Hungary's new media law, which went into effect on July 1, carries a distinctly unpleasant whiff of the country's fascist and communist past.
Under its provisions, all media outlets are required to register with a body called the Media Council. The council is empowered to impose fines of nearly $1 million upon those publications and broadcasters deemed to have "insulted" a particular group, along with an amorphous entity defined as "the majority." If a publication violates "public morality," it faces a fine. If its news coverage is judged "imbalanced," ditto. And woe betide any journalist who refuses an order from the council to disclose his sources.
With this one measure, Hungary has unraveled an emblematic achievement of those largely peaceful 1989-90 revolutions that brought communism crashing down across Eastern Europe -- namely, the freedom of the press. Instead of nurturing an environment conducive to free inquiry, the law creates a climate of fear and distrust, one of the hallmarks of totalitarian rule.
To add insult to injury, two recent cases have emerged that demonstrate that the media law is being applied with a scandalous double standard.
In the first case, "Nepszava," a liberal daily, is under investigation by Media Council commissioners over "insulting" reader comments that appeared in the online version of an article criticizing Pal Schmitt, Hungary's president. The comments were pretty mild by the coarse standards of online debate -- for example, Schmitt was called a "clown" -- but that is besides the point: the wrong political leaders were offended, so the media law was brought into play.
In the second case, by contrast, reader comments on an article in the pro-government newspaper "Magyar Hirlap" were riddled with anti-Semitic slurs of jaw-dropping foulness, yet not a peep has been heard from the Media Council.
The "Magyar Hirlap" article reported on an opinion piece penned earlier this year by Karl Pfeifer, the veteran Austrian Jewish journalist, in the Vienna daily "Die Presse." In that piece, Pfeifer relayed the contents of an article by Zsolt Bayer, a Hungarian rabble-rouser with close ties to the ruling Fidesz party who passes himself off as a journalist.
Bayer's style mirrors the screeching, obscene rants of Julius Streicher, the editor of the Nazi rag "Der Sturmer." His inchoate tirade included a reference to "a stinking excrement called something like Cohen," followed by an expression of regret "that they" -- meaning the Jews -- "were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovany," the site of a pogrom during the Hungarian "White Terror" of 1919-20.
Pfeifer's apt description of Bayer as a "fecal anti-Semite" for his obsessive linkage of Jews with human waste was interpreted by "Magyar Hirlap" as an attack on Fidesz. Hence, the online reader comments on its coverage of Pfeifer's piece didn't hold back. Pfeifer, a Holocaust survivor, was called a "gas-chamber deserter." Contributors invoked the imagery of classic anti-Semitism -- "Jewish scabs," "Jewish lice" -- along with its contemporary variants, including this choice line: "The Israeli Jewish occupiers...bring only conflict and ruin, while sucking our blood like parasites and draining our vigor."
Unlike "Nepszava," which has been victimized solely for hosting comments that discreetly poked fun at the Hungarian president, "Magyar Hirlap" has continued as if there were no media law, and the scurrilous attacks on Pfeifer remain online. The noted Hungarian-American scholar Eva Balogh offered the following explanation as to why that is:
"Despite his venomous writing, the old Fidesz leadership never disassociated itself from Bayer. Yearly there is a Fidesz birthday bash which is proudly attended by the founders, among them Zsolt Bayer. A few years ago after a particularly outrageous anti-Semitic attack, [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban made a special effort to be photographed with Bayer as they were amiably enjoying some private jokes. It was Orban's way of saying, 'Bayer is our boy, we stand by him.'"
More generally, as Balogh, Pfeifer, and other commentators have noted, Hungary is rapidly becoming one of the most xenophobic countries in Europe. Roma (Gypsies) face regular attack, and those who expose these crimes find themselves on the receiving end of nationalist opprobrium ("Gypsies are killing Hungarians every week," one commenter lectured Pfeifer.)
The neo-fascist Jobbik party, which sports its own militia, has emerged as Hungary's third-largest, combining an extreme right-wing loathing of Jews and other minorities with anti-Zionist rhetoric more commonly found on the extreme left. And just this month, Hungary made the headlines when a court acquitted 97-year-old Sandor Kepiro, accused of participating in a brutal massacre of Hungarian Jews and Serbian nationals during World War Ii.
Fully cognizant of these toxic conditions, Pfeifer nonetheless sent a letter to Jeno Bodonovich, head of the Media Council, asking him how the new media law is going to be implemented against "anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic hate speech." Thus far, he has not received a reply. Such silent expression of contempt is yet another sign that the bad old days are returning.