A new report by the International Federation of Journalists is highly critical of the media situation in Hungary. BHHRG considers the allegations behind the report and asks whether the Czech scenario could be repeated in Budapest.
Following the successful rebellion at the state television in the Czech Republic (see BHHRG report Turmoil at Czech Television) there have been numerous suggestions that similar disruptions will follow in Hungary. In particular, the International Federation of Journalists, which supported the rebels in Prague, has issued a report harshly criticising the state of the media there ("Television on the Brink: the political and professional crisis of public broadcasting in Hungary"). As the sudden flare-up in Prague shows, events can occur very quickly and their speed helps to obscure the real issues at stake. BHHRG representatives, therefore, travelled to Budapest to investigate the media situation in Hungary.
In the Czech republic, the sudden way in which the rebellion against the appointment of George Hodac as the new director of Czech TV broke out managed to obscure the fact that the real issues at stake were different from that which was reported in the Western media. As the BHHRG report shows, it owed little to any urge to ensure free speech and instead a lot to the desire to prevent restructuring of Czech TV and a proper financial audit being conducted into its rambling financial affairs. In Prague, there was also the additional ingredient of President Havel, who supported the strikers and whose penchant for "non-political politics" helped to change the system by which the TV council is composed, removing representatives nominated by political parties. These two elements - unclear finances and the role of political parties in the TV and radio councils - are both present in Hungary. This is why the forces who supported the putsch against Hodac in Prague may also think that similar results can be obtained in Budapest.
The present situation
Hungary is often portrayed as the most successful of the former Eastern Bloc countries now “in transition”. One element in this has been the notable political stability the country has enjoyed since the first set of multi-party elections held in 1990. Yet as the sharp confrontation that developed between the winners and the losers of that election showed, Hungary is in fact a deeply divided society with a sharply-polarized political and intellectual elite.
In 1990 the victors were the conservative-oriented Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and their allies: the Christian Democrats and the Smallholders. The main party of opposition was the Alliance of Free Democrats, which could claim strong anti-communist credentials on account of the dissident past of many of its leading figures, but which chose to align itself more and more closely with the other main opposition party: the ex-Communist Socialist Party. Together the two were successful in creating an image of the government which was very damaging – especially abroad – as amateur, arrogant and authoritarian.
These two parties then held power together from 1994-98 after the MDF had been virtually annihilated at the ballot-box. This marriage of convenience offered something to both sides: the Socialists took command over the economy, while the Free Democrats were allowed to dictate the agenda in terms of cultural policy and the media – something they believe they are entitled to determine to this day.
On the opposite side, somewhat unexpectedly, it was the Alliance of Young Democrats or Fidesz which made the running in forging a centre-right alliance among fairly disparate and weakened parties (including the MDF and the Smallholders). Together they narrowly succeeded in defeating their opponents in the 1998 elections and Fidesz’s leader, 36-year-old Viktor Orban, became prime minister.
The elections in 1998 brought to power a centre-right government led by the Fidesz party (or Young Democrats) under Viktor Orban who became prime minister. According to the terms of the 1996 media law (see below) the government and the opposition should have an equal number of seats - at least four each - on the governing presidium of the TV and radio councils. The nationalists under István Csurka, the renegade nationalist and populist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) politician who had long since broken with the MDF and created his own Hungarian Justice and Life Party, won only fourteen seats in the parliament in 1998. However, this party counts as a member of the opposition for the purposes of the 1996 media law (see below). Csurka and the main opposition parties consisting of the Socialists and Free Democrats (liberals), cannot agree on how to share the four seats on the presidium between them. Csurka has said that he deserves two seats; the opposition contests his right to have any representatives at all because his 14 seats in parliament would normally be considered insufficient to form a parliamentary group. (The habitual minimum number is 15. However the Constitutional Court ruled that Csurka's party had the right to form a parliamentary group with 14 seats).
The matter remains unresolved, with the result that the presidiums of the TV and radio councils currently have only representatives of the governing parties. It is this anomaly which caused the International Federation of Journalists to issue its strongly-worded criticism of the present state of affairs in Hungary, and for the European Union to demand a swift resolution of the matter as a condition of Hungary’s EU membership.
It is, of course, true that the present situation is highly anomalous. But does it mean that the Hungarian media press is unfairly or even mainly under government control? In the Czech Republic, a rebellion was staged successfully on the basis that the leader of the opposition was trying to establish direct political control over the state TV but in reality this was a lie. In Hungary, the situation is also different from what appears on the surface.
