A study in self censorship

December 16, 2013


Senator Benjamin T. Cardin’s statement on Hungary as (not) reported in the Hungarian media

In a statement delivered to the United States Senate on 11 December 2013 Senator Benjamin T. Cardin, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, sharply criticized the ongoing erosion of democratic values in Hungary.

In addition to the fact that the Fidesz-run media authority can fine media outlets, Cardin mentioned that journalists can now be sentenced to jail terms of up to 3 years for “defamation”.

What Cardin neglected to mention is the impact of this on the willingness of Hungary’s free press to report anything “defamatory” of public figures or “demeaning” to Hungary in general.  Fear of fines and now imprisonment has resulted in a high degree of self censorship.

When it comes to reporting anything critical of Hungary on the part of foreign officials, even outspoken publications suddenly run low on ink.

Below is a translation of the “news brief” appearing in origo.hu under the title “An American Senator is worried for the Hungarians”.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin spoke before the American Senate about status of human rights in Hungary which, as the chairman of the Helsinki Commission, he already examined last spring.  According to the Senator the Church Law, the media situation, and respect paid to “Miklos Horthy” and other anti-semitic figures give cause for worry.

None of the dailies dare publish the full text of Cardin’s speech.  We do so here along with our comments:

Madam President, earlier this year I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on the situation in Hungary. Today, I would like to revisit some of the issues addressed by our witnesses.

Since the April 2010 elections, Hungary has undertaken the most dramatic legal transformation that Europe has seen in decades. A new Constitution was passed with votes of the ruling party alone, and even that has already been amended five times. More than 700 new laws have been passed, including laws on the media, religion, and civic associations. There is a new civil code and a new criminal code. There is an entirely new electoral framework. The magnitude and scope of these changes have understandably put Hungary under a microscope.

At the Helsinki Commission’s hearing in March, I examined concerns that these changes have undermined Hungary’s system of democratic checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, and freedoms of the media and religion. I also received testimony about rising revisionism and extremism. I heard from Jozsef Szajer, a Member of the European Parliament who represented the Hungarian Government at the hearing. Princeton constitutional law expert Kim Lane Scheppelle, Dr. Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from Freedom House presented compelling testimony.

Unfortunately, developments in Hungary remain troubling.

Even though Hungary’s religion law was tweaked after the Constitutional Court struck down parts of it, it retains a discriminatory two-tier system. Moreover, the Parliament is empowered with the extraordinary and, for all practical purposes, unreviewable power to decide what is and what is not a religion.

(By a two-tier system Cardin is referring to the fact that only churches meeting certain criteria are entitled to state support. -ed.)

This month, the government announced it is launching an investigation into the Methodist Evangelical Church, a church persecuted during communist times. Today, the Methodist Evangelical Church is known for its outreach to Roma, work with the homeless and is one of the largest charitable organizations in Hungary. As I noted at the Helsinki Commission hearing in March, it is also one of the hundreds of religious groups stripped of official recognition after the passage of Hungary’s new religion law.

The church has now complied with submitting the necessary number of supporters required by the law and, as a reply, the government has announced an unidentified ‘‘expert’’ will conduct an investigation into the church’s beliefs and tenets. This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called ‘‘Accepted Church’’ opens the door for further repressive measures.

Veneration of Hungary’s wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, along with other anti-Semitic figures such as writer Jozsef Nyiro, continues. In November, a statue of Hungarian Jewish poet Miklos Radnoti, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis at the end of 1944, was rammed with a car and broken in half. At roughly the same time, extremists staged a book burning of his works along with other materials they called ‘‘Zionist publications.’’ At the beginning of December, two menorahs were vandalized in Budapest.

(Cardin’s reference to the running over of a statue to Miklos Radnoti is unfortunate.  By all accounts it was an accident. -ed.)

Reflecting the climate of extremism, more than 160 Hungarian nationals have been found by Canada this year to have a well-founded fear of persecution. Almost all are Romani, but the refugees include an 80-year-old award winning Hungarian Jewish writer who received death threats after writing about anti-Semitism in Hungary, and was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Budapest on an initiative from the far-right Jobbik party, supported by the votes of the ruling Fidesz party.

(The writer in question, Ákos Kertész, was allowed to keep his Kossuth Prize for literature despite writing in August 2011 that the Hungarians were “genetically inferior”. -ed.)

While there are many who suggest the real problem comes from the extremist opposition party Jobbik, and not the ruling government, it seems that some members of Fidesz have contributed to a rise in intolerance.

(This is particularly true in the case of Fidesz publicist Zsolt Bayer.  However, it should be noted that parliamentary majority leader Antal Rogan has publicly spoken out against extremism on two occasions this year alone. -ed.)

I am particularly troubled that the government-created Media Council, consisting entirely of Fidesz delegated members, has threatened ATV—an independent television station—with punitive fines if it again characterizes Jobbik as extremist. If you can’t even talk about what is extremist or anti-Semitic in Hungary without facing legal sanctions, how can you combat extremism and anti-Semitism? Moreover, this decision serves to protect Jobbik from critical debate in the advance of next year’s elections. Why?

Other new measures further stifle free speech. Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, last month Hungary amended its defamation law to allow for the imposition of prison terms up to 3 years.

The imposition of jail time for speech offenses was a hallmark of the communist era. During the post-communist transition, the Helsinki Commission consistently urged OSCE countries to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws entirely. In 2004, for example, the Helsinki Commission wrote to Minister of Justice Peter Barandy regarding the criminal convictions of Andras Bencsik and Laszlo Attila Bertok.

This new law, raced through under an expedited procedure in the wake of a bi-election controversy in which allegations of voter manipulation were traded, was quickly criticized by the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. I share her concerns that these changes to the criminal code may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society and are inconsistent with OSCE commitments.

Hungary was once held up as a model of peaceful democratic transition and is situated in a region of Europe where the beacon of freedom is still sought by many today. I hope Hungary will return to a leadership role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy.

In July of this year Hungarian Spectrum pointed out the disparity between Cardin’s previous statement on Hungary and how it was reported by MTI. This time the English language blog merely published Cardin’s statement without comment in English.

For a Hungarian translation of Senator Cardin’s statement (along with the rest of this article) click here.

Referenced in this article:

U.S. Congressional Record, 113th Congress

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin’s statement on the Hungarian situation and what MTI made of it, Hungarian Spectrum, 6 July 2013