The events of the last few days in Hungary have already aroused the interest of the foreign media as well as international organizations concerned with the media and civil society in general. János Lázár might insist that he put no pressure on the CEO of Origo Zrt. to remove Gergő Sáling, the editor-in-chief, but journalists unanimously told AFP that Sáling “was forced out” for political reasons after the site published a story about the extravagant travel expenses of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff. Transparency International also considers the Origo affair “intimidation aimed at stifling the voice of civil society and democratic oversight.” And this is just the beginning. One can be sure that in the next few days important German- and English-language papers will have articles about the Hungarian government’s heavy-handed interference with the distribution of Norwegian Fund grants and the pressure it put on the management of Origo.
Meanwhile the scandal is growing, as scandals usually do. After the firing of the editor-in-chief, András Pethő, deputy editor-in-chief, resigned. He was the author of the article that incurred the wrath of János Lázár. Soon afterward Péter György, the founder of Origo, also resigned from the governing board. He is the head of the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Graduate Program at ELTE. Deutsche Telekom naturally refuses to bear any responsibility for what happened at the subsidiary of its subsidiary, Magyar Telekom, while Origo Zrt. steadfastly denies any connection between the editor-in-chief’s firing and the article about Lázár’s trip. So does Lázár, who tries to portray himself as a man of honor who would never put political pressure on the media. In fact, according to 444.hu, political pressure on Origo has been constant over the last three-four years. Ever since Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary.
There are always people who are convinced that the Hungarian public will swallow anything and everything this government does. They claim that Hungarians have difficulty with the concept of solidarity. In brief, nothing will ever change. I don’t agree with this assessment of the situation. I’m convinced that there will be a tipping point. We don’t know what will prompt a widespread response to an abusive and dictatorial authority. The tipping point can happen at any time and over any issue, but I would say that launching a broadside attack on the media is not a bright move on the part of the government.
Yesterday one may have been disappointed that only 1,000-1,200 people decided to protest the government’s actions against the media. But by today the opposition to the government looks much more impressive. More than sixty media outlets joined forces against the introduction of taxes on advertisements. And, what is most important, not just left-of-center TV and radio stations, newspapers, and web sites got together but right-wing media as well: not just RTL Klub but also TV2 and HírTV. Among the radio stations not only Gazdasági Rádió but also Katolikus és Lánchíd Rádió. Among newspapers not only Népszabadság and Népszava but also Magyar Nemzet, Nemzeti Sport, and Metropol. Among online newspapers not only Hír24 but also Mandiner.hu. And many, many others. Tomorrow the television stations will be dark for a while and newspapers and online newspapers will be blank. I think János Lázár and his boss made a big mistake. They managed to turn even friendly, often servile media against them.
And the Orbán government is facing other problems at the moment. I will mention a few. Lately the European Court of Human Rights handed down several decisions that found the Hungarian government in violation of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Although the Orbán administration swears it will not abide by the court’s rulings, one has the feeling that they might be forced to change their minds. Then there is the Norwegian case. It looks as if the Norwegians are not about to be pushed around by Viktor Orbán and his chief-of-staff, János Lázár. Today the Hungarian ambassador to Oslo was called in by the Norwegian foreign ministry. After the conversation Géza Jeszenszky could only say that he hoped the misunderstanding would be cleared up soon.
And let’s not forget the infamous monument which, though still not erected, continues to provoke criticism. This monument, which was supposed to serve as a symbol of Hungary’s loss of sovereignty on March 19, 1944, has been strongly opposed by historians, the Jewish community, and the center-left political forces. Even American Jewish congressmen and senators got involved and wrote to a letter to Viktor Orbán asking him to sit down and discuss the issues surrounding the idea of the monument. Viktor Orbán just answered the American legislators and told them that the monument will stand regardless of what the whole world says, including the Hungarian public. According to Medián, more than 55% of the Hungarian population thinks that the monument falsifies the country’s history. Yet he goes ahead.
Finally, there is the question of Viktor Orbán’s strong objection to Jean-Claude Juncker for the post of president of the European Commission. More and more it looks as if the anti-Juncker forces will not prevail, especially since Angela Merkel is under strong pressure to stick with Juncker, the choice of the European People’s Party. In order for the British-Swedish-Dutch-Hungarian anti-Juncker forces to succeed they would have to gain the support of 55% of the member states and 65% of the population. Somehow I don’t think they will be able to convince that many heads of state to vote for another candidate.
Hungary is fighting battles on so many fronts that it might seem strategically suicidal to open up two more fronts: the Norwegian Fund and the media. There is, however, one possible explanation for the government’s aggressive behavior. The European Union right now is between two administrations and occupied with an internal struggle between the European Parliament and the European Council. Perhaps Orbán decided that under these circumstances Brussels would be too busy to care much about Hungarian domestic problems. Given the latest developments, however, it seems that Brussels is still functioning and is quite capable of acting against the Hungarian government if it does not abide by the rules. And the “domestic disturbances” are turning out to be a much bigger deal than Orbán and Lázár thought.