First, it is true that Laszlo Zsolt Szabo, the former director of Hungarian Television, was sacked after his failure to bring the finances of the state TV under control. He was replaced on 27th February 2001 by a Fidesz member Karoly Mendreczky, but he has said he will renounce his party card. However, although the ruling centre-right coalition controls the commanding heights of the state media, journalists of a liberal and leftish hue are generally over-represented on the staff of the public service media outlets. The government’s declared aim, indeed, is to balance this over-representation to some extent.
Second, it is clear that many of the financial anomalies which bedevil the Czech state TV are also present in the state television in Hungary. Magyar Television is losing very large sums of money, some say tens of billions of forint a year ($1 = 290 Hungarian forint). The permanent staff of MTV numbers 1,700 but in addition a massive 8,000 further people are on regular contracts of one form or another with the state TV. Critics claim that much of this money is spent on producers in conditions which do not bear much close financial scrutiny: the suggestion is that state TV is a financial milch-cow for self-appointed "intellectuals" who, habitually in Hungary, regard themselves as having a supernatural mission as bearers of values and keepers of conscience while at the same time disapproving of expressions of patriotism. Critics also allege that, as in Prague, these intellectuals with their comfortable financial sinecures are siding with the opposition in its political battle with the government - precisely the combination which led to the rebellion in Prague.
A third similarity with the Czech situation is that the opposition Free Democrats in Hungary demand that the role of political parties in appointing members of the TV and radio councils should be removed completely, and that these bodies should be composed only of "independent" NGO representatives. In addition to these very major financial difficulties, the TV has racked up other debts in the form of unpaid taxes and social security contributions. The situation is so dire that the tax authorities have applied to freeze its accounts. Although Szabo has supported many of the present government initiatives like clearing out much of the old guard including programme editors, the finances of Magyar TV are in a mess.
There is a further party political consideration which may lead the opposition to encourage some kind of Czech-style rebellion - the very thing for which numerous articles in the press have been calling for since December. It is that a second term for the Fidesz government will severely undermine the continuing viability of the network of "jobs for the boys" throughout the country which provides support for the Socialist opposition. If the right wins again, that constituency might run out of steam.
Finally, the greatest similarity with the Czech Republic lies in the fact that the much-repeated allegation that the present Hungarian government wields excessive control over the media has persisted in spite of the fact that the market share of the public service TV is extremely small, some 10%. Hungary is extremely well served in electronic media with three national TV channels and 26 commercial TV stations. There are also some 30 radio stations operating throughout the country. Consequently, the situation in Hungary now resembles that which BHHRG has observed in many other Central and Eastern European countries at various times: the state TV is practically the only media outlet which supports the government. The only newspaper to do so is Magyar Nemzet, while the private TV channels are harshly opposed to Fidesz and its coalition partners. TV2 is run by a close friend of former Socialist prime minister, Gyula Horn, and the second private station, RTL – Klub, is owned by Bertlesmann which has tended to support leftist media outlets both in Germany and abroad. Despite this, international opinion concentrates exclusively on the problems at the state TV to give the impression that the media is not free. It seems that, only when all media are in the hands of the opposition, or ones which are compliant with the “will of the international community” (as in Slovakia or post-Miloševic Serbia) will international opinion be satisfied.
This danger is particularly acute given the attitude taken by the International Federation of Journalists and its General Secretary, Aidan White. White visited Budapest in February 2001 and declared the situation in the TV media to be "a crisis". He said, "We are supporting journalists and media staff who want to guarantee the professionalism and plurality of broadcasting," even though it is clear that the Hungarian media does exhibit both professionalism and plurality.
The danger of bias on behalf of such organisations is underlined by their curious lack of interest in the situation in the Hungarian media at a time when the previous government under Gyula Horn (1994 – 1998) interfered so much with the media that Freedom House, the US-based media monitoring organisation, downgraded Hungary’s media rating from "free" to only "partially free", a status from which it has since been upgraded again to "free". Indeed, in the section of its report titled "Background to the Media War", the Federation completely jumps over this period, writing: "The starting point is September 1998". During those years, however, two conservative dailies Pesti Hirlap (national) and Pest Megyei Hirlap (regional) were forced to cease publication, thus removing the only two opposition voices in the press; other then opposition media outlets were also harassed; and an appeal was issued by the Community of Hungarian Journalists on 19th July 1994, entitled "Freedom of the Press endangered in Hungary," which the IFJ simply ignored. That appeal was issued precisely because the prime minister, Gyula Horn, appointed the presidents of the TV and radio without even seeking the opinion of the then opposition. When the same Community submitted a further urgent message on 21st July 1994, protesting at arbitrary suspension of editors and journalists in the news department of Magyar Television, the IFJ again ignored it. By the same token, a detailed report entitled "Cleansing the Undesirables from public service television" was ignored and not even acknowledged by the IFJ. No response was given either to appeals for help when thugs smashed up the offices of the weekly conservative magazine, "Demokrata," in the autumn of 1994 (possibly because the IFJ refers to this in its report as being on the "extreme right" and holding "anti-Semitic views"), and complaints that the then so-called opposition press was in fact being financed by socialist front organisations were also ignored. No concern was expressed during this period when editorial control over the government paper, Magyar Nemzet, was effectively in the hands of Peter Nemeth, the head of the media holding company owned by the notorious, failed financial institution, Postabank, and a former Communist Party Secretary. True to form, when these matters were raised with Aidan White on the eve of his visit by journalist Istvan Lovas, they were again ignored in the IFJ report.
