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Thousands protest for press freedom and against corruption in Budapest

“When those in power believe the media is their opponent, that’s a very big problem. Because it means they are afraid.  In my opinion, they should not take up the fight by banning newspapers and media outlets. Rather, they should present counter-arguments. If somebody writes something that is critical in tone, then go ahead and refute it. Don’t shut it down, silence it, and crush it underfoot. You cannot do that in a democracy.” – György Magyar, lawyer

A protest was held in Budapest on Sunday against the recent closure of leading opposition newspaper Népszabadság, as well as against corruption in the Hungarian government. The demonstration was sponsored by members of Hungarian opposition parties Együtt (Together), Politics Can Be Different (LMP) and Dialogue for Hungary (PM). The demonstrators filled Szabad sajtó (Free Press) street between the Erzsébet bridge and Ferenciek Tere. One estimate put the number of attendees at “between 10,000 and 15,000 people.”

The “They’re stealing our freedom! Kick them out!” demonstration was emceed by its main organizer, Együtt party vice-president Péter Juhász.  The anti-corruption campaigner told the Budapest Beacon before the start of the protest that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are doing everything they can to keep the truth from reaching the Hungarian people, and this is their goal in limiting free media and closing down Népszabadság.

“It is obviously the goal of the government that reality not reach the people, only party propaganda,” Juhász said. “A few days after closing the paper, news leaked of plans to re-regulate advertising in public spaces and on billboards. This would practically result in all billboards ending up exclusively in the hands of Fidesz politicians.”

He said the opposition must present a viable alternative to the Orbán government in the 2018 elections. It was important to call people’s attention to what the government was doing, and for people from different political parties to come together to stand up against the corruption in government, which Juhász says is channeling huge amounts of money into the pockets of Orban’s inner circle.

“Theft is his exclusive motivation,” he said. “Orban’s politics is about nothing more than turning public assets into his own. Fidesz is trying in any way they can to channel our money, our taxes and EU support into its own pockets. The point of today’s protest is to talk about this, about reality.”

Taking the stage, the anti-corruption campaigner told the crowd that “Viktor Orbán doesn’t know how to govern, only how to steal.”  He warned that “90 percent or even the total amount” of EU funds is stolen with the help of Fidesz oligarchs who, in turn, use this money to buy up media outlets.  Juhász accused state media of “serving Orbán’s power interests.”

The Együtt politician had strong words for Orbán’s increasingly close relationship with the President of Russia, accusing the former of “committing the historical sin of driving Hungary straight up Putin’s arse.”   He called on Hungarians to oppose the construction of Paks II.

“Orbán is in a spiral of lies.  He cannot do anything other than lie,” Juhász told the crowd.  “Since Fidesz knows it cannot win the majority over with its politics, its goal is to drive opposition political parties and critical voices out of the public forum.” The Együtt politician said it was the task of the political opposition to confront Orbán with reality and “show what kind of place Hungary could be if we got rid of this disgusting regime.”

Cynically referring to last year’s “national consultation” campaign in which the government warned migrants not to take the jobs of Hungarians, Népszabadság journalist Miklós Hargitai pointed out that someone had taken his job last week.  He promised that he and his colleagues would continue writing articles, regardless of what the future holds for the 60-year old left-wing newspaper.

Hargitai rejected claims on the part of certain government spokesmen that Népszabadság was a “bolshevist workshop,” pointing out that the Socialist government of Gyula Horn (1994-1998) was the first to sue him. He further pointed out that it was as members of the Communist Youth Alliance (KIS) that both prime minister Viktor Orbán and propaganda minister Antal Rogán “prepared for the democratic system change” of 1989.

The journalist dismissed as “laughable” the notion that the decision to close down the main opposition paper was economic rathe than political in nature, noting that this “economic decision” has caused more harm to the publisher over the past few days than Népszabadság lost in a year.

He said the main opposition paper wrote daily about various government officials and politicians who “rummaged elbow to elbow through the public sphere.”  He bemoaned the fact that “instead of locking them up, they closed down the paper that wrote about it,” alluding to the words of former Fidesz vice-president Zoltán Pokorni in 2010.

He said his paper had tried unsuccessfully for ten years to interview Viktor Orbán.  “What kind of European country has a prime minister who is not willing to give an interview to a leading political newspaper?” asked Hargitai.

“There are situations when people need to weigh not only the risks but also moral considerations,” said the journalist, adding that “it is not necessary to become an accomplice in a thieving system.” He said the so-called system of national cooperation (NER) announced by Orbán in 2010 gives individuals three choices, either (1) join them in stealing, (2) pretend it is not happening, or (3) try to do something against it.  “I think only the third choice is acceptable,” said Hargitai, telling the crowd “we will continue to insist on our own rights as employees and freedom of expression as well, and I ask you not to give up!”

