US Chargé d’affaires addresses media challenges in Hungary head-on

October 17, 2017

US Chargé d'affaires addresses media challenges in Hungary head-on
David J. Kostelancik. Photo: Index.hu/János Bődey

Democratic governments must not attempt to silence their critics. This temptation is perpetual, and it can happen in more than one way: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control, pressure on advertisers, attempts by government to manipulate the advertising market, and outright threats and intimidation of journalists.” 

– Chargé d’affaires David Kostelancik


Chargé d’affaires David Kostelancik of the US Embassy in Hungary held a press conference Tuesday morning at the headquarters of the Hungarian Association of Journalists with a speech entitled “Freedom of the Press: Enduring Values in a Dynamic Media Environment.” Kostelancik’s remarks highlight a visible shift in the US Embassy’s willingness to directly address Hungary’s media situation.

Kostelancik opened his speech by addressing America’s commitment to the First Amendment and thanking members of the press for their work.

“Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the mountaintops remains a democratic staple and I truly appreciate what you do,” he said.

“The need for accountability is one of the primary reasons that freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Our founding fathers, having witnessed the sharp restriction on speech and punishment for political dissent under the rule of the King of England, recognized that a free, democratic society cannot exist without a free press, fully empowered to inform the people about the actions of their government and given them the tools to make sure the government does not abuse its power.

“[P]rotections for freedom of the the press are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the NATO treaty, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the OSCE’s Charter for European Security, and in the constitutions and law books for democracies throughout the world,” Kostelancik said before adding: “Our strongest, most stable, most trustworthy allies are those that share this commitment.”

While not specifically referring to Hungary per se, Kostelancik then said: “Democratic governments must not attempt to silence their critics. This temptation is perpetual, and it can happen in more than one way: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control, pressure on advertisers, attempts by government to manipulate the advertising market, and outright threats and intimidation of journalists.

Directly addressing Hungary

“In recent years the United States has spoken on multiple occasions about negative trends in the sphere of press freedom in Hungary. Unfortunately these negative trends are continuing.

“Government allies have steadily acquired control and influence over the media market, without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies. Most recently, companies affiliated with pro-government figures acquired control of the last remaining independent regional newspapers.

“Journalists who work for these outlets – or who used to work for these outlets – tell us that they must follow pro-government editorial guidelines dictated by the outlets’ new owners, and that they do not have the freedom to publish articles that are critical of the government.

“The government also directs substantial publicly-funded advertising contracts to the outlets of friendly owners, and almost none to independent outlets. We hear reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.

“And, in a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also to the principles of a free, independent media,” Kostelancik said.

His remarks on Tuesday signal a shift in the public remarks by the US Embassy’s most ranking officers to the media situation in Hungary. Earlier this year, US Ambassador Colleen Bell (who has since returned to the US) declined to comment three times, successively, that Népszabadság – Hungary’s last national opposition print daily – had been shut down for political reasons.

The following is an excerpt from Ambassador Bell’s interview with Index.hu in January:

Index.hu: At the time of closing Népszabadság, the American embassy, in fact a State Department deputy undersecretary, expressed solidarity with the editorial staff.  We have just one question about this.  The Hungarian government and Fidesz politicians claim that Népszabadság was closed for purely economic reasons.  Do you agree?

Ambassador Colleen Bell: I miss Népszabadság.  It was an important source of information for me day in and day out.  I’ve heard various opinions as to the reasons behind the paper’s closure.  Some believe the causes were political, others say it was economic.

But what do you think?

I think the decrease in independent media is a general trend we need to calculate with.  It is not my task to decide whether a concrete organ was closed for political or economic reasons.  But I value people’s opinions and the fact that they concerned themselves with the reasons behind the paper’s closure, and how this could potentially impact society.

So if we understand correctly, you are not willing to state that Népszabadság was closed for political reasons?

Look, I am a businesswoman and the American ambassador. I do not have every fact, number and data in front of me in order to make such a statement. It would be irresponsible of me.