A crisis eating away at Europe’s freedom

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 13 January 2011

The new year has barely started and the EU already has its first crisis. If there is any surprise about this it is that for a change the problems have nothing to do with monetary union or public debt. Europe’s moral credibility hangs in the balance after Hungary enacted a law to limit press freedom. As Hungary also happens to hold the rotating EU presidency for the first six months of 2011, this is more than just an acute embarrassment for the EU. It calls into question the very foundations the European project is built on.

While other East European countries like Estonia have made every possible effort to transform themselves into Western democracies, Hungary is moving backwards under its right-populist government. Last year, the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a two-thirds majority in the national elections. Ever since, Orbán has shown no hesitation to use his popular mandate to ride roughshod over the values of liberal democracy.

The first victim was the constitutional court, whose right to review acts of parliament for their constitutional validity was restricted. The new media law continues this theme. It came into effect on the very day that Hungary assumed the EU presidency and puts all Hungarian media, including online publications such as blogs, under the control of a new authority. Not only will this new regulator not be responsible to parliament, it will also be run by close allies of the Prime Minister.

To make matters worse still, the terms of the law’s operations are vague. The Hungarian media will be compelled to “balanced reporting”; journalists must reveal their sources if the regulator deems it “in the national interest”. These rules will be enforced using fines so tough that critics claim the law amounts to de-facto censorship of commercial publishers and broadcasters. Public broadcasters are already under the strict control of the government.

Before the new law came into force, several Hungarian newspapers and magazines appeared with empty front pages in protest. A radio journalist expressed his dismay by a minute of silence on air – a protest that got him suspended and is likely to cost him the job.

In this week’s issue of news magazine Der Spiegel, former Hungarian dissident and novelist György Konrád likens the Fidesz government to a new kind of dictatorship and draws parallels to the former communist rulers. “Both were statists. They both want to socialise and centralise as much as possible,” he wrote. According to Konrád, the new media law is suffocating the very freedoms that were won in the revolution of 1989. The only difference between the old and the new leaders of Hungary was that the latter are trying to run their censorship regime within the European Union.

It is this aspect which makes the Hungarian law so damaging for Europe. For the first half of this year, Viktor Orbán and his government will be key figures in European politics. They will preside over ministerial meetings, convene European summits, and all of this in times of economic crisis. An open conflict with the Hungarian government is the last thing that the European Commission and other European governments need. And so they are not having it.

Maybe European leaders also remember how their last confrontation with a controversial government ended. A decade ago, the EU tried to boycott dealings with the then Austrian government because of its coalition partner FPÖ. Under the FPÖ’s leader, the late Carinthian politician Jörg Haider, the party had drifted towards the far-right of the political spectrum. Haider himself had regularly provoked scandals, for example when he praised Hitler’s employment policies.

The dispute between the EU and Austria was over not long after it had begun. Not because anything had changed in Austria but because the EU painfully had to find out that it simply did not have the means to force the government of a member state into compliance with its political values.

It now looks as if the EU Commission, to avoid a repeat of such humiliation, is trying not to make too much noise about the Hungarian developments. Some European politicians have politely voiced their concerns, but overall there has been a deafening silence about the assassination of basic political freedoms in the country of the new EU presidency.

For all its practical faults, the EU has often played a positive role in the promotion of human rights and democratic values in developing countries and young democracies. If it still wishes to be taken seriously in the future, it must send a clear signal to Orbán and his government. There are red lines in Europe which no government, not even one elected with a two-thirds majority, may cross.

Unfortunately, such clear words have not been heard from the Commission. Nor has the EU regarded it necessary to comment on similar infringements of press freedom in Romania, already a member of the EU, and Serbia, which aspires to join in the near future.

Bodo Hombach, Managing Director of German publishing group WAZ and a former federal cabinet minister, is sounding the alarm over press freedom in Europe. “Europe is closing its eyes over the state of the media in South East Europe,” he recently said. Circumstances have become so difficult that WAZ is withdrawing from these markets.”It’s really depressing,” Hombach said, but no European institution was willing hold the offending governments to account.

With the unsolved crisis of its currency, Europe is destroying its economic reputation. With the resigned acceptance of press censorship in its member states it is doing the same for its moral credibility.

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