The EU vs Hungary: the clash of the censors

EU officials are only concerned about Hungary’s new media law because it is explicitly moralistic. Brussels prefers technocratic censorship.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Free Speech

On 1 January, the rotating presidency of the European Union was assumed by Hungary. Paradoxically, on the same day the Hungarian government introduced a series of illiberal laws designed to extend the state’s control of the media. This unusual coincidence of events led to an eruption of widespread indignation and criticism of Hungary’s censorious laws by EU leaders and foreign politicians.

EU countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Luxembourg, raised concerns about the threat posed by the laws to freedom of the press in Hungary. Last month, Neelie Kroes, the European Commission’s vice-president, wrote to the Hungarian government demanding further clarification of the law. The president of the EC, Jose Manuel Barroso, insisted that the ‘freedom of the press is a sacred principle’ and said he would take the matter up with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister. Numerous non-governmental organisations and international bodies also condemned the new law. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the law ‘endangers editorial independence and media pluralism’.

The Hungarian government and the ruling Fidesz Party, which took power last year, have been taken aback by the intensity of the foreign criticisms. Hungary’s political class knows that its economically fragile society relies on the goodwill of Western powers, and is therefore reluctant to engage in a diplomatic war with the EU. Nevertheless, the recently elected nationalist regime cannot simply roll over and cave in to pressure from Brussels. Speaking on the day that Hungary began its six-month presidency of the EU, Orban attacked his foreign critics. He accused them of practising a double standard, arguing: ‘I defy anyone to find anything in our law that is not in other EU member states’ media laws.’ He indicated that he would be prepared to accept the EU’s ruling on the legality of the law, but he also said that if Hungary’s legislation had to be changed then so too would similar laws in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Orban’s claim that Hungary’s new media law does not contain a ‘single legal solution that cannot be found in a media act passed by one of the other EU countries’ is, strictly speaking, true. Yes, this is a harsh, authoritarian and dangerous law. It establishes a highly centralised media authority, the NMHH, which is charged with overseeing and regulating all public media and news production outlets. The NMHH has the authority to penalise and fine journalists and broadcasters for violating ‘public interests, public morals or order’. This new state-run media surveillance authority is composed entirely of bureaucrats linked to the ruling party, Fidesz. The potential for political intervention into public debate and cultural life is serious. What is particularly worrying is that this new body is explicitly in the business of moral policing: it has been assigned the task of protecting ‘human dignity’ and the welfare of minors.

And yet Orban has a point when he says that this law is not radically different from those in other parts of the EU. In recent years, freedom of speech in Europe has been compromised by a series of laws seeking to censor ‘hate speech’, Holocaust denial and ‘incitement to violence’. Pointing to these precedents, a Hungarian government statement asks: ‘Who would dispute that human dignity, the protection of privacy, the prohibition of hate speech or the protection of children are primary issues of public interest, based on which even the press can and should be restricted to a certain extent?’

In other words, given the EU’s feeble and inconsistent affirmation of free speech, why shouldn’t Hungary also be able to institutionalise its own, Magyar-form of moral policing? Apologists for Hungary’s new media law also point out that in other EU nations, such as Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark, the people who make up media-supervisory authorities are government appointees, too.

So is this new media law simply a Hungarian version of the same illiberal practices that occur in various parts of Europe? Yes and no. Yes, there is little about this abhorrent censoriousness that is uniquely Hungarian. However, the Hungarian law represents a different kind of state intervention into public life to that found in other parts of the EU. It is a more centralised and systematic form of regulation than you normally find in western Europe. According to the Hungarian government, the ‘novelty’ of its legislation is that ‘the media is supervised together with communications by a unified, convergent authority, which obviously allows for concentrated, efficient and cost-effective operation’.

