not really true and at the same time he could have a second chance to fiddle with the media law by taking out a few especially egregious passages. But I wouldn’t bet on it. It would be too sensible a course to take.

The Hungarian media law is passed

Naturally its passage was never in question. Yet Fidesz demanded that all members of parliament vote by name. I assume this was necessary to make sure that no one, but no one from the Fidesz and Christian Democratic caucuses dares push the "wrong button" by mistake. A fear that not all 256 members of the Fidesz and KDNP caucuses present would vote for this draconian law and there wouldn't be a perfectly unanimous decision.

This procedure takes a long time and it often happens nowadays that parliament votes on very important pieces of legislation in the wee small hours of the morning. MTI could report on the passage of the media law only at 5 o'clock in the morning. There were some protests during voting. Parliamentary members of LMP stuck orange-colored tape on their mouths while two of their members displayed a sign: "Hungarian freedom of the press–it lived twenty-one years." Tibor Szanyi (MSZP) held up a muzzle when it came to the vote.

The bill is 180 pages long and therefore I can mention only a few of the most important provisions here. First and foremost, the new Media Council, comprised entirely of Fidesz members or sympathizers, can fine all media (television, radio, internet) for inciting hatred against persons, nations, communities, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities or even majorities. In case you find the mention of this last group a bit odd, you're right, but from a nationalistic governing party its inclusion is not surprising. How often one could hear in the past, even from the mouth of Viktor Orbán himself, that the left "always turned against the nation." Or that, again a famous Orbán quotation, the "nation cannot be in opposition." Thus, if you criticize the government it will be easy in the future to interpret this criticism as an incitement against the majority. In addition, it will be enough to offend the sensitivity of any group. Well, I guess it all depends on how sensitive one is toward criticism.

Then come the details on the fines for "the transgressions." For media outlets with "significant influence" the fine can be 200 million forints or about 1 million dollars. I assume in this category one would find the two largest television stations: RTL Club and TV2. Others are luckier. They will have to pay only up to 50 million forints if the Media Council finds them guilty. Nationwide dailies, including internet newspapers, can be fined up to 25 million forints while weeklies and other periodicals can get away with 10 million. In addition, the editors of the offending media can be personally fined 2 million forints. All organs, including internet newspapers, must be registered with the authorities.

Originally the bill read that these fines will have to be paid immediately, prior to any appeal in the justice system. However, István Pálffy (KDNP), a former anchor at MTV, and László L. Simon (Fidesz), allegedly a writer turned politician, felt that perhaps this was too much to swallow, not so much at home but abroad. A revision to the bill lightened the severity of the law at this point. The fined media can ask for a suspension of the fine from the courts until a final decision is reached. However, the courts cannot decide on how "just" or "unjust" the "punishment" was, only on the appropriateness of the size of the fine. They can contemplate such weighty questions as whether this is a television station with "substantial influence" and thus whether the size of the fine is appropriate.

The authorities can also suspend the right to broadcast. The suspension might last only a few minutes but it could be as long as a whole week. In extreme cases the authorities even have the right to shut the organ down permanently.

As for content. The owner of a television channel or a radio station with a large audience (35% of the listeners) will be barred from acquiring another television or radio station, which is a reasonable provision. The programming of these stations is strictly circumscribed. Half of the programs of the television station must come from Europe, and Hungarian content must make up one third of its programming. In the case of public broadcasting (Magyar Televízió and Duna TV) the programming requirements are even stricter: 60% European and 50% Hungarian content is prescribed. As for radio stations, 35% of the music they broadcast must be Hungarian and 25% of this must have been recorded in the last five years. (It will be quite a feat to pick the right pieces and calculate the percentages!) It is somewhat reassuring that the stations, radio and television, will have the opportunity to discuss the details of the change with the Media Council and they will have three years to ease into the new requirements.

