privacy issues

My visit to the Center for European Studies, University of Florida, Gainesville

You may have noticed that I wasn’t around in the last couple of days. Alice Freifeld, director of  the University of Florida’s Center for European Studies, invited me to deliver the keynote address at a conference on “The Right to Know: Privacy vs. Transparency in the U.S. and the EU” yesterday.

bread and breakfast

The hallway of Magnolia Plantation where some of us were put up while staying at the University of Florida in Gainesville

Professors of law, political science, history, and journalism collaborated in a crowded but thoroughly enjoyable program. We started at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t finish until about 5 p.m., with a short break for lunch. I learned a lot from the panelists.

My hour-long talk was scheduled for 11:45, and I was pleased to see that a rather sizable crowd had gathered to hear what I had to say. It turned out that some of them are regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

The University of Florida has an international student body and faculty. I was picked up at the airport by a recent Ph.D. originally from Romania, Magda Giurcanu. Edit Nagy, a lecturer in the Hungarian language program, is also a recent Ph.D. from the University of Florida. She drove me to Alice Freifeld’s house for dinner. One of her students is a young American who took me to the airport this morning. She has been studying Hungarian for the last three years. She plans to write her Ph.D. dissertation on the status of sports stars during the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. A good topic. After all, these people had all sorts of  benefits (material and otherwise) as opposed to ordinary Hungarians.

Alice Freifeld’s major academic interest is Hungarian history. I must say she speaks Hungarian very well. In fact, she spent a semester at the Eötvös Lóránd University (ELTE) in 1972. Her book on Nationalism and the Crowd in Liberal Hungary, 1848-1914 (2000) received the Barbara Jelavich and the Hungarian Studies Association and Hungarian Chair of Indiana University book awards. But Professor Freifeld was not the only one who knew Hungarian among the panelists. In fact, we were somewhat overrepresented. Jason Wittenberg, associate professor of political science at Berkeley, also knows Hungarian. One of the panelists was Gábor Halmai, professor of law at ELTE’s Law School who at the moment is a visiting research scholar at Princeton University. Gábor and I knew about each other but had never met in person.

Our hosts were really fantastic. We were put up in beautifully refurbished Victorian houses that now serve as bed and breakfasts. Breakfast was fine, but even better was the unadvertised “cocktail hour” wine and hors d’oeuvres. Yesterday three of us who stayed at the Magnolia Plantation had a hilariously good time exchanging notes about each other’s experiences in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Including the usual question to me about “and how did you escape?”

Now, I just have to catch up with news on Hungary.

Orbán’s chief adviser Árpád Habony and his encounter with the law

Let me introduce Árpád Habony, considered to be the éminence grise of Fidesz and the Orbán government. He is apparently “the only man Viktor Orbán listens to,” at least according to people in the know. He is often seen in the background, practically hiding, at important functions. Just lately one cameraman caught him watching Viktor Orbán’s speech from close to the podium. He is often seen visiting the Office of the Prime Minister. He is also present at the meetings of the cabinet. He used to be a frequent visitor to the meetings of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, but apparently lately he lost this privilege, allegedly because some of the more important members of the delegation objected to his presence. If this is true, Habony’s removal from these meetings probably happened against the wishes of Antal Rogán, the whip, because Habony and Rogán seem to be on the best of terms.

Who is this man? Well, on paper he holds no position either in the government structure or in the party. One of the Hungarian newspapers couldn’t even manage to find out whether he receives a salary and, if he does, from whom. Although he has no official title, in the media he is normally referred to as the chief adviser to Viktor Orbán. He is apparently the man responsible for communication. Moreover, his services to Fidesz and specifically to Viktor Orbán are of long standing. He is no newcomer.

Árpád Habony at Viktor Orbán's speech on the achievements of the last year / Photo Gergely Túry

Árpád Habony at Viktor Orbán’s speech on the achievements of the last year / Photo Gergely Túry

Apparently it was Tamás Deutsch who introduced Habony to Viktor Orbán sometime after the lost 2002 elections. Not a very good recommendation, I must say, given Deutsch’s reputation. Habony never attended college. He was described lately as a restorer of art objects and, at one point, was one of the two guards of the Holy Crown. I remember reading somewhere a few years back that he used to have a car repair shop where he worked as a mechanic. Quite a leap. The former car mechanic now drives a Lexus SUV. He is an excellent kendo player. Kendo is a modern martial art of sword fighting. He seems to be also an expert in kung fu.

Habony was seldom written about in the media, except  for some tabloid coverage of  his liaison with a Hungarian actress. Lately, however, he has been on the front page of important publications because it was discovered that in May 2011 Habony was found guilty of disorderly conduct. He also caused bodily harm. He received a very light sentence given the seriousness of the case because of some legal technicalities. I’m at a loss to figure out what the difference is between “büntetés” (punishment) and “intézkedés” (measure) in Hungarian legalese. In any case, if for two years he doesn’t get into trouble his record will be scrubbed clean.

So, what happened? According to Magyar Narancs Habony was driving at a fairly high speed in a residential section of Buda in his Lexus SUV when an older couple pushing a shopping cart walked in front of him. Habony first launched into a screaming session and eventually got out of his car, smashed the shopping cart, knocked the man off his feet, and for good measure kicked the older woman in the stomach. Once all that was done he got back into his car and drove off. Later he tried to claim that the older couple wanted to rob him, but it seems that the judge didn’t fall for that ludicrous explanation. How could they have attempted to rob a man sitting in a large SUV?

Árpád Habony, chief adviser to Viktor Orbán, sentenced for disorderly conduct /Photo Magyar Narancs

Árpád Habony, chief adviser to Viktor Orbán, sentenced for disorderly conduct /Photo Magyar Narancs

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. As soon as Magyar Narancs‘s story came out on February 28 Béla Busch, Habony’s defense lawyer in the case, immediately threatened Magyar Narancs with a lawsuit for violating Habony’s right to privacy. However, privacy laws are designed to protect the reputation of ordinary citizens. Public figures must put up with more intrusion into their lives. That’s why according to Hungarian law ordinary people accused of crimes are described only by their initials but the same is not true of cases involving public figures. The defense lawyer had other objections to the way Magyar Narancs handled the story. He objected to the headline next to  Habony’s picture. According to him, Habony was “not found guilty” of disorderly conduct. He was again referring to some legal fine points, but it seems that his argument doesn’t hold water. Nonetheless, I’m sure that this is not the end of the story and I’m almost certain that Habony’s lawyer will sue Magyar Narancs and perhaps all other publications that dealt with the story.

Herewith a few personal observations. How is it possible that the case of an important person like Árpád Habony surfaces only now when already in 2011 he was sentenced and when Magyar Narancs earlier published a fairly lengthy article about his role as confidant to the prime minister?

I was also astonished to read that when one of the Hungarian newspapers wanted to see the transcript of the trial and the verdict they were told that they have no right to see the material. And, as it turned out, the case cannot be found among the material available online.

It is also worth mentioning that there are just too many right-wing politicians who display verbal and physical aggressiveness. One Fidesz MP, László Tasó, verbally insulted Tímea Szabó (then LMP MP) and later got into a verbal exchange with a family doctor which ended in a physical fight. Earlier a Fidesz MP (2006-2010) physically attacked the policemen who stopped his car. A Fidesz mayor spat on someone with whom he had had some past disagreements. A whole article was written about these cases, saying that Habony found himself “in nice company.” The author didn’t even mention another éminence grise, Lajos Simicska, who a few years ago got into an argument with his neighbor and settled the issue by taking out a chain saw and using it on the neighbor’s fence. Nice guys.