Background: the "media war" in Hungary, 1991 - 1996
The media has been a long-running political sore in Hungary for the last decade. A "media war" erupted in the early 1990s in Hungary between the governing Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) under Joszef Antall and the opposition Alliance of Free Democrats. The background to this dispute was in fact an earlier agreement between the two political forces which subsequently broke down. That agreement involved the Free Democrats supporting the government in its proposal to get rid of a constitutional provision by which a two-thirds majority in parliament had to be obtained for the passing of many new laws, with the exception of the law on the media. In return for their support for this constitutional change, the Free Democrats managed to obtain from the government two important concessions: that their man became president of the Republic and that the directors of the state TV and radio stations be appointed by the president on a proposal from the prime minister.
The presidents of the TV and the radio appointed in this way soon became vociferous opponents of the government and influenced the content of their respective media outlets accordingly. From 1991 onwards, therefore, the state TV and radio were outlets for the opposition against the MDF-led government. The prime minister then tried to dismiss them; the president refused; legal arguments ensued and a ruling by the constitutional court effectively downgraded the president of the Republic’s right of veto to a mere formality, placing nominal control of the TV and radio in the hands of the government. A confused situation ensued in which the TV and radio remained broadly under government control, with sections of it being used to broadcast propaganda against the left-wing opposition, but with a large left-wing presence among the staff remaining.
This period still excites controversy. At the time, Fidez was allied with the Free Democrats and they argued vociferously against any anti-Communist lustration in the Hungarian media. To this extent, Fidesz helped maintain the status quo of left-wing nomenklatura control over the Hungarian media. Liberal members of Fidesz are often not happy to be reminded of this period of their history, for it indicates that they have, at least in part, contributed to the situation which is now bedevilling them. Just before the 1994 elections, so-called right-wingers were installed as presidents of the TV and radio, and this was milked for all its worth by the left-wing opposition, which scored points in convincing international opinion that there had been a right-wing "take-over" of the media.
In July 1994, after the election of a left-wing government under the Socialist, Gyula Horn, but with the participation of the Free Democrats in the coalition, the directors of both TV and radio were sacked. A purge was conducted and the state TV came effectively under the control of the ruling coalition. In 1996, moreover, the Socialist-led government, which, unlike its predecessor, had the required two-thirds majority in parliament, passed a new media law which is still in force now and which is the cause of the present problems.
This new law brought into being councils for the radio and the television to whose presidium government and opposition could appoint an equal number of representatives with a minimum of four each. In addition, a board of trustees was created, two-thirds of whose members of representatives of "civil society," i.e. NGOs. Here are no fewer than thirteen categories of NGO which can appoint representatives: if there is any disagreement about who is to represent these various organisations, their representatives are chosen by lottery from among the candidates submitted. In the opinion of some commentators, these allegedly independent representatives of non-governmental organisations are in fact party stooges. The members of the presidium are appointed for one year, the trustees for four. It is the role of these councils to appoint the directors of the state TV and the radio, apart from which their powers are very limited. The appointment of the directors occurs when the presidium submits a candidate to the board which must approve it by a two-thirds majority. If at any stage in its deliberations, on this or any other matter, the presidium cannot reach a decision by two-thirds majority, then it is dissolved and a new one must be appointed.
The Opposition’s critique of the present impasse is therefore a little rich in view of the fact that it is their law which has created the present situation.
Concern for fairness or for party political advantage?
