Gábor Demszky, one of the early Hungarian “dissidents,” played a central role in the admittedly small but influential “democratic opposition” to the Kádár regime in the decade prior to the regime change in 1989-1990. His main anti-government activities included organizing, printing, and publishing illegal books, periodicals, and newspapers collectively called samizdats. During this time he was constantly followed by the secret service and harassed by the authorities, and he clashed multiple times with the state police during demonstrations for a free press and multiparty democracy. He was deprived of his livelihood and was jobless all through the 1980s.
He was one of the founding members of Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (SZDSZ) or Association of Free Democrats, which was the second largest party at the 1990 elections. He first became a member of parliament and was then elected lord mayor of Budapest. He was reelected to the same office five times and hence became one of the longest serving mayors in the history of Budapest.
His lecture on Samizdat, civil disobedience, the Helsinki process, and the 1986 and 2010 media laws was delivered yesterday in the Library of Congress.
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My presentation today will cover three interrelated topics: (1) First, I will define, explain, and illustrate the meaning of the Russian word samizdat; (2) Next, I will describe the Helsinki process in order to give the historical background of this kind of press and subculture and (3) I will use the development of the Hungarian media law since 1986 as a case study for the current lack of freedom of the press in Hungary.
For historical reasons, 1968 is an appropriate and obvious date to begin with, because this date signaled the end of the hope for a “reformed” or “enlightened” communism in the Eastern bloc with the crushing of the Prague Spring and the banning of a theater piece of the nineteeth-century Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz from being performed at the National Theatre in Warsaw and the resulting anti-Semitic backlash.
Here is a joke from Warsaw from 1968 about the banning of Mickiewicz’s play. Brezhnev calls the Polish Interior Minister, Mieczysław Moczar, a hardliner, and asks him: “What’s this? What are these demonstrations going on in Poland?” To which Moczar replies: “Well, a play by Mickiewicz has been cancelled.” “Couldn’t you arrest this Mickiewicz?” “But Comrade Brezhnev, Mickiewicz is dead!” “That why I like you, Comrade Moczar!”
But let us return to our first topic: samizdat literature. In my opinion, samizdat and all forms of civil disobedience in Eastern Europe were strongly motivated by the Helsinki process and by the Polish opposition’s bravery and ideological split with the Soviet system.
In 1975, we knew that the Helsinki Final Act was only an international agreement to which countries were not legally bound. It was only a declaration of intention, and the obligations therein were only moral and political. But in spite of the document’s legal weakness it obviously reshaped East-West relations and led to the end of the Cold War. For us it was a “testament,” a “creed,” and we wholeheartedly campaigned for its implementation.
In addition, Helsinki created bonds between East European dissidents and Western democrats. It started a controversial and ongoing dialogue about the implementation of the so-called “baskets”. (Baskets referred to different policy principles which the signatories accepted.) Naturally we, the “easterners,” have shown a great interest in the “basket-three” provisions because it contained basic human rights provisions. Why? Because we hoped that basket-three would ease our isolation. “The free flow of information, travel, and family reunification” were all magic words for us. We also knew that there was a growing pressure on our governments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. There was no doubt in our minds that the content of the “baskets” would be effective tools and frames of reference to advocate for the liberalization of Eastern Europe.
In addition, an effective follow-up process started to assess the progress of countries in fulfilling the terms. The follow-up meetings in Belgrade, Madrid, Vienna, etc. repeatedly created new opportunities. They became high level forums for our outcry and complaints.
In the framework of the “Helsinki process” a congressional commission called Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) was established in the Unites States, and in both the East and West several human rights groups were established in order to monitor the implementation of the agreement. It became more and more natural that East European citizens could meet and write letters and petitions about the human rights abuses to American and West European diplomats.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) became a strong advocate for United States activism on human rights, and it was an essential part of the transnational Helsinki network. The newly elected president, Jimmy Carter, was very concerned with the human rights issues, and with his leadership they received high priority within the OSCE and especially in the Belgrade follow-up meeting.
Meanwhile, the members of the Moscow Helsinki group were constantly harassed. Russian authorities considered the close cooperation between NGOs in Moscow and the Helsinki Commission in the United States a conspiracy against the Soviet regime. Orlov, the famous Russian human rights activist, was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp followed by five years of exile.
