freedom of expression

Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans might be thwarted by Strasbourg and Brussels

The bureaucrats, speculators, and foreign press are once again lining up against the Hungarian government.

Let’s start with the forint, which today breached the 300 mark against the euro. The forint’s weakness is the result of several factors: the appointment of György Matolcsy as chairman of the Hungarian National Bank; rumors about the possible exchange of some of the bank’s foreign reserves for rubles; and, the latest, word that the government intends “to assist” Hungarians with their foreign currency loans. The government would convert these loans into ones denominated in forints and would also lighten their burden by paying a certain percentage of their debt. The Hungarian government would use some of the reserves of the Hungarian National Bank for this purpose.

There are political pressures on the Orbán government as well. In the March 5 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Michael Link, undersecretary in the German Foreign Ministry, wrote a piece that appeared on the op/ed page of the newspaper and available on the website of the German Foreign Ministry or in Hungarian on the Galamus site. The title itself is telling: “Hungary must remain a country of the law.” In the body of the article Link reasserts that “we cannot be indifferent” to what is happening in Hungary. Earlier the European Commission managed to convince the Hungarian government to change some passages in the Constitution. The Hungarian Constitutional Court also found some of the laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament to be unconstitutional. Now, however, there are new attempts to smuggle back all the formerly objectionable passages into the body of the constitution. These “new initiatives limit the freedom of expression for the alleged protection of the dignity of the Hungarian nation.”

rule of lawAs a friend of Hungary, Link would like Hungary “to demonstrate that the country has an effective separation of power between the legislative and the judicial” branches. As it stands, the Constitutional Court hands down judgments that the government ignores. “We need a vibrant parliament with a perceptible opposition and a confident Constitutional Court.” Link also wishes that “the two-thirds majority the Government relies on is used prudently. A two-thirds majority is not a free ride…. The European values that we share in the world, we must also cherish at home.” For good measure Link mentioned that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle shares these concerns. Common European values “must apply to all EU members, both new and old.” As with each member state Hungary remains “master of its cultural identity,” but there have to be shared values. Among them the rule of law is the most central. “It must be able to develop without any ifs, and, or buts.”

The Hungarian answer that came from Gergely Gulyás, a young Fidesz MP and a member of the parliamentary committee on constitutional matters, was that “it is a misunderstanding” that the Hungarian government wants to limit the competence of the Constitutional Court. To the contrary, its latest amendments were made at the request of the Court itself. What else is new? We know from earlier government statements that everybody misunderstands the intentions of the Hungarian government and Viktor Orbán.

On the very same day the Financial Times came out with an editorial on “Orbán’s threat to democratic values.” It is about the same amendments Michael Link was talking about. The article reminds people that last year Viktor Orbán backed down on aspects of a new constitution that would have posed a threat to judicial, religious, and press freedoms. But this week the Hungarian parliament threatened to revive “curbs that violate European values in an amendment to the constitution. If this goes ahead, the response from Brussels should be rapid and robust.” According to the editorial, Brussels should “set out in precise detail where the amendment violates Hungary’s membership of the EU. But once that is established, it should warn Mr Orbán that it is prepared to use the most powerful weapons in its armoury to defend European values.” The article recalls that the EU was ill equipped thirteen years ago to handle the situation when the Austrian government included a far-right party as a coalition partner. But the editorial stresses that “this time there is greater political consensus that Mr Orbán’s attacks on democratic norms cannot be tolerated.” The FT editors suggest a withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights and add that “financial sanctions too should be considered…. Faced with an economy in deep recession, and a decline in foreign investment, Mr. Orbán needs the money. Brussels should not hesitate to threaten a withdrawal of structural subsidies, for example, if Mr. Orbán does not call on his party to drop any amendments that violate EU membership. If the Hungarian prime minister insists on flouting European values, he cannot expect Europe’s support.”

And if that weren’t enough, today the secretary general of the Council of Europe called on the Hungarian government to postpone the vote on the latest amendment to the constitution. Thorbjørn Jagland wrote: “I have misgivings concerning the amendments that may not be compatible with the rule of law.”  He further argued that with the incorporation of these amendments the government with its two-thirds majority is forcing its will on the Constitutional Court and is thereby endangering the system of checks and balances. He suggests a postponement of the vote in order for the Venice Commission to study the matter.

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Fidesz and Zsolt Bayer: A close connection

I’m afraid I will have to return to Zsolt Bayer’s unspeakable article in Magyar Hírlap because since its appearance on January 5 a lot has happened.

In most civilized countries the editor-in-chief of a paper wouldn’t have allowed that incendiary piece to appear in print in the first place. But if the editor-in-chief made a mistake and published it, he would at the very first possible opportunity have apologized and distanced the paper from the author’s hate speech. Moreover, in a civilized country Bayer, the senior editor of the paper, would most likely have been summarily fired.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. Zsolt Bayer was given an opportunity to explain his first article “Who shouldn’t exist!” He offered up “Truly, what should be done?” In it, Bayer explained that naturally he could have written the original piece in a civilized manner but he chose this offensive style because he wanted to wake society up to the grave problem facing Hungary. He doesn’t want to kill anyone; he just wants “order.”  Finally, he brought up some poetic images including a Gyula Illyés line that he mistakenly attributed to Mihály Babits.

