The crushing of independent press in Hungary

Demonstration in support of Népszabadság held in front of the Hungarian Parliament, 8 October 2016. Photo by the authors.

October 8, 2016 will go down in Hungarian history as the day when the ideals of the 1956 revolution (when Népszabadság was established) were finally betrayed by Hungary’s autocratic government.

by HIDVÉGI-B. ATTILA and ALEXANDRA BARCEA

Imagine a situation where you woke up in the UK and discovered that the Guardian newspaper had overnight shut down all operations, that its paper version was never to be published again and that its decade old internet archive was unavailable to the public.

For all those citizens who rely on high quality investigative journalism, and the institutions that represent it, this would be an unimaginable situation, and it is very likely that the UK government of the day would have to step in in support of the venerable paper, even if its demise were the result of a problem of liquidity or dwindling circulation.

But if such a scenario would happen in any democratic country and there was even the slightest whiff of political wrong-doing that led to the disappearance of one of the country’s main news portals, heads would immediately roll and the scandal would reverberate for decades to come.

Yet that is exactly the situation in which Hungarian civil society found itself on Saturday morning, October 8, 2016, when everyone’s Facebook pages erupted with the news that Népszabadság, the main opposition daily with a circulation of over 30,000 copies (in a country of under 10 million people), was no more. You might have been forgiven for clicking on the link above under the paper’s name (http://nol.hu/) to find out more about it.

Yet in a cynical and unforgivable move, not only did the paper’s owner,Mediaworks (whose own webpage couldn’t look better) use the excuse of an office move to freeze out Népszabadság’s whole staff from their own email accounts, their computers and offices, it also blocked the 60-year old national institution’s digital archive.

The reasons it cited were ‘economic’ – but nobody believes that lie, and as many have shown, it does not stand up to scrutiny in any way at all. So it happens that October 8, 2016 will go down in Hungarian history as the day when the ideals of the 1956 revolution (when Népszabadság was established) have been finally betrayed by an autocratic government that believes in nothing other than its own corrupt advancement.

For the whole opposition, political and civil society (including on this occasion the far right Jobbik party) is agreed that Népszabadság had to go because it had started to expose too many of the FIDESZ and Viktor Orban-led government’s wrongdoings.

From government ministers using dubious funds to make sure they got places on time by helicopter, to government stooges promoting their favourite personnel in an effort to bring banks and government departments uncomfortably close together, the list of corruption scandals that Népszabadság was pursuing in the valiant tradition of the best investigative journalism is long.

The moment of the newspaper’s demise seems to have been well-timed and brings to mind a well-rehearsed scenario to shock the public into not noticing a number of other political events happening almost simultaneously.

On October 2, in a press conference that journalists were not allowed to attend, Prime Minister Orbán declared a toxic referendum campaign on migrant quotasa major success, in spite of the fact that the referendum at just over 39 percent participation did not reach enough voters to make it valid.

The very next day, Népszabadság reported that the prime minister would use the referendum result to (yet again) modify the Constitution in ways as yet unknown, citing only that the new wording would take into account the interests of the Hungarian people and not allow the settlements of groups of migrants – all refugee and migration requests would be investigated individually. With the disappearance of the main opposition daily, the Hungarian people will find it much more difficult to follow the debate around the proposed constitutional changes.

Although sadly, contrary to a call published in the New York Time’s op-ed, voters will not be allowed any chance at a debate, let alone ‘reject that approach [to amend the constitution]’, given that for years the governing party has been demolishing democracy to a level where it can pass any legislation at any time without opposition.

Relatively smaller, but just as important matters were also lost in the torrent of negative news. The week before the referendum, the attentive citizen could also find out that virtually all the major Roma civil society organisations in Hungary, including the valiant Roma Press Centre, had to close their operations around the same time, because government support had for years been channeled to other organisations, many of them so close to the government as to be unrecognizable as independent bodies.

Another news portal demonstrated beyond any doubt that a famous witch-hunt against civil society in 2014 was authorised by Prime Minister Orban himself. The articles written by Népszabadság on these themes may now be forever lost to the public, and that public will be denied yet another opportunity of a wider understanding of the complex political landscape in today’s Hungary.

Yet, in spite of or because of the dire political situation, civil society and a number of press portals have rallied almost immediately around the Népszabadság staff, joining them in their mission to contest the decision to stop the paper, and engaging in countless acts of solidarity that have the potential to snowball into a virtuous circle of resistance.

On the very evening after the announcement of the coup against the progressive daily, a relatively big crowd of over 4,000 people protested and got organized to carry on supporting the cause of press freedom. Immediately, many other news portals offered support and practical ideas for the way forward.

RomNet, one of the two major Roma news portals in Hungary, called the silencing of Népszabadság a political assassination and expressed its solidarity in no uncertain terms:

‘RomNet’s staff were shocked to find out about the silencing of one of Hungary’s most read daily newspaper, and equate this act with an