I already mentioned Jimmy Carter’s strong involvement in the Helsinki process, which I highly admired and respected. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the later National Security Advisor, who influenced him the most in his election campaign for the presidency. His commitment and arguments are reflected in a later letter written by Jimmy Carter to Andrej Sakharov, who was asking to help the Helsinki monitors in the Soviet Union. The president’s answer was very supportive: “Human Rights are a central concern of my administration. We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience.”
After this exchange of letters between the President of the United States and the most well-known human rights activist, Andrej Sakharov, Leonid Brezhnev declared that Sakharov was a renegade and an enemy of the Soviet State. What happened to the Soviet dissidents after this exchange of letters is well known. The Soviet authorities punished the dissidents with forced labor camps, house arrests, and long imprisonments.
But let’s focus on the dissident movements in Eastern Europe from a Budapest perspective. In the middle of the seventies, the establishment of KOR, the Committee for the Protection of Workers in Poland, had a strong influence on the intellectuals of the opposition in Hungary. And not much later, taking a stand for the Charta ’77 movement of the Czechoslovak dissidents enabled the Hungarian democratic opposition to finally crystallize. In spite of the expected repression, its members took a stand for each other and for human rights in the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act.
By 1979, 270 of us signed a statement protesting the lawsuit in Prague brought against Václav Havel and his fellow dissidents and addressed it to the Hungarian leadership. These almost three hundred – mostly young – people provided the background and the foundation for our independent institutions, our press, and the flying university (seminars with well-known dissidents in private apartments) and the Fund for the Support of the Poor. We read, translated, and disseminated the writings of the theoreticians of the Polish and Czechoslovak opposition.
Adam Michnik’s 1976 study entitled New Evolutionism had the largest impact on us. Perhaps this short writing was the most important samizdat text ever translated into Hungarian. In his study, Michnik goes beyond the traditional dilemma of “reform or revolution” and recommends setting up structures parallel with the Communist power. According to him, the dissidents’ task is the establishment of independent public opinion, the creation of independent organizations: such movements that cannot be integrated. The objective was political emancipation and self-organization of the citizens, as well as control of the government. In the course of history few political concepts or projections have become self-fulfilling prophecies as those of Michnik. This was the foundation on which Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union, came into being.
The Solidarity movement had varied impacts on the different groups of Hungarian society. The political leadership at the top of the social pyramid continued its milder domestic policy course, while at the same time, instead of real structural economic reforms, it accelerated the financing policy to maintain living standards through Western loans in order to forestall the dissatisfaction of the workers and civil servants. Apparently, all this made it necessary to continue with a relatively friendlier foreign policy towards the West within the limited potential of the Soviet bloc.
But that also put a limitation on what measures could be taken against the opposition. The activities of the Hungarian democratic opposition got stronger by the beginning of the 1980s both with regard to the number of its members and the methods it used.
This was the time, however, when the typed samizdat was replaced by the samizdat duplicated by stencil, and the core of the opposition around János Kis, a philosopher, decided to launch an illegal political periodical openly publishing the name and title of the editors. The first issue of this periodical, called Beszélő, having the meaning both “speaker” and also “visiting hours” in jail, was published in December 1981.
When Solidarity came into being, I felt that it would utterly change the political situation of the region and I consciously prepared myself for the transposition of the Polish experiences. In 1981 I decided to launch an independent publishing house called AB; I bought a whole ton of paper and hid it in my parents’ cellar. As a reprisal, I was expelled from the editorial office where I used to work, and from that time on I had no job until the 1990s when I became an MP and then the mayor of Budapest.
In addition to the engagement of the opposition in politics and having the independent, illegal press in the strict sense of word, the independent, opposition-led literary and artistic life began to bloom again, mainly in Budapest. Alternative rock, mainly punk bands, had regular performances for audiences of several thousands, singing songs that were straightforwardly against the regime. One of the leading bands sang “polak-wenger dva bratanki” (Poles and Hungarians are brothers) in their most popular song
At the same time, the Hungarian political leadership, with János Kádár at the top, hardened for fear of losing power, and anticipating his own political death. Although their hands were tied by being heavily indebted to the West, the government still cracked down on the opposition time and again.