Now we come to news. Television stations "with significant influence" must spend at least fifteen minutes on news between 7 and 8:30 a.m. and at least 20 minutes between 6 and 9 p.m. Radio stations with a large audience will have to spend at least 15 minutes on the news between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. In the evening between 6 and 9 p.m. there must be news lasting at least 20 minutes. Reporting on crime that "doesn't serve the interest of the democratic public" must be restricted to 20% of the time devoted to news.

There is one provision I actually welcome: television stations must show at least 25% of foreign films broadcast between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m. in the original language with Hungarian subtitles. Actually, if it depended on me, I would demand all of them to be shown in the original language. A lot of people claim that Hungarians' knowledge of foreign languages might have been made easier with undubbed films on TV.

There are many provisions concerning the protection of children. For example, programs that shouldn't be watched by children under the age of 16 will have to be shown after 9:00 p.m. Moreover, programs which  are not suitable for those under 18 years of age can be shown only after ten. That in 2011 when many eighteen-year-olds have been sexually active for years. Or when teenagers surf the internet for juicy stories.

Put it this way, members of the Hungarian media are prepared for the worst. Although the supporters of the bill keep repeating that one ought not assume that the members of the Media Council are not well meaning people and let's wait until the new rules and regulations are actually enforced, critics of the bill are still worried. As József Debreczeni said today on ATV's Egyenes Beszéd (Straight Talk), the difference between dictatorship and democracy is that in the former we are dependent on the goodwill of the authorities whereas in a democracy the law stipulates what the authorities can and can't do. Right now the members of the media can only hope that the Media Council will be reasonable. But I wouldn't be too optimistic. What has happened in the last six months doesn't give rise to much hope.

The newest opinion poll: noticeable Fidesz loss

This is the third poll that shows a decrease in Fidesz's popularity. Perhaps because the data collection took place after the appearance of the other two, Medián and Tárki, the change is even more dramatic. In earlier months the decrease in support was gradual. In May and June 3.3-3.4 million people considered themselves Fidesz supporters. Between then and November, Fidesz lost 300,000 voters who didn't immediately declare themselves to be potential voters for other parties but simply went over to the large group of the undecided. But in November and early December (the poll was taken between December 8 and 15) another 300,000 left Fidesz, and this time all three opposition parties actually gained supporters.

Fidesz suffered its greatest loss among young voters and people with higher education. In these groups altogether 10% of the supporters disappeared while the average loss was 4%. Such a trend is not unexpected but what surprised me was the larger losses suffered in villages and in smaller towns where Fidesz has been very strong ever since its leadership decided to move from the left to the right of the political spectrum.

Public disappointment had to come after the heightened expectations that followed Viktor Orbán's sanguine announcements of a new era that would be radically different and naturally much, much better than what preceded it. "Monday morning you will wake up in a new Hungary," said Orbán on the eve of the elections. People woke up, looked around, and the world didn't look any different. Or if it was different, it was not a change for the better due to the mistakes made by the government. In fact, what surprised everybody was that disappointment didn't set in a great deal earlier.

The relative optimism lasted until about November when half of the population still thought that better days lay ahead and only 37% were critical of the government's handling of its affairs. By the end of November the mood had shifted: today 48% look upon the future with trepidation and only 40% support the government's policies.

MSZP's camp hasn't grown since the elections: around 800,000-1,000,000 voters. The difference is, and this might be significant, that they are more active. The percentage of MSZP supporters who claim that they would definitely go and vote reached the level of the usually much more eager Fidesz supporters. The public perception of MSZP is also changing for the better. In May 34% of those asked considered MSZP a party they would never vote for. In the fall there was a slight change: only 27-30% of the voters had a violently negative attitude toward the socialists. And finally in mid-December only 20% would definitely say no to MSZP in the voting booth.

