Hungary faces squeeze on freedoms
Huge crowds protest Hungary's new constitution as the country's political elite celebrates legislation which cements their power. Sándor Orbán reports
05 Jan 12

David Ferenczy / DemotixHuge crowds protest Hungary’s new constitution, as the country’s political elite celebrates legislation which cements their power. Sándor Orbán reports

“Viktor Orbán is the captain of Titanic. The iceberg is already there; the iceberg is us,” exclaimed Péter Kónya of the Hungarian Solidarity movement to a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in central Budapest on 2 January to protest against the new constitution . The rally was organised by civil society groups and opposition parliamentary parties. It took place near the Opera House where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his supporters were attending an extravagant gala celebrating the new constitution coming in effect.

The new constitution put an end to liberal democracy in Hungary. It was pushed through the parliament without any public discussion by a populist prime minister, who used his party’s super-majority to rush the legislation,  passed in only few weeks last spring.

Hundreds of controversial new laws — including the ones on media — have been passed since the Hungarian Civic Union, Fidesz, came to power in 2010. Their election has led to the elimination of many of the checks and balances in the democratic system. The government has ignored or rejected criticism from the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. More recently US State Secretary Hillary Clinton raised serious concerns about the transparency of the government, the independence of judiciary, the protection of individual liberties and press freedom in a letter personally addressed to the prime minister.

On the evening of 2 January protests, the state-owned television station m1 showed lengthy scenes from an exhibition glorifying moments of Hungarian history, and broadcast live from Orbán’s gala at the Opera House. Apart from a brief sequence showing policemen gathered in a nearly empty street near the demonstration, protesters were mostly ignored.

State media outlets are firmly under government control. To many this was confirmed when the image of former chief justice Zoltán Lomnici, who has openly criticised Orbán, was blurred during a TV broadcast in December. This incident triggered a hunger strike of a group of journalists and activists and a movement for a honest public service reporting was launched. The protest has been ignored by the omnipotent regulatory Media Council which has five members, all nominated by Fidesz. In fact, just before Christmas they decided not to re-new the license of the only remaining critical talk radio station.

In recent weeks there has been a major development though: the Constitutional Court declared elements of the new media laws unconstitutional, including the obligation of journalists to name their sources. The court also ruled that print and online media should not be subject to the new laws or the supervision of the media authority as of 31 May. Nevertheless, most of the provisions which were heavily criticised by international organisations, including Index on Censorship remained untouched.

Hungary still has a vibrant blogosphere, several good news portals and social media now reaches more and more of the country’s citizens. Thanks to the growing influence of online outlets, media pluralism has not disappeared and can never be totally eliminated. At the same time, the space for public debate has significantly diminished and critical media outlets in Hungary will have to survive by navigating through icy waters.

Sándor Orbán is the director of the South East European Network for Professionalisation of Media