In October 1985, Budapest hosted the CSCE Cultural Forum, a six-week interim meeting, as part of the Helsinki review process, involving the 35 nations that signed the Helsinki Final Act. The independent literary symposium, held by the opposition on the occasion, was a breakthrough for the dissident movement.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), the predecessor of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental group linking citizens’ Helsinki groups in a number of Western countries, sponsored the independent literary symposium in Budapest from October 15–17 which coincided with the opening of the official Forum.
This “unofficial forum” marked the first time that private citizens from East and West met openly in a Warsaw Pact country to discuss violations of cultural freedom, including censorship, unofficial publishing and minority rights. The unofficial symposium included prominent writers from a number of countries, including Susan Sontag, Danilo Kis, Jiri Grusa, Amos Oz, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Timothy Garton Ash, as well as independent Hungarian writers such as George Konrád and Miklós Haraszti.
A few hours before the independent symposium was to begin, the Hungarian government forced the hotels to cancel the facilities that had been reserved for the meetings.With the help of Hungarian dissidents, the meetings were relocated to private apartments in Budapest and proceeded without further obstruction.
After the close of the European Cultural forum, however, the authorities stepped up their harassment of those involved in samizdat activities.These harassments were well documented in the report written in 1986 which belongs to a series entitled “Violations of the Helsinki Accords” prepared by Helsinki Watch for the Helsinki Review Conference in Vienna, Austria. According to the report, Helsinki groups that formed in the USSR had been effectively disbanded, and more than three dozen Soviet Helsinki monitors were still in prison or exile. Jeri Laber, Executive Director of the Helsinki Watch, said in 1986:
Human rights continue to be grossly violated by a number of Helsinki signatory countries. He highlighted the number one obstacle in the process of implementation of the Final Act: Although there are no legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Helsinki Accords, their moral force continues to grow. Despite the fact that violations continue – indeed, just because these violations continue – we believe that the Helsinki process must continue as well.
When almost 27 years later I was reading the Helsinki Watch Report, the precise and careful analysis of Jeri Laber about the first media law in 1986, it gave me a very strange feeling. Maybe history is repeating itself? Were the Fidesz lawmakers with their super-majority in 2010 simply copying some paragraphs and rewriting others? A new press law passed in March 1986 was the first general press law in the history of Communist Hungary. Previously, the press and periodicals were regulated by decrees from various ministries. The new law defined the rights and duties of the press to provide “truthful, accurate and prompt dissemination of information,” and the public’s right to “an accurate picture of the political, economic, scientific and cultural life in the Hungarian People’s Republic.”
The first press law from 1986 also prevented the press from disseminating information that would hurt “the constitutional order of the People’s Republic and its international interests… and public morals.” This very general rule fosters censorship and other forms of state intervention. Surprisingly, the second part of the regulation was simply copied into the new media law in 2010 which stipulates that all media outlets must register with the newly established Media Council and that they may be fined for news reports that are “unbalanced”, insulting or in violation of “public morality.” The Media Council also has the power to deny registration and force journalists to disclose sources, particularly on the grounds of “national security” or “protection of public order.” (These regulations were later annulled by the Constitutional Court.)
The first press law which came into force in 1986 essentially codified the existing practice at that time, although it also included some new restrictions: according to the law, editors in charge became responsible for the execution of the principles of press policy and could be fired for failing to execute those principles.
I remember well that in the late Kádár regime, the president of the Tájékoztatási Hivatal (Information Office) Comrade Ernő Lakatos held weekly sessions for the editors-in-chief of the printed and electronic media about the press directives and policy of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party. It was a one-way, unidirectional, military type “discussion” about which the editors-in-chief informed their colleagues. There were a lot of rumors in Budapest about Comrade Ernő Lakatos, who had personally ordered the dismissal and punishment of the dissidents, among them myself and my friends.
Since 2010, based on information collected by the former OSCE media freedom representative, Miklós Haraszti, members of the three basic content provider groups, the online media, the printed press, and the radio-television sector, have to sign special contracts with the Media Council. The contract stipulates that they would regulate themselves based on the content prohibitions in the media law, prohibitions that go far beyond the criminal and civil law. In this cooperative agreement they promise that any breach of the media law will be investigated and settled by themselves.
Why did they do so? Because by accepting the role of the executioner, they can escape the constant harassment by the Media Council for petty infractions. But for the same reason, the owners put pressure on the editors to refrain from any political challenge in their news service and their chat shows. This is the mechanism of self-censorship. This is the reason why politics simply disappeared from the commercial TV channels.