During the fall both smaller parties, Jobbik and LMP, lost votes but according to this latest poll both parties have regained some of their lost voters. The graph shows the changes in party preferences in the voting population as a whole.Szonda Ipsos-10-12-20-1 Note the incredibly large group of people who have no preference. That means that unless Fidesz is capable of turning things around in a hurry–and I don't think that there is the likelihood of dramatic changes in the economy– the undecided voters might slowly move over to the opposition parties. My hunch is that most of them will return to MSZP, which was after all the other large party in the last two decades. Especially if MSZP manages to unite at last instead of continuing its infighting.

I was listening to György Bolgár's program this morning; today János Dési was conducting the interviews. He had a conversation with the humorist Tivadar Farkasházy, who is the editor-in-chief of a satirical journal called Hócipő (Galoshes). Why galoshes? Because there is a saying in Hungarian "my galoshes are full," meaning I'm really fed up. Farkasházy very rightly noted that as long as the opposition forces cannot get together, burying their differences, they will never be successful. For example, today university students organized a demonstration against the media law, but they pointedly told the public that anyone connected with a political party should remain at home.

Szonda Ipsos-10-12-20-2The graph on the right shows the party preferences of those who definitely would vote if elections were held this Sunday. One can see changes in the last three months. While the growth in support for Jobbik and LMP is very slight, the 6% loss in the case of Fidesz is fairly substantial. MSZP has done relatively well. This is the first time since the elections that over 20% of the voters would vote for the socialists. However, one must keep in mind that huge mass of undecided voters.

I received a letter from one of our readers who helped me out with the name of the chief-of-staff of Gábor Kuncze. His name is András Gyekiczky. He was also chief-of-staff of Mayor Gábor Demszky of Budapest.

I would like to call everybody's attention to a very helpful tool: Szonda Ipsos has something they call "Grafikon rajzoló." With it one can follow the fortunes of parties and politicians from June 1998 to date. Under the "party" rubric, one can choose between "population as a whole" and "definite voters."

And here is another piece of news about a new full-fledged internet newspaper in Hungarian published in New York: Amerikai Magyar Népszava. In the past, the paper appeared only weekly but today László Bartus, the editor-in-chief, came out with a new, expanded format. It became a daily. The date of the first appearance of the paper in this format is no coincidence. It was today that the Hungarian parliament voted for the introduction of the new media law. As Bartus proudly announces: the Hungarian rules and regulations don't apply to him and his paper. The coverage of U.S. news will be welcome to Hungarian readers without a knowledge of English. Take a look.

 

The second plan to put Ferenc Gyurcsány into jail just failed

Viktor Orbán, who is not terribly sure-footed when it comes to handling the economy, was only too well prepared to establish a regime in which all that happens depends on his will. One of his goals was to see Ferenc Gyurcsány in jail. The first attempt at finding him guilty of using the Hungarian police force for political purposes during the 2006 disturbances failed. I wrote about the rigged committee's efforts to find just one policeman who would admit that Gyurcsány in any way tried to give them instructions. The committee members found no one who would so testify.

Then came the second round. Orbán appointed Gyula Budai, a lawyer with not the best reputation, to investigate Gyurcsány's role in the so-called King's City affair. I wrote about the perils of being a foreign investor in Hungary on August 13, 2010. I suggest that for background my readers review that piece. Very briefly the situation was as follows. One of the investors, Joáv Blum, a Hungarian-Israeli citizen, had an orchard somewhere in Pest County which he offered in exchange for a piece of state-owned land in Sukoró, a village on the bank of a small lake near Székesfehérvár which would have been perfect for erecting an entertainment complex. The charge is that there was a huge difference between the value of the two pieces of land. According to the prosecutors 1.3 billion forints. The deal was forced through although even Ferenc Gyurcsány knew that the state was being fleeced by Blum.

