BRUSSELS, Belgium — Is an aspiring dictator leading the European Union?
At a ceremony Thursday marking the offical opening of Hungary’s term as the bloc’s president, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban shrugged off the suggestion. Orban said the first time he led Hungary, from 1998 to 2002, “the Western press said I was reminiscent of Hitler and [Mussolini]. Now they compare me with [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and the Belarussian president. I will leave it up to you to decide if it is progress or not.”
It’s not a comparison many Hungarians appreciate, having only been independent of Soviet rule for two decades.
The center-right Orban won a big victory last year, with his party taking two-thirds of parliamentary seats. Since then, he has pushed through rapid — and some say reckless — changes in Hungarian law and has regularly attacked the independence of the Hungarian Central Bank. Large multinational companies are furious about tax laws they believe discriminate against non-Hungarian enterprises, which the EU has been investigating for months.
But Orban's media law has sparked the most international outrage, and suggestions that he has implemented a Putin-style chokehold on independent press.
The law took effect Jan. 1. Now all press outlets in Hungary are required to register with a national authority, whose ranks do not include opposition members. That body has the right to issue fines of up to almost $1 million for coverage it deems to be “immoral” or “unbalanced.”
Now some in the EU have balked at the Hungarian government taking on the presidency, which rotates among members for six-month terms.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn asked whether Orban’s government should be allowed to hold the seat. German Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer said at the very least Hungary should not be allowed to represent the EU in discussions advocating media freedom in other countries. An editorial in the Guardian newspaper says, “Viktor Orban is the last person in Europe suited to hosting the EU rotating presidency.”
Several members of the European Parliament (EP) are calling for sanctions to be levied against Hungary because of the media law. Leader of the Socialist group Martin Schulz wants the EP’s committee on civil liberties to look into the measures, saying the “right to receive and impart information without interference by public authority” is a basic EU value as well as enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
“We cannot allow Hungary or any other government to drive a coach and horses through the fundamental values of the European Union,” Schulz said in a statement.
The prime minister “seems to have underestimated the EU reaction,” observed Hungarian journalist Jozsef Peter Martin, “and I really don’t know why.” Martin, the former editor-in-chief of the Hungarian economic weekly Figyelo, believes Orban expected some controversy, but not this much. “He underestimated that it touched a value of the EU. It’s not an interest question, but a value question.”
Undeterred by criticism, Orban’s Hungarian Media Authority is already making its mark. It sent a citation to a radio station that played two profanity-laced songs from American rapper Ice-T during the daytime last week, when children could be listening. The station, Tilos, is arguing that Hungarian kids don’t speak English well enough to comprehend the lyrics, but it has had to pay fines in the past for the same reason.
Ice-T responded to his burst of fame in Hungary with amused tweets: “I love it! The world still fears me. Hahaha.”
But in Budapest, journalists aren’t laughing.
Some newspapers ran front-page protests — blank pages — of the new regulations. Leading daily Nepszabadsag declared that “freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end,” printed in the 23 official languages of the EU.
Martin says the law needs to be changed. At the same time, he doesn’t think press freedom is finished in his country, just “challenged.” He said he’s reserving judgment on whether the law will really be as draconian as it looks on paper because “it is not practically possible” to monitor everything being written and to issue fines for everything the authority doesn’t like. Rather, he thinks the government hopes the threat will lead to more positive coverage.
Martin writes primarily on economic issues and said he frequently criticizes the Orban administration — and will continue to do so.
But several journalists have already felt the practical implications of the restrictions, and not by the hand of the government. Two radio reporters were suspended by their own stations for holding a moment of silence on the air in protest; another was removed from a morning show for saying he wished to do the same in solidarity. The law could, evidently, lead to self-censorship among the Hungarian press.
A meeting between Orban and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso Friday was hotly anticipated to bring a showdown on the matter. Prior to the meeting, Barroso affirmed that media freedom is “sacred” in the EU, while Orban said Hungary might be willing to change the law, but only if other countries were also forced to end their restrictions on media.
The outcome can only be declared a draw. Addressing the press after the meeting, Orban said he has nothing to fear from an EU examination of the law, but if it discovers legal problems he would be willing to think about changing it — a major shift.
While Barroso welcomed that announcement, he left the Hungarian prime minister with a warning: “There are the legal issues where we have to be extremely strict but there are also political considerations and the need for Hungary to have the backing of all member states."
Whether or not he’s confident that Orban agrees media freedom is “sacred,” Barroso said he does “know the prime minister is committed to the respect of his country.”
Orban is due to address the European Parliament on Jan. 19 and has already said he expects a “stormy meeting.”