For the most part, even supporters of the government are confident that there will be no repeat of the Czech rebellion in Hungary – in spite of the fact that many opposition newspapers have tried to stimulate a similar uprising there, expressing regret that the Hungarians have not done what "the Czechs" did. Those who believe that there will be no rebellion point to the fact that employees of the state TV in the regions have recently gone on strike over the government’s failure to pay them but that this failed to ignite any more general protest. They also claim that a recent European Union report seemed to express understanding for the fact that the media’s present problems were the opposition’s fault, even though it did call for the situation to be resolved "as soon as possible."
On the other hand, hardly a week goes by now without an article appearing somewhere in the international press attacking the Fidesz-led coalition for its attitude towards the media. The French government’s recent decision to grant asylum to a group of Gypsies who left Hungary last summer claiming persecution, has given these critics fresh ammunition (bear in mind that both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have seen wave after wave of these politically-motivated migrations). Attacks against Fidesz even include suggestions that the government is anti-Semitic, a convenient and much-used catch-all charge which generally sticks in people’s minds even if there is no evidence to support it. These attacks are, in BHHRG’s experience, the prelude to a full-blown international media "beat-up" from which victim governments rarely emerge unscathed. At the very least, they can be used to conduct a long war of attrition against a government – similar tactics have been used in Croatia and Slovakia – so that, when elections come, they are irredeemably tarred in the eyes of the "international community" as having been conducted under unfair media conditions. The fact that state TV in Hungary has a mere 10% of the market will be overlooked.
Government supporters tend to say, somewhat complacently, that Fidesz and its allies have weathered attacks from the international community before and that this time will be no different. BHHRG, unfortunately, has witnessed too many cases in which countries have been subjected to sustained and pitiless politically-motivated attacks over the media, attacks which have generally proved successful in dislodging from power governments the West dislikes and installing its friends instead.
A perfect example of misplaced complacency lies precisely in the attitude of the European Union to the media situation. BHHRG representatives were sceptical when assured by a Fidesz member of the state radio council that the European Union had shown understanding for the media situation and for the opposition’s role in provoking it. Subsequent events have proved our scepticism to be justified: the EU ambassador to Hungary, Michael Lake, has now issued (on 1st March) a sharp rebuke to Hungary and criticised its progress towards EU accession.1 Lake specifically said that a "cause for concern" was the possibility that Istvan Csurka’s Justice and Life Party might gain seats on the TV and radio councils.
Such a hostile attitude to nationalist parties, even when democratically elected, is typical of much EU thinking, as the boycott of Austria in 2000 and the concern expressed about the forthcoming general elections in Italy have shown.2 Lake also made it clear that the EU was concerned about the possibility of the Justice and Life Party ever entering the government; again, the EU has now got into the habit of dictating to candidate countries, most recently to Hungary’s neighbour, Romania, what is its desired outcome in elections. It has often concomitantly threatened candidate countries with retaliation if the electorate votes the "wrong" way. The EU seems to think that it has a right to stipulate to candidate countries, and even to member states, what are acceptable "European" political values. This kind of interfering attitude, increasingly evident on the part of the European Union and other Western governments, is incompatible with democratic values rather than the presence of certain elected democratic parties in some governments. The EU’s insistence on governments with "European" values seems to boil down to the injunction that electorates choose governments which do what they are told by Brussels, instead of listening to their voters. Quite why a proud nation like the Hungarians, or any other European nation for that matter, feels it has to put up with such diktats is a mystery.
So far, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has proved compliant towards Nato and the European Union. On the other hand, like former the Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus - the principal victim of the revolt in the TV station in Prague - he occasionally makes heterodox remarks about the EU which deviate from the unconditional expressions of pro-European fealty which are demanded of candidate countries and their politicians. Klaus, for instance, once said, that there was "life outside the EU", a near-heretical remark which did not go down well in Brussels. He also dissociated Hungary completely from the EU boycott of Austria in 2000, which will also have made him enemies.
More important for his fate will be his attitude towards Nato, which for the time being has been impeccable: a new Nato base is to be created at Taszar in Southern Hungary and the government has recently agreed to procure twenty-four F-16 fighter aircraft from the United States, albeit on a lease basis. But the wind of political fortune has a habit of turning very suddenly in the New World Order, especially when such high-profile military deals go awry or when a better deal can be discerned round the corner. There is no doubt that the Fidesz government would be well advised to bring the finances of MTV under control, for otherwise it will remain a festering sore, and it certainly has an interest in working towards a public service TV which maintains high standards of professionalism. But any attempt at reform will directly damage many vested financial interests and possible ignite a tinderbox similar to the one which blew up in Prague. BHHRG has observed far too many cases of countries which, subject to attacks, complacently say, "It could never happen here" – until it does.