Budai began to work on the case feverishly. Every second day he held a press conference where he triumphantly announced that the case is already won. He found evidence upon evidence that Ferenc Gyurcsány was guilty. He claimed that Joáv Blum conducted shady real estate deals not only in Hungary but also in Israel and demanded information concerning Blum from the Israeli Embassy in Budapest. He convinced the prosecutors to arrest Miklós Tátrai, the former CEO of Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő, the office that handles the sale of state properties, and Zsolt Császy, the head of its legal department. And when in Hungary someone, especially if that person had a job during the last eight years, is arrested it means that he will stay in jail for a while, perhaps years. No charges were brought against the two men, but the courts decided that there was the possibility that they might leave the country or try to influence witnesses. So, they spent good three months in jail.

Ferenc Gyurcsány does know that Orbán "wants his head" and even described an encounter with an old classmate of his wife who told him that he knows from a reliable source that since the prosecutors have absolutely nothing on him in connection with 2006 they will concentrate on the Sukoró land deal.

Well, it seems that this didn't work out either. On December 17 Miklós Tátrai, shackled and led in on a long chain, appeared at the Fejér County Court in Székesfehérvár as an accused in the case. He was under oath, unlike before when he testified as a witness. Gyula Budai was very hopeful. This will definitely clinch the case, he claimed in the morning. Then came the disappointment. Tátrai under oath testified that Ferenc Gyurcsány didn't force him to close the deal. The former prime minister simply told him about Blum's idea of the swap and asked him to look into the legal possibilities of an exchange. Tátrai also expanded on some of the details. Blum's orchard in Pest County was a good deal from the state's point of view because part of this particular orchard was necessary for the building of a new highway while the office had no plans for the land in Sukoró. Morover, Blum was willing to pay any difference in the value of the two pieces of land. Five independent estimates were received and four of them agreed that the difference was 300 million forints! And not 1.3 billion as the prosecutors today claim. A few hours later both men were released from jail.

By now, Orbán and his minions have struck out twice. I'm curious what will come next.

 

 

The newest outrage: Decision was made to destroy the archives of the secret service

Well, this will solve the problem. According to an announcement made yesterday, all the millions and millions of documents that were written by busy agents and informers reporting on their fellow citizens "will be made public." On the face of it, that might even seem a welcome piece of news. After twenty years of wrangling over the issue at last we will know the names of the informers and their victims. But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and it is very true in this case.

"Made public" for the Orbán government actually means destroying the documents. But the government instead is giving the false impression that it is being both morally righteous and protective of the rights of the citizenry. The claim is that the rights of the victims are paramount and therefore the victims or their descendants will receive the original documents. Afterward these people can do anything they want with them. So, these documents will be gone. And the rest? I assume in defense of the innocent victims, the authorities will destroy them. Or at least some of them. They might save those that could be useful in the future for purposes of blackmailing their political opponents. And they can do anything they want because there will be no one to watch over them. The Kenedi Committee, composed of three independent historians and asked by the Bajnai government to oversee the selection of documents that can be released, was just told that their services are no longer needed.

The decision is absolutely outrageous. The government is planning to destroy an important part of Hungary's recent history. As it stands now, certain parts of the documents could be studied by historians. Moreover, people could go to the archives and receive copies of documents in which their names are mentioned. However, I talked to people who received practically blank pages: the authorities redacted everything that they considered to be "secret" information. Also, researchers could only guess the number of informers and often had difficulty ferreting out their real identities.

The national security authorities tried to hide the fact that the names of the informers and their code names had been stored on magnetic tapes. Apparently about 50,000 of them. First they denied the existence of these tapes, but when there was just too much evidence to the contrary they claimed that the tapes are no longer readable by existing technology. That turned out to be a lie as well. On December 6, 2009, the government spokesman finally announced that the data had been rescued and had been copied onto a more modern, I assume digitized medium.

In March 2010 János Kenedi, a historian of the period particularly knowledgeable about the activities of the secret service, accepted the job of heading a committee that would "analyze the data found on the tapes." Kenedi thought that it would take them a year to complete the job. In April Kenedi announced the names of two other historians and archivists who would make up the committee: Mária Palasik and Gergő Bendegúz Cseh. Kenedi also announced that "there is a chance that as a result of careful historical research we will be able to come up with the numbers, names and code names of informers between 1944 and 1990." Well, no longer!

