Hungarian democracy lapses as EU remains fixated on money

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

With European leaders engrossed in the financial problems of Greece and Italy, Hungary has been undermining EU democratic standards, write Rowan Emslie and Oliver Spencer of ARTICLE 19.

Rowan Emslie and Oliver Spencer are part of the international advocacy team at ARTICLE 19, a freedom of expression organisation in London.

While 2011 saw Europe engrossed in fiscal union and the will-they-won’t-they tussle over Greece and Italy, nobody noticed that Hungary was lapsing from EU democratic values. Until now.

Monumental constitutional change has swept through Hungary in the last week, leaving the centre-right ruling party, Fidesz, with unprecedented power. Fidesz officials now dominate every important institution in government, including the judiciary, as well as other previously independent regulatory bodies like the central bank and the Media Council.

These changes were preceded by the wholesale undermining of the free press and, by extension, the right to freedom of expression in Hungary, a process that began 18 months ago when Fidesz first came to power.

Political opposition has been systematically squeezed out of contention. The restrictions placed on independent media providers by the Media Council and by several Fidesz-backed new laws have completely undermined media pluralism. Our organisation, ARTICLE 19, first warned of the potential danger of these limitations back in January 2011.

Other international actors have condemned the limitation of a free media. An international mission made up of 12 leading press freedom and media development groups made a visit to Hungary in November 2011, condemning the Hungarian media regulation model as “incompatible with European and international law”. Without independent media platforms, the national conversation has become completely dominated by the state controlled, pro-government voices.

Having successfully strangled political discourse in the media, Fidesz then went on to legally attack the opposition. In December 2011, the Hungarian Socialist Party – the main opposition party in the 2010 general elections and the largest single party in the 2006 general elections – were declared responsible for the crimes of the Soviet State Party that ruled from 1947-1989, making it a criminal organisation which effectively removes it from the political process.

This move roughly coincided with the announcement of three new decisions by the Constitutional Court which condemned some of the new laws Fidesz had passed, including part of the media laws. The Court had been systematically weakened by Parliament and by the appointment of new Fidesz-backed judges in the previous couple of months, part of the broader move towards a more centralised, Fidesz-controlled judiciary. These new decisions appeared to be a surprisingly aggressive reaction against the ruling party, even though it had only addressed a small portion of the numerous issues surrounding the media laws.

Just two days later, however, the country’s only remaining independent radio station, Klubrádió, was denied a broadcasting licence by the Media Council, signalling that, despite this flickering of dissent, the Court remained an ineffective puppet institution. Additional complaints were dismissed in Parliament, while opposition MPs were arrested or unable to make any impact in the face of Fidesz’s unassailable two-thirds majority.

The complaints against the new laws come not only from international actors. Five national journalists have been on a hunger strike since 10 December 2011, two of them employees of the state media organisation MTV, protesting interference of pro-government editors during the reporting process. That state-employed journalists find their working conditions unbearable indicates the seriousness of the media regulation problem. With the expansion of regressive laws into all areas of public life, the lack of official routes for dissent through either a free media or political processes has led to massive street protests.

Following the adoption of the new constitution, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets of the capital, Budapest, declaring Fidesz’s leader, Victor Orban, a dictator. The protestors clashed with Fidesz supporters celebrating outside the state opera house, leading to several injuries.

Public support for Orban is reported to be as low as 18%, indicating that the restrictive, undemocratic nature of the new constitution and the massive centralisation of power into the hands of Fidesz could be the only thing keeping Orban in power.