Hungarian media reaction to the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary

Now that the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary is over, let’s take a look at how much Hungarian citizens learned about what transpired in Washington on March 19. MTI’s Washington correspondent was present and sent very brief summaries. Judging from the precise dating of the MTI reports, all four or five reports were written while the hearing was going on. All of them, with the exception of the description of József Szájer’s speech, were extremely short. Benjamin Cardin and Brent Hartley merited only 137 words while Kim Scheppele’s fairly lengthy testimony was summarized in 135 words. Not much can be said about such complex topics as the constitution, the rule of law, antisemitism, and the Holocaust in only a few sentences. The description of Szájer’s speech was extensive (634 words). By way of comparison, most of my posts are between 900 and 1,200 words.

Helsinki CommissionNot surprisingly, the right-wing papers that were not too eager to publicize the criticisms of the Orbán government from the three people who testified simply copied out MTI’s reports, playing up Szájer’s speech and giving practically no coverage to what Benjamin Cardin, Brent Hartley, Kim Scheppele, Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, or Paul Shapiro had to say.

However, thanks to modern technology and the well-prepared newspapermen of Népszabadság, HVG,  and Index, a more balanced account reached the Hungarian public almost simultaneously with MTI’s super-short reports. The first to report was Népszabadság, about 20 minutes after the hearing ended. The headline repeated what Kim Scheppele had said during her testimony: “Hungary is on the verge of tyranny.” In the article itself the journalist offered a short (316 words) description of what transpired during the proceedings.

It was nearly twenty-four hours later that Magyar Nemzet first mentioned the names of Ben Cardin, Brent Hartley, and Kim Scheppele. Paul Shapiro, it seems, was not considered important enough to be mentioned by name. He was described merely as “one of the employees of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.” Neither Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska nor Freedom House was mentioned at all. Kim Scheppele was described as “the loudest [leghangosabb] critic of the Hungarian government.” By the way, one normally talks about the “severest [legkeményebb] critic.” “Loudest” carries the connotation of lacking substance or foundation.

Now let’s see how József Szájer and Gergely Gulyás viewed the hearing itself, the American officials, and their own roles in the proceedings. Up to now I haven’t written much about Gergely Gulyás, who is the rising star of Fidesz. He is in his early 30s, good looking, and way above the run-of-the-mill Fidesz-KDNP party hacks in mental ability. Gulyás’s role seemed to be to hand two books on Hungary to Senator Cardin. Apparently one of them was on the police brutality in September-October 2006. Otherwise he silently sat next to Szájer while the latter delivered his speech. It was clear from his expression that Gulyás was extremely satisfied with Szájer and most likely admired one of the founders of the party for his eloquence.

Szájer immediately gave a telephone interview to a reporter of a new outfit called Hungarian Globe, which is part of Mandiner, an Internet paper run by young conservatives. Besides this one interview and the texts of the testimonies I found nothing else on the Hungarian Globe site. According to Szájer, “the level of interest was rather weak, only one U.S. senator who is the chairman and no congressmen showed up.” Otherwise the hearing was not properly balanced because “the other three witnesses were heavily critical of the Hungarian situation. The verdict was already decided before the trial, but at least Gergely Gulyás and I had the chance to make our contributions.” (Gulyás’s only contribution was the lecture he gave Cardin about the proper pronunciation of his name.) Szájer complained that “the chairman sometimes wasn’t even sure which country the hearing was about. He mentioned Austria a couple of times instead of Hungary.” On the other hand, he felt that the chairman “showed a positive attitude towards my offer [of dialogue] and understood my message.” As for the quality of the other participants, “we heard numerous biased, partly or completely untrue remarks.” He was especially critical of Paul Shapiro who was accused of “a number of false and misleading details during his testimony…. I was expecting a more correct approach.”

Gergely Gulyás also talked to journalists, and to Index he repeated the same belief that no one is really interested in Hungary in the U.S. government because members of the Committee were not present. He even claimed that most of the people present were reporters. I talked to people who attended the hearing, and they reported that this simply was not true. The hearing was held in a small room for forty people and seventy people were present. Several people stood along the walls for two solid hours. Index also stressed that the Helsinki Commission is in fact a very important body with big names from both sides of the aisle.