Although the demise of the Kenedi Committee was announced only yesterday, Magyar Nemzet as usual knew about the decision a week before. On December 9 an article appeared under the headline "Will the informer lists become public?" The paper learned that the decision had already been made that "people who had been watched and reported on will be able to get to all the pertinent documents." Magyar Nemzet added that in this case there will be no need for the work of the Kenedi Committee.

The Kenedi Committee was authorized to evaluate and select data found on the tapes but yesterday's decision, if I read it correctly, goes beyond the question of the tapes. Bence Rétvári (KDNP), undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, was talking about all documents pertaining to the activities of the secret service. According to him a "constitutional democratic state cannot keep personal information collected illegally by an immoral regime." The documents currently in the Historical Archives of the National Security Service (Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára) will also be given to the victims or their descendants. Only documents pertaining to the activities of the informers will be stored there.

This is an absolute outrage. Orbán and Fidesz have scant appreciation of history. For example, alone in the history of the Hungarian parliamentary system the Orbán governments kept and are keeping no minutes of cabinet meetings. And now they are destroying the reports of the informers allegedly because of privacy issues.

It is hard not to suspect an entirely different reason for the mass destruction of documents: self preservation. I'm certain that already during the first Orbán government when László Kövér, the second most important man in the party, received the seemingly insignificant position of minister without portfolio in charge of the national security offices and archives, his real job was to collect and destroy documents that would implicate some of the ministers and party leaders. However, everybody who knows the documents claims that it is very difficult to catch everything because copies of the documents might crop up in some unexpected places. This way, the powers that be no longer have to worry. Moreover, they themselves, without any civil control, can pick and choose what to destroy and what to keep.

Below you find I letter I received a couple of hours ago from Christopher Adam, a lecturer in the History Department of Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

****

In what serves as a very disturbing development for anyone with an interest in Hungary's Cold War history, the Hungarian government is preparing to enact a new law which may lead to the blatant, politically-motivated sanitization of the country's communist past. Allegedly out of a concern for privacy rights, citizens who were spied upon or observed by the previous regime's state security officers may now not only ask to view their files at the Archives of Hungarian State Security in Budapest, but may also remove these preserved archival documents from the reading room, take them home and have them destroyed.
 
According to Bence Rétvári, a secretary of state in Hungary's Ministry of Justice, "A constitutional system cannot preserve documents collected through anti-constitutional means, as these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime." The government decree makes it permissible to remove and destroy irreplaceable archival documents. Were Rétvári's warped logic also used by authorities in other countries, we could no longer produce histories of the world's most dictatorial and genocidal regimes.
 
Anyone who has worked with these state security documents knows just how difficult it is to define who did and who did not collaborate with the previous, communist regime. There were many forms of collaboration with the secret police, including people who were actually agents themselves, as well as "ordinary" citizens who served as so-called "community contacts;" who met with state security officers, in order to provide information on their neighbours. Others collaborated with communist authorities out of fear. Access to as much of the surviving record as possible allowed professional historians to produce histories of this period which took into account the various forms and levels of collaboration, whilst also showing just how deep cooperation with the former regime actually ran in society.
 
It is very difficult to see the destruction of Hungarian archives as anything other than a crude political move on the part of politicians who are concerned about potentially unpleasant and embarrassing documents on their relationship with the former regime that may one day be found by historians. Such documents may even suggest that some of the most fervent anti-communist politicians today were of a rather different opinion only two decades ago.
 
I have been able to collect and copy a few hundred pages of now potentially endangered documents from the Archives of Hungarian State Security during my own research and I hope that historians will reproduce as much as possible of the preserved material, before it is lost forever. It is a very sad prospect that the Hungarian government–including a prime minister who spoke out strongly against dictatorship 20 years ago–may now make it impossible for historians to study and share their research on the country's communist past.