Dialógus group

Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights: The case of Krisztián Ungváry v. Hungary

Today’s topic should resonate with readers of all political stripes. Any news about secret agents of the Kádár regime, especially because of the lack of full disclosure, always arouses a great deal of interest. In addition, tidbits about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s activities as KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs in the 1980s are highly sought after, especially in right-wing circles. Add to that a former “official/informal contact” between the university and the Ministry of Interior’s infamous secret service who happens to be today a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. Finally, a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that finds the Hungarian Supreme Court’s finding and judgment in the case of Krisztián Ungváry v. László Kiss irreconcilable with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prescribes that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

Krisztián Ungváry

Krisztián Ungváry

The story started in 2007 when Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) published an article by Krisztián Ungváry, a historian who is an authority on, among other things, the secret service and its agents during the Kádár period. The article was about an aborted student movement at the University of Pécs. In 1982 three young law students wanted to start a peace movement independent from the official Országos Béketanács. They never thought the authorities would find anything wrong with such a movement. After all, Kádár’s Hungary, like the whole Soviet bloc, made frequent references to peace as something desirable. The problem was that the inspiration for this particular movement came from Western Europe and wanted to banish nuclear arms from the whole of Europe, including Soviet arms that could also be found on Hungarian soil. Therefore, the authorities immediately reacted in order to squash the Dialógus program, as the movement was named by the students.

The details of this “storm in a teapot” are not interesting as far as our story is concerned, but the original article does shed light on many aspects of “gulyás communism” that were not evident to the passive majority of Hungarians. The thesis of the article is that very often it was not the secret agents who were the most important sources of information for the Ministry of Interior but the so-called “informal contacts.” In connection with the Dialógus affair Ungváry mentions eight people who served as “informal contacts,” most of whom he managed to identify. Among them was the party secretary of the law school, László Kiss, then associate professor and today a member of the Constitutional Court, a position he has held ever since 1998. At the same time Ungváry comes to the conclusion that, although Gyurcsány as a KISZ secretary was a link in the chain, his role was minimal and he was not one of the “official contacts” the Ministry of Interior relied on.

Kiss Laszlo

László Kiss

Ungváry had proof of Kiss’s reporting to the Ministry of Interior and therefore had no reason to believe that he might be the object of years of litigation in connection with this article. A few days after the appearance of his article, Kiss made an announcement that was published in ÉS in which he declared that he had never been an agent and “never worked with the persons of the secret service mentioned in the article. In fact, he didn’t even know them personally.” He threatened Ungváry with both civil and criminal legal proceedings and, as it turned out later, brought charges against ÉS as well.

Ungváry’s answer in the same issue pointed out that Kiss’s name appears in the folder dealing with the Dialógus affair as the source of information on the details of the case. That didn’t satisfy Judge Kiss, however, and he proceeded with the litigation that lasted over three years.

Ungváry was acquitted of the criminal charges, but he and ÉS lost the first round in the civil case. In March 2010, however, the appellate court ruled in favor of Ungváry and the weekly paper. Liberal groups were delighted, and SZEMA (Szabad Emberek Magyarországért, the party of Klára Ungár) called on Kiss to resign his post after the ruling. After all, Ungár argued, a man with such a past shouldn’t be a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. 

Naturally Kiss had not the slightest intention of resigning. Instead he appealed to the Supreme Court, which promptly reversed the appellate court’s decision. Again liberal groups were up in arms, especially since the court fined Ungváry 3 million forints and ÉS 2 million for publishing the piece. But even Mandiner, a group of young conservatives, stood by Ungváry; in fact, they collected money so he would be able to pay the stiff fine. But Ungváry is not the kind of man who gives up easily. Shortly after the ruling of the Supreme Court in June 2010 he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. On December 3 the Strasbourg court ruled against Hungary. Thus Hungary will have to pay 7,000 euros to Ungváry and, 3,000 to ÉS over and above the amount the paper had to pay in fines after the ruling of the Hungarian Supreme Court.

The decision was a narrow one and the Hungarian government has the right to appeal, which would initiate another round of legal proceedings at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The Hungarian government hasn’t responded yet but László Kiss certainly has. He is planning to sue Ungváry for distorting the verdict of the court when he announced that the finding of the court “validated” his claims about Kiss’s activities. Kiss went so far as to claim that the Strasbourg court “announced that Ungváry was unable to prove his claims,” which were no more than “speculations” that lacked any corroborating evidence.

I checked the published judgment of “Case of Ungváry and Irodalom Kft. v. Hungary.” Since Kiss referenced the word “speculations,” I decided to check the text of the judgment. I found only one “speculations,” and not where I would have expected it to be if one believed László Kiss. No, the word was found in the description of the Hungarian Supreme Court’s judgment that the Strasbourg Court found wanting. Let me quote.

53. The Court notes the finding of the Supreme Court according to which the first applicant [i.e., Ungváry] was unable to prove that Mr K. had been in regular contact with the State security, often anticipating and exceeding its expectations. The Court finds that these expressions exceeded the limits of journalism, scholarship and public debate. In the present case, it is not the –arguably excessive – form of the expression but the defamatory content of these speculations, which the Court finds objectionable as being without sufficient factual support. …

The Court notes that the article intended to demonstrate that collaboration, that is, the activities of “official contacts” meant cooperation without specific, express operational instructions from the State security. Limiting its analysis to this kind of direct cooperation with the State security, the Supreme Court failed to consider that Mr K.’s reports had been in any case available to the authorities of the Communist regime, nor did it attribute any particular relevance to the fact that the first applicant’s undeniably offensive and exaggerated statements were made within the context of the broader presentation of the workings of the oppressive mechanism of a totalitarian regime. It did not consider relevant, either, that the first applicant had indicated the sense in which he had used the term informing (see paragraph 8 above). Indeed, the article was written in order to demonstrate how closely the Ministry of the Interior and the “social organisations” had worked together, and especially, how tight the relation had been between party functionaries and the Ministry of the Interior.

And finally:

The Court notes that the Supreme Court interpreted the first applicant’s description of these officials as one portraying them “guilty by association” – which, in that court’s view, could not prove that Mr K. “actually cooperated” with the State security (see paragraph 19 above).

The Court cannot agree with the deduction of the Supreme Court.

The Court finds that although the first applicant did not prove that Mr K. and his reports had actually been commissioned by the State security, it was nevertheless an undisputed fact that he, as a party secretary, had produced reports on the Dialógus affair. (p. 15)

If I read the decision of the Strasbourg court correctly, I don’t think that Judge Kiss has a chance. Unless, of course, the Hungarian judges are intimidated by the almighty judge of the Constitutional Court.