All in all, the coverage was skimpy, although it became a convenient forum for taking the occasional pot shot at the U.S.. One Internet website from Pécs talked about “American darkness [homály],” implying ignorance. Many right-wing papers made fun of Ben Cardin, portraying him as senile because he didn’t even know what country the hearing was about. One gets so tired of the old joke about Americans who mix up Budapest and Bucharest. Now we will hear about mixing up Hungary with Austria.

I would not, however, take the criticism of Brent Hartley of the State Department lightly. His words carried a serious warning, and he made it clear at the end of his speech that his message reflects the views of the U.S. State Department. Although I think Szájer comported himself well, the evidence against the Hungarian government is too solid to be shaken by a list of cleverly constructed half-truths. It is possible that his forcefully delivered speech might mislead someone not thoroughly familiar with the facts, but those responsible for Hungary and the region in the State Department will not be swayed by Szájer’s twisting of the truth.


  1. Kim Lane Scheppele :

    Paul :
    As an ignorant Brit, can I just ask a rather obvious question – what was the point of this hearing?
    Does the Helsinki Commission have any power to do anything about what it discovers – even if that’s just to ask the US government to do something? Is it a part of the US government? When it reports, what happens as a result of those reports?
    It’s good to hear all these condemnations of Orbán, but if that’s all it is he’ll just ignore it – what we need is for the US to DO something. Is that likely to happen as a result of this?
    Sorry for ignorant questions, but we don’t have anything like this over here.

    The US Helsinki Commission is the American branch of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It can recommend actions to the OSCE as part of the US’s membership in that organization and it can recommend actions to the US government to fulfill US commitments under the Final Helsinki Act 1975 and related documents. For the history, see and for the documents see .
    The reason why I suggested election monitoring and a “Needs Assessment Mission” is that those are things that OSCE does to ensure free and fair elections, which is one of the tasks in its remit. Here are the various things that the OSCE can do: .

  2. Charlie, with a flat tax of 16% the oligarch friends of Orbán got a very good deal.
    And that is the most important aim of Orbán. As for the others, Lázár said, those who own nothing are worth nothing. So since they “are worth nothing”, they should not be surprised when they are treated accordingly.
    “Only the dumbest calves of all invite the butcher into their stall.”

  3. CharlieH :
    Győr Calling!
    Completely O/T
    End-of-life Care – Hungarian Style:

    Dear Charlie,
    Not for a moment do I condone what that nurse did or did not do, and not for a moment I believe that this should happen in a civilized country, let alone in a country that is a member of the EU. I do not support these nurses by any way, still I want to bring you the other side of the story. Hungarian nurses are greatly underpaid and overworked. THe “better” nurses leave the public institutions to work in private facilities, sometimes for double what they could make otherwise and under way better working conditions. I do not want to lay the blame on the current government either, as this situation goes way back. Still, it was Fidesz that felt and promoted that they will solve this issue as soon as they get in power. It was Fidesz who opposed any reform while in opposition and it is Fidesz now that pushes money into stadiums, and other absolutely useless things, while medical care and the medical profession is in its largest crises. Fidesz actually decided not to subsidize life saving drugs, and not to supply certain medications to those who considered to be dying (2-3 months left). The cost of certain heart medications, blood pressure drugs, diabetic pills are tripled in some cases. Of course this is not an issue for those who’s earning is rising like crazy, or who benefited from the 16% flat tax, but it is a real problem for those who retired on small fixed income. Example, the likes of Zoltani will jump in here to praise Fidesz and prove to us that actually some of drugs’ cost went down. Lucky Fidesz people, they only have to deal with headaches that can be treated with Aspirin, and for all their other illnesses, like mental problems, there is always Graz, and not the Hungarian sanatoriums.

  4. Kim Lane Scheppele : Thank you for the excellent paper and presentation. You are spot on.

    The constitution charade is only one fragment of the appalling reality in Hungary. There have been literally hundreds of scandalous developments in the last three years alone, all pointing in the same direction. I have to say that Mr. Orbán is building what comes closest to the classical Italian fascist regime. It is not completed yet, outstanding are the complete subjugation of the justice system/judiciary and the elimination-in-practice of any fair and free election, both are only partially completed.

    In assessing the situation one has to take into account the huge discrepancy between the written law and its functioning in practice. Think Potemkin village.