On the same day as Bayer’s explanation Gábor Széles, the owner of Magyar Hírlap, and István Stefka, the editor-in-chief, published a “Declaration.” It was a typical Hungarian right-wing rant that started with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s despicable treatment of Magyar Hírlap in 2009. It reminded its readers that after another horrendous article appeared in the paper the prime minister called on government offices not to subscribe to the paper. Thus, claims the “Declaration,” Gyurcsány violated the sacred principle of freedom of expression. It is no secret, the “Declaration” continues, that with its attack on Magyar Hírlap the opposition wants to break up the unity of the Right.

At the end, however, they apologized for any unintended affront and promised not to publish anything that might give rise to hate on either the left or the right.

Well, one could say that although the owner and the editor-in-chief didn’t admit that Bayer’s piece went beyond what can be considered legitimate freedom of expression and actually can be construed as an incitement against an ethnic group which is a crime in Hungary, at least they admitted that the article rightly caused consternation.

It would have been wise if Magyar Hírlap had stopped right there. The incident had already caused an upheaval in Hungary and abroad. Since Zsolt Bayer is one of the original founders of Fidesz and a personal friend of Viktor Orbán, it might have been a good idea to drop the whole topic as soon as possible and hope that the incident would be forgotten. But no, this is not how things work in Hungary.

By this morning the management of the paper decided to retract their semi-apology and stand by their man. Not only that, but for good measure they even dragged Fidesz and the government into this sordid business.

The original “Declaration” was taken off the paper’s website and instead a new “Declaration” was published. The tone of this new one is not at all conciliatory. On the contrary, it is wildly belligerent. The headline reads: “Answers to the Attacks.” The new version repeats the cardinal sin of Gyurcsány in 2009 when apparently friends of Magyar Hírlap demonstrated on Kossuth Square for their favorite paper which “in the last six years has supported democracy, freedom, and independence.”

The article by Zsolt Bayer is not the real question, Széles and Stefka claim.  The real problem is the left-liberal damage that has been inflicted on the country (országrontás) that led to the current conditions. Murderers and beastly, cruel criminals pillage in many parts of the country, but the liberal elite wants to cover up these crimes. What the liberals are doing is a form of connivance which, in their opinion, is worse than the original crime itself. Some members of the opposition consider anti-Semitism and racism the real problem in the country while they don’t allow the authorities to clamp down on the crimes of Gypsies. Magyar Hírlap‘s stand is that “There is no forgiveness for murderers. Even less for those who shield them. Magyar Hírlap rejects the latest witch hunt of the post-communists and at the same time asks the readers and supporters of the newspaper to stand by our senior editor, our paper and our national government working on our behalf.

What happened between yesterday and today? One explanation for this change of heart came this afternoon from György Balavány. I don’t think that I’ve mentioned his name before. He is a right-wing newspaperman who worked for Magyar Nemzet for ten years. But a few months ago he left the paper and since then has become a critic of the Orbán government. He seems to me somebody who likes to be in opposition. Magyar Nemzet was fine as long as it was an opposition paper but when it became a “government paper” Balavány had difficulty adjusting to the new situation. Now he writes for atlatszo.hu and has a blog, balavanyposzt.blog.hu.

Old friends: Zsolt Bayer and Viktor Orbán having fun

Old friends: Zsolt Bayer and Viktor Orbán having fun

Balavány told the following story on his blog this afternoon. Zsolt Bayer used to work for Magyar Nemzet (2002-2007) before he became senior editor of Magyar Hírlap.  According to Balavány, Bayer was not liked at the paper and his colleagues considered him “the man of the Party.” After Bayer left for Magyar Hírlap in 2007, as a result of some administrative mix-up Balavány inherited Bayer’s telephone number. One day a voice on the other end said: “Hi, listen, here is something, write about it, may I tell you about it now?” At this point Balavány introduced himself and asked with whom he was speaking. It was Gábor Kubatov. At this point Kubatov laughed and asked for Bayer’s telephone number.

Balavány closes his post this way: “Yes, we knew that he is a Proud Member of the Party but we didn’t know that he works under such direct orders. Zsolt is not a simple national-conservative reporter who criticizes left-liberal politics and politicians. Zsolt is the Voice of the Party. That is the case. So, we know that we cannot expect any distancing here on the part of Fidesz and the government.”

I suspect that Balavány is correct. Fidesz decided that there will be no retreat here. No apologies. It might even be possible that the original order came from Fidesz to write something on the latest brawl involving Gypsies but somehow the final product was a little too rough around the edges. Now somewhere on the highest level of Fidesz the decision was made not to bend but to stand by the spirit of Bayer’s original article. I suspect that Fidesz is in this shameful affair up to its collective neck. (If guilt can be collective, perhaps a metaphorical neck can be as well.)