However, the unique thing about the Hungarian intervention is not simply that it is being done on a larger, more centralised scale. No, through its self-conscious moralisation of media control, this new law is making explicit the various assumptions that are usually only implicit in EU governance. The institutionalisation of moral policing runs counter to the more technocratic approach to censorship favoured by the EU. There is something quite old-fashioned and traditionalist in this project of policing moral evils, Fidesz-style. Predictably, the first target of Hungary’s new media authority were ‘bad words’ sung by the rapper Ice T. Hungary’s moral censors launched proceedings against a small, local radio station for playing two Ice T songs that were filled with his usual vulgarities. The new media authority claimed that the obscenities in Ice T’s songs could adversely affect the moral development of listeners under the age of 16.

This concern with offensive words, which are unlikely to be understood by the vast majority of Hungary’s youth, indicates the ascendancy of a new form of political correctness.

Culture War, Magyar-style

So what is going on in Hungary? Many commentators have issued warnings about the way that the current Fidesz government is manipulating the nation’s constitution in order to consolidate its power. The Orban government was elected in 2010 with a massive majority, gaining two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Consequently, it has the legal right to alter the existing constitutional arrangements and to diminish the influence of many of the checks and balances that stand in the way of the assertion of governmental power. It has weakened the role of the constitutional court and has even set up a commission to rewrite the constitution. It has also sought to purge state institutions of ‘unreliable’ officials and replace them with Fidesz loyalists.

In one sense, the new media law can be seen as part of Orban’s project of consolidating political power. But Orban is also settling scores with Hungary’s post-communist cultural elites. One reason why he commands such formidable influence in parliament is because of the popular revulsion against the Socialist government that ran the country for the eight years before Fidesz came to power. The Socialists oversaw a corrupt and self-serving regime that transformed sleaze into an artform. It was supported by those who benefited most from the post-Communist transition process. Some of these people were the formerly privileged members of the former Communist party nomenklatura. They simply privatised themselves and helped themselves to a portion of the nation’s state-controlled wealth. Others were beneficiaries of EU largesse and gained influence by establishing relationships and deals with foreign businesses. The Socialist Party benefited from the support of foreign NGOs and the EU. Typically, when riots broke out in Budapest in 2006, the EU leadership denounced the protesters for being out of touch with ‘EU values’. Such a reaction was not surprising considering that the then prime minister of Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsany, was looked upon by Brussels as the most reliable and on-message leader in eastern Europe.

It is worth recalling that the riots were provoked by the revelation that Gyurcsany was overheard admitting that he ‘lied morning, evening and night’ to the electorate about the state of the Hungarian economy. Yet as far as the EU bureaucracy was concerned, he may have been a liar but he was ‘our liar’. Sections of the western European media went so far as to praise Gyurcsany for his brutal honesty when he admitted that he and his party had told the electorate a string of lies. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described his unguarded comments as a ‘sweat and tears speech’. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the then president of the Party of European Socialists, was quick to rush to Gyurcsany’s defence, arguing that he was the ‘best man to make the reforms that Hungary needs’. Inside Hungary, most members of the cultural elites were prepared to go along with this charade. Every now and then, a handful of critics questioned the behaviour of the government, but by and large the cultural elites, including a significant section of the media, were more than happy to support the EU-Socialist government consensus.

Orban’s press law can be seen as an attempt to settle old scores with a section of society that was always hostile to him and his party. His aim is to isolate and diminish the influence of an elite that is regarded by the majority of Hungarians as a parasitic oligarchy. As a nationalist political leader, he has decided to counter EU political correctness, as internalised by Hungary’s cultural elites, with the political correctness of traditionalist right-wing patriotism. And it is his determination to introduce an alternative form of moral policing that has provoked the wrath of Hungary’s EU partners. Brussels can live with censorship and encroachment on the freedom of speech – just so long as it is driven by its favoured technocratic and multiculturalist ethos. It regards traditional forms of moralising as a threat to its own institutions.

Inadvertently, Hungary has reminded the EU that there is more than one side to the Culture Wars, and that political correctness takes many shapes and forms. In this confused dispute, those of an open-minded and liberal disposition must reject the moralising project of both sides. And we must insist that the EU has no positive role to play in the Culture War afflicting Hungary. Rather, it is up to free-thinking Hungarians to mobilise domestic support against their new government’s authoritarian instincts.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Free Speech

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