  5. Anything can be expected from those who have, e.g. :

    Boasted PM Orban after returning from Brussels that Hungary had never received more funds from the EU as in the currently debated budget – i.e. EUR 20 billion. In the frame of the previous one Hungary received 25 billion. ???? How come ? Easy, Mr. Orban converted the sums into Hungarian Forints. Could have claimed 1 000 times more, in Zimbabwean Dollars.

    The servile Media Council invalidated the Klub Radio (only government critical station) bid for frequency referring to a technical error – the bidder did not sign and stamp the blank backs of the typed pages !!!! First and only in history, as the courts ruled against this council decision.

  6. Tappanch: It is a political question of the highest order for the court system to allow the branding of Jobbik as a neo-Nazi party .

    A lower level judge will not dare to take sides and knows that it is much safer to side with a powerful and agressive party than a professor. Appeal courts perhaps will have more strength, but they will look guidance from Fidesz.

    Since it is not in the interest of Fidesz to have Jobbik branded as neo-nazi I would be surprised if Karsai could win the case (at all levels the panel of judges dealing with these questions are Fidesz supporters). They courts could argue internally that Strasbourg may decide for Karsai, but it is an extraneous event (and “the liberal foreigners of course always brand everybody a nazi and anti-semite, so nothing special”), internally Jobbik must win, otherwise it will look as thouh Fidesz sided (as they do and will in the future) with a party which was offcially branded as neo-Nazi. No go.

    I am curious, and this is a bell-wether case for the court system. The chances are not good.

  7. OT Tonight will be the soccer game Hungary – Romania played in an empty stadium. As mentioned a few days earlier on the Felvonulasi Ter a screen was set-up.

    This afternoon I was passing by this ter and saw about ten police buses, one special police camera riot car. Wesselenyi utca about three police cars (not near the Synagoge).

    Around 16.00pm the first non-neo-nazi from delvidek shout F… Zsidok near the Petofi Hid. Polica cars passed by and did not do anything.

    Btw there is a strong wind and temperature is around zero degrees (Celsius).

  8. 1.
    The official text of the mega-amendment #4 has not been published in yet.

    2. As recently as yesterday, Fidesz wanted to re-ban the red star and the swastika in a 5th amendment. Today, several Fidesz politicians declared that they will stop creating constitutional amendments for a while. The red star can be dealt with using fines – this is what they said roughly.

  9. Karl Pfeifer: ”As for the others, Lázár said, those who own nothing are worth nothing.”

    This absurd idea is not Lázár’s own brainchild. It is the doctrine of predestination that sets the Reformed Church apart form other Christian churches. Those who want a theological explanation of predestination should google John Calvin. A layman’s explanation goes like this: Some people are predestined by God to become rich and successful others are predestined to become poor and wretched. The people predestined for the high road end up in Heaven. The people predestine for a miserable life on Earth end up in Hell. Justice does not enter into it.

    János Lázár’s remark immediately identified him as a Calvinist. I have checked it and sure enough he was a presbyter of one of the Reformed churches in Hódmezövásárhelyi, where he was born and served as a mayor before being called to Orbans court.

  10. tappanch :
    Historian Laszlo Karsai is sentenced to pay a fine and to send a letter of apology for calling the Jobbik party neo-Nazi.

    So, what will happen if he does not send a letter? Will they throw him to jail? They are neo-nazi! THat is my opinion.Is there a freedom of speech or not? THey can call everyone and anyone communists. Laszlo Kover just done that, he called the protesters parents communists. Will he be sending letters to apologize?

  11. OK I am really mad. Mister Karsai, if you read this blog, I want to encourage you not to apologize. You did nothing wrong!

  12. Some1 :
    OK I am really mad. Mister Karsai, if you read this blog, I want to encourage you not to apologize. You did nothing wrong!

    What do you mean? According to the article he damaged the “good name” (jo hirne’v) of Jobbik. The synonyms of “good name” in are: character, chastity, courage, decency, dignity, fairness, good name , goodness, honestness, honesty, incorruption, incorruptness, innocence, modesty, morality, morals, prestige, principles, probity, purity, rectitude, reputation, repute, respect, righteous. All typical characteristics of Jobbik, aren’t they?

  13. From the coments I have read, in the “thoughtful” international press, in addition to those here, It is abundantly clear that the present Hungarian Government, are hell bent on building a Neo Nazi one party state. Wake up Hungarian people, before you are held under the totalitarian yoke of fear and evil, from which there will be no escape through the ballot box.

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