I have no business writing about this. With resolve, I avoid writing about American or British politics. Why would I wade into the subject of Hungary’s policies? Why indeed?
Although I’m not a European citizen, I take the idea of community seriously. And my community is in crisis. Really? Isn’t that a bit strident? You’re normally so mild-mannered. Why would you strike out so aggressively about something you have no business even mentioning?
Easy. Press freedom. The easiest way to describe it is that the Hungarian government has passed laws that allow the State to not only closely monitor journalists, but to punish them when something deemed unacceptable has been published.
Who cares, right? It’s Hungary. What do we even have to do with the Hungarians? Yes, what indeed? Well, there’s something rotten in Hungary.
This all came to a head this time last year, and I first read about it (in English, at least) in Hungary media law protest shows forbidden fruit remains sweet in The Guardian. Viktor Orbán was introduced as a former fiery student protest leader, and ‘…Now he is the rotating president of Europe, whatever that means.’ It’s a good question (What does being the president of Europe mean?), but not really the point here. Yet that situation is the only reason why it’s gotten as much attention as it has.
The journalist Péter Zilahy went on to write:
When I was little, my parents watched the news on TV every day at 7:30pm. There was only one television channel so everybody was watching the same programme. Everybody knew they were lying on TV, but they also knew that their life was structured around these lies. We all had to learn to read between the lines. If the announcer said that something hadn’t happened here and there, you could be sure it had. If the Russian news agency denied something, we knew it was true.
Can you imagine such a scenario? Really? I certainly can’t. There are some of you who might say that living in the West has some eerie similarities. Anyone who truly believes that is, from my understanding, ridiculously kidding himself. I’m all for a bit of persuasive rhetoric, but over on this side of the Berlin Wall, we simply don’t have a clue what Soviet oppression was like. Not remotely.
Zilahy goes on to explain the logical result of banning something: it makes it much more interesting. Something about human nature I assume. But his contention is that this aspect of human nature is particularly strong with the Hungarians.
And then he writes:
Many commentators…have suggested parallels to Russia or the Balkans. They fail to see that this is an essentially central-European affair. Austria had its European membership suspended 10 years ago – Hungary still has to find its limits. This is not a government trying to set up a totalitarian regime, but a very Hungarian take on self-control. In reality, the average Hungarian and Orbán’s government have a lot in common: they both think that they can do everything better than anybody else. And yet this government won’t tell me what to write and what not to write.
If parallels are to be found outside the European Union, it would be more fruitful to compare the situation to 1960s America, where you could end up paying huge fines for using four-letter words. The Hungarian language is rich in swearwords – it’s like a whole language within the language. Curtailing them could lead to a degradation of a uniquely Hungarian cultural phenomenon, which a government fond of tradition would surely not want to see.
He ends the article by assuming that those in power must have had some sort of grand plan. They surely knew what they were doing with this very fragile relationship between press freedom and the government. The guy’s Hungarian, and I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Or at least try.
But I’ve watched the situation nervously. Again, it’d be much easier to just blow it off and say it’s not my concern. That, in fact, is not the way I see it. To be candid, I wasn’t remotely concerned about Péter Zilahy and his position. I was sure that he was being generous. After all, he knew Orbán by sight from the protests decades ago. If the journalist could keep an eye on everything with healthy skepticism, then so could I.
What a relief to see what he’d written in mid December. An article titled Young Hungarians are intent on writing their own future, and I was relieved to see he was still talking about it. How could he not be, right? Well, he was.
Hungarians have not been taking the new media law sitting down. There’s been massive protest, and some people are astounded at how the populace has awakened. Theatre directors and artists not only in Hungary but around the world have raised their voices about all of this.
In a logical and predictable way, this makes me think that the stubborn individuals in power in Hungary have dug their heels in and intend to stand their ground.
Yet this is how Zilahy sums up the situation at this point:
As his party continues to pass laws that could be in effect for several political terms, it becomes increasingly clear Orbán overestimated his voters’ enthusiasm for radical change. In recent polls, his party only has a fifth of the vote.
A large number of young Hungarians are afraid that the new rules and regulations will make it harder for their voices to be heard. The Mil (the groundswell of opposition) has distributed 50,000 press passes among the demonstrators, anointing all of them as journalists, urging them to write, to inquire and to pass on information to keep freedom of speech alive. They all have their own views and will not let the government monopolise national identity or the memory of 1956. They do not want the old farts from the left and right who compromised themselves in recent power struggles.
These people, raised in a democracy and brought up with the internet, know well that they will have to foot the bill for their parents’ failure to reinvent the country after the cold war.
Something healthy is finally coming out of this mess. Hungarians are not good dictatorship material. Orbán, if anyone, should know this.
From my perspective, the writer seems particularly optimistic that the transparency of the internet age will ensure that Hungary’s present leaders won’t be able to squash press freedom. But that’s where we come in. This has to be an issue for all of us. Especially those of us who wouldn’t normally make any noise about something like this. They can’t shut us all up. I’m quite certain of that.