Speaking to the Beacon beforehand, Hargitai said Népszabadság’s editorial staff intended to stay together and continue doing what they have been doing, come what may.  “We have to show somehow that we don’t like what is happening” and “help each other as much as we can,” he said, adding that “it is much easier for a person to get lost in this situation alone than if we stick together” and it is “important not to give up on freedom and the rule of law.”

LMP co-chairman Ákos Hadházy also took aim at corruption, saying the Fidesz government stands to steal a further HUF 9 trillion (USD 33 billion) of EU funds which they can use to further solidify their hold on power.

“The most egregious state organized and assisted series of frauds in the history of Hungary are taking place today,” said Hadházy, accusing the government of complicity in the systematic theft of EU funds.  “To date they have stolen nine billion forints” and in his estimation on average half of the amount spend on EU projects is stolen.

“They don’t just steal this money, but use it to maintain a political system and to purchase their own television and their own newspapers,” he said.

“Corruption is the cancer of Hungarian society,” observed the politician, who is a veterinarian by profession.  “We are in an extremely critical condition, close to death.”  He said the “cure” is to pass laws that would tie the hands of current and future politicians, and it is the task of society to elect a parliament “willing to pass these laws.”

He said the elections law authored by Fidesz “virtually excludes several hundred thousand Hungarians working abroad from voting,” and “the opposition cannot participate in such an election game where only the government dictates the rules.”

“Hungary’s fate for many decades will be decided in 2018,” said the LMP co-chair, warning that it would be “the last chance to change the system though an election.”  After that, he warned, it would take a revolution, the consequences of which could not be foretold.

“Let’s do everything we can so we don’t have to find out,” he told the crowd.

“This stolen money is a huge tool for the political system which crosses red lines we thought no one would ever cross in Hungary,” Hadházy told the Beacon beforehand. “They can do anything with the stolen money. They can buy voters, they can buy candidates and they can buy any owner of a newspaper.”

Hadházy emphasized the need for the opposition parties to stand together in working to change Hungarian election laws. He said people believe it is impossible to vote the government out of power because in spite of numerous corruption scandals they were returned to government anyway in 2014 with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

“But this isn’t true,” he said, adding that “40 percent (actually 45 percent – ed.) of the country voted for them and yet they got a 65 percent parliamentary mandate because that’s how they manipulated the election system.”

PM co-chair and member of the European Parliament Benedek Jávor pointed out that, whereas in most countries corruption is a by-product of government, in Hungary government is a by-product of corruption.

“The reason we are here is because we’ve had enough!” Jávor told the crowd.  “They design laws for themselves and their friends, and public institutions for their friends and lovers,” referring to last month’s revelation that central bank governor György Matolcsy’s extramarital girlfriend sat on the boards of two central bank foundations.  With strong words Jávor condemned the government takeover of previously independent institutions, citing the National Election Committee (NVB) and state media as example.  “It is possible to keep the country in a virtual reality in which it is possible to do anything as well as its opposite,” he said.

Jávor praised what little remains of Hungary’s independent media. “Now they want to trample them,” said the MEP, observing that “there is no room for anyone who is not with them.”  He called on Hungarians to show solidarity with “those fleeing war” and not with “billionaire gas pipe fitters,” referring to rags-to-riches construction and media mogul Lőrinc Mészáros, widely considered to be one of many “straw men” used by Orbán to take over the economy with the help of EU funds.

“We must oppose their squandering our future, stealing our present, and falsifying the past,” he said. “We need you to show that we are the majority, and that we’ve had enough!”

“We are fed up with them stealing our country, fighting against the freedom of the media and oppressing civil society,” Jávor told the Beacon shortly before the start of the demonstration. “We believe that the majority of Hungarians are not behind the shameful politics of the Hungarian government.”

He said crackdowns on media freedom should be stopped in Hungary by Hungarian society, but that as a member of the European Parliament he has a responsibility to inform European institutions of what is happening in media in Hungary.

“This is just the opposite of what we have in the European treaties, and this is a clear violation of European values and rights,” he said.

Speaking to the Budapest Beacon at the conclusion of the demonstration, Hungarian jurist György Magyar had the following to say:

“When those in power believe the media is their opponent, that’s a very big problem.  Because it means they are afraid.  In my opinion, they should not take up the fight by banning newspapers and media outlets.  Rather, they should present counter-arguments.”

The renowned lawyer says the solution, in that case, is not to use force, but rather

“If somebody writes something that is critical in tone, then go ahead and refute it. Don’t shut it down, silence it, and crush it underfoot. You cannot do that in a democracy.”

 

 

Staff :