A fake tape snowballing into punitive legislation against journalists

It is hard to imagine that the Baja by-election is still a hot topic in the Hungarian media. By now the focus is not so much on the results and how they were achieved as on what followed. And it seems that the deeper we dig the greater a morass we find. The strange events surrounding a simple electoral fraud by now have snowballed into something that looks to me like an excellent political weapon to make sure that the election that really matters, the national election, will go the way Fidesz wants it to.

What do I mean? With the appearance of the phony video showing a number of Roma inhabitants of Baja, Fidesz managed to divert attention away from its own electoral fraud, committed not once but twice. Now everybody talks about the fraud that MSZP allegedly committed and not about the votes the local Fidesz paid for, despite tangible proof of the latter.

By now in one way or the other it is MSZP and to a lesser extent DK that are being accused of hiring people to stage a phony scene where money was exchanged between a representative of the Roma self-government and four inhabitants of Baja. Gusztáv Kőrös, the man who came forth with the “details” of MSZP’s involvement, is also a Roma official but from another town. According to his own very confused story, he was asked by two MSZP officials to produce the incriminating video. I might add here that our man was “under police protection” for three days. From whom were the police protecting him?

Let me state upfront that Kőrös’s story is totally unbelievable. If this is the best the people who are behind him could come up with, then any half-competent police force could easily solve the case in no time. That is, if they wanted to. But I very much doubt that the police actually want to.

snowballingYou may recall that at one point I suggested that the whole scheme was a simple ruse to get some quick money, perhaps from DK, which offered a reward for bona fide proof of electoral fraud. I no longer think that this was the case. After all, when Gusztáv Kőrös showed up at MSZP headquarters he asked no money for the DVD he handed over to a party official. So, I reasoned that local Baja Fidesz politicians might be behind the creation of the video. There is indirect evidence in support of that hypothesis. Before HVG released the video it was sent to Fidesz headquarters for their response. There was no answer. What does this tell me? That the Fidesz leadership wanted this video to be made public because they knew it was a fake.

MSZP, however, is not entirely innocent in this sordid affair. A few minutes ago the news broke that Gábor Gavra, former editor-in-chief of HVG, received the tape from MSZP. To be precise, from the director of communications of the party, Balázs Déri, at party headquarters. Of course, that doesn’t imply that MSZP was actually involved in the staging of the phony meeting, but it casts a shadow on the truthfulness of Attila Mesterházy who in the last few days steadfastly denied that there was any communication between the party and the editor-in-chief of HVG. All the MSZP politicians who talked about this affair claimed that, after receiving the tape, examining it, and finding it suspicious, they turned it over to the police. So, MSZP is sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire while Fidesz is reaping the benefits of this whole sordid affair.

Fidesz is pushing its advantage, though perhaps too hard. In the name of the “purity of the election processes” Fidesz came forward with a proposal for a new provision to be incorporated into the Criminal Code. The proposed law is already nicknamed Lex HVG.

Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz caucus, turned in the amendment to the new Criminal Code, which will come into force in December. If accepted, and why shouldn’t it be given the past record of the Fidesz-KDNP two-thirds majority, the burgeoning field of Hungarian investigative journalism will be stifled because the proposed amendment threatens any journalist who publishes material that a police investigation subsequently deems to be fake with jail time.

Very briefly outlined, here are the main points. (1) Someone who creates either an audio tape or a video in order to slander the reputation of another person will receive a jail term of one year. (2)  Anyone who makes such a tape or video available will get two years in jail. (3) Anyone who makes such a tape or video available to a wide audience (nagy nyilvánosság) will be jailed for three years.  And (4) anyone who didn’t ascertain the exact nature of such a tape or video because of “carelessness” (gondatlanság) will be jailed for at least one year.

So, the creator of a false tape or video will receive exactly the same sentence as the newspaperman who failed to ascertain, although he tried, the exact nature of the material he received. The whole amendment is outrageous, as Ákos Balogh, editor-in-chief of Mandiner, a moderate right-wing Internet site, pointed out this morning on ATV Start. In fact, the conservative Balogh was even more critical than his liberal counterpart, Dávid Trencséni of Stop. First of all, there is no need to introduce a new law on this particular issue because it is possible to handle such cases on the basis of the existing provisions of the Criminal Code. Second, such an amendment would greatly restrict the freedom of the media. Who will dare to publish any audio or visual material if he can face a stiff jail sentence? After all, no one can be 100% certain about the genuineness of such material. One would have to consult several experts, but even the experts might be wrong, and what will happen if the police’s expert says that it is a fake?

On the same ATV Start program the moderator interviewed Gergely Gulyás, the young legal expert of Fidesz, about this law, which is being fiercely debated among journalists and the general public. Gulyás is a self-assured fellow who can make the most outrageous things sound perfectly acceptable and reasonable. But this time even he seemed to be in trouble. He normally looks directly at the reporter without blinking an eye, but today he cast his eyes down far too often. Moreover, his excuses were feeble. It is not enough to say “don’t worry, no one will go to jail,” as he did. As the moderator rightly pointed out, why then do we need such a law?

I very much hope that this amendment will die because, if it doesn’t, the whole media controversy that was finally settled to the European Union’s apparent satisfaction will come to the fore again. If it passes, I hope that Brussels will be insistent that such punitive laws against journalists are unacceptable.

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