EUROPE’S ‘LEAST FREE’: HUNGARY, THE MEDIA AND ORBÁN’S ‘ILLIBERAL DEMOCRACY’

Maeve McTaggart looks at the man who took Hungary into the shadows, allowing it to slip 31 places on the World Freedom Index in seven years to 87th. Ranked the least democratic of all European member states, Maeve shines a light on how the EU can pull Hungary back from the depths of it’s ‘half democracy.’ 

In Hungary, there lives an almost mythical tale of the life behind it’s Prime Minister. Once an unshaven left-wing reformer who rallied crowds on the street in the calls for Soviet withdrawal, Viktor Orbán now reigns over what is described as “a half democracy in decline” – the only EU member state to be denigrated with the label of “partly free” by the human rights organisation Freedom House. From 1994, the Fidesz party leader had begun to transform the “party of youth” by maneuvering to the right. It was the only path he understood to lead to power, needing a niche upon which to compete with the Socialist Party. Populism came easier to the former activist than one would have thought, Orbán capitalising upon chaos born out of the 2008 crash (a manifestation of toxic western neoliberalism, he said) and the 2015 refugee crisis (a threat to the nation, he thought) to consolidate his power in 2010. He is up for re-election in early April, and it is not believed he shall lose. 

It is an unremarkable story, the politician propelled to power by ideology – but that is not this one. For Orbán, it is clear which bred the other: the radical right-wingism a means to satiate the hunger for power. James Traub has highlighted why this is almost worse. “He is too much a professional politician, too rational and sane,” he writes, “to be a Hungarian Milsevic, much less an Il Duce.” Rather than an obtuse run at domination, or an outward flirtation with fascism, Orbán dances, precise, with what he calls his “illiberal democracy.” It is a calculated descent into the shadows. Neither a dictatorship nor a democracy, Hungary settles into the blind spot of Europe, leaving only the EU with the power to pull it out again.

“Hello, dictator,” quipped then-President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker to the Hungarian Prime Minister in 2015, a photo opp turned ill-fated prelude to contemporary Hungarian politics. The year prior, Orbán was forced to shelve plans for an internet tax following mass protests of people who feared the repression of information and expression. The tax was quashed, Orbán stating that Fidesz were “not Communists [who] go against the will of the people.” It is a distinction the leader draws upon often, separating the party from the old regime while simultaneously dreaming of a return to the values which upheld it. A symptom of a dictatorship, the repression of political opponents and the free media in Hungary is an escalating issue – one which must be cured before the democracy of the country can. 

 

Orbán craves radio silence, airwaves unadulterated by criticism. In founding KESMA, the Hungarian acronym for the Press and Media Foundation, the Prime Minister centralised the portfolios of over 400 media outlets – from TV to print, radio to news – and exempted this amalgamation from regulatory oversight. The attempt to sideline independent journalism is systematic in Hungary, such outlets are starved of funding and advertising – of which the biggest advertiser in the state being the State itself, spending $300 million since 2010.. It means the outsiders proceed with caution, political intervention a constant threat to their existence, and to the exaltation of alternative ideas. As a member of the European Union, it is a violation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Article 11 citing the right to freedom of expression, to hold opinions and impart information without interference. The article is an assurance of the pluralism of the media, of the democratic rights of the European citizens of Hungary. When disrespected, such rules infer action against the member state by the EU according Article 7, a censure procedure against the state in question which must take place when fundamental EU values are under threat. 

Article 7 procedures were triggered against Orbán-led Hungary in 2018 but results are rationed as a result of the required four fifths majority vote to begin a process which may eventually introduce sanctions on the member state. Each step is democratically taken, but almost to a fault. “We cannot stay in this situation that’s endless,” pleaded French MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield in late 2019, citing the lengthy operation as an act of self-sabotage rather than one of saviourism. The issue of delay in the name of democracy is exacerbated by the simultaneous procedures against Poland, dubbed an “illiberal ally” to Orbán in maneuvers to subvert democracy, freedom of the press and EU immigration practices. 

Hesitation is healthy, it implies a measured response and a needed commitment to diligence – but does that come with a cost? Article 7 is known as the “nuclear option” of the EU, an eventual move to potentially suspend the voting privileges of the member state in an attempt to prompt reform. The process is menial, moving from Parliament to Council, from hearing to vote, from meeting to briefing. Action is slow, but it infers a European unity that is daunting for any potential offender – it just depends on how quickly the collective can reach a conclusion, on what Orbán schedules in the meantime. The EU is pulling Hungary out of the shadows, but Orbán is dragging his heels and too much contemplation is acting like quicksand – dragging the freedoms of the Hungarian people and its media down with it.