Benjamin I Carden

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.