Those owners who would balk at accepting the “co-regulation” contracts would simply stigmatize themselves in the eyes of the almighty Media Council. They could be subject to frequent fines that would be grounds for severe punishment later, including being shut down. Despite the participation in co-regulation, the Media Council is still entitled to pull any matter into its purview. Guaranteed self-censorship is behind the fact that punishments for coverage, content, are not frequently meted out.
As a result of “cooperative regulation,” the media companies are toeing the line and the Media Council can claim: just look, the fines are less frequent; there is no sign of supervision over the media. Foreign owners, in their own countries, would never agree to participate in this kind of cooperation. At home they rely on the principles of a free press. Following the Constitutional Court’s decision, which annulled the right to supervise content outside the broadcast media, they could have withdrawn from the co-regulation schemes, as they would have long done in their own countries. But they don’t do it. They prefer to be obedient. We are living in a “brave new world.”
There are other procedural similarities between the two press laws as well. Press restrictions that were announced in the winter of 1986 stipulated that anyone found with even one copy of samizdat may be subjected to heavy fines. These fines may be levied without any court proceedings, and appeals may only be addressed to the police officer who determined the fine.
Against the rulings of the Media Council there is no recourse to regular court. In such cases jurisdiction lies exclusively with the Administrative Court. In matters of substance, or merit, the administrative courts have no jurisdiction. They can only adjudicate on questions of procedure; whether the Media Council adhered to the media law during the process or not.
The media law has been criticized by a number of international organizations including the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and a number of European Union member countries and non-governmental organizations. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, stated that if misused, the media law “can silence critical media and public debate in the country.” According to a review by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the appointment procedures for Hungary’s Media Council fail to meet the Council of Europe’s standards for safeguarding media independence and pluralism.
But again, it seems to me that there are no effective legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Council of Europe and other EU standards. The historical similarity with the lack of legal means for enforcing the Helsinki accords in the seventies and eighties is obvious. This means that non-compliance can become a practice again.
Since the last election, Fidesz, the ruling party, justifies its diktat by pointing to its two-thirds legislative super-majority attained in the 2010 elections. But its actions fly in the face of the Copenhagen Criteria which established the EU’s basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. These criteria were established for new member states in the EU enlargement process in 2004.
As a response to non-compliance of the Hungarian government, the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark recently wrote to the European Commission suggesting that new tools were needed to bring persistently deviating member states into line. Here you can read the essence of their statement:
At this critical stage in European history, it is crucially important that the fundamental values enshrined in the European treaties be vigorously protected. The EU must be extremely watchful whenever they are put at risk anywhere within its borders. And it must be able to react swiftly and effectively to ensure compliance with its most basic principles. We propose addressing this issue as a priority and believe that the Commission has a key role to play here.
In my opinion, the European Commission as the guardian of treaties has the obligation to ensure that the institutional structures and operating rules of the member states are brought in line with the moral commitment they made when they joined the EU. There is a lesson which we learned at the time of the Helsinki process: the enforcement of the principles of the Helsinki Final Act wouldn’t have been possible without international pressure exercised at the follow-up conferences.
But finally, only the voters of the East European countries could change the fundamental laws and their own constitutions in the years of the Velvet Revolution. Only “We the people” could have decided our own destiny, and we made the right choice ourselves. History is repeating itself. The upcoming election in 2014 may be Hungary’s next chance to return to a state with freedom of the press which allows well-informed citizens to make free choices, life without fear or apathy, and a collective desire for “a community of the rule of law.”
Anna Stumpf, political attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, was present and took strong exception to Gábor Demszky’s description of the situation of the media in Hungary after the lecture. She claimed that opposition radio, Klubrádió, opposition televison, ATV, freely criticize the government without any interference. Demszky explained that neither of these two media outlets has nationwide coverage and, in fact, Klubrádió by now can broadcast only in Budapest and Debrecen. Moreover, companies fearing reprisals dare not advertise on these media outlets, which makes their financial situation truly desperate. He added that in some ways the Hungarian media today is less free than it was in the Kádár regime. To which Anna Stumpf exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Naturally, Anna Stumpf is far too young to know anything about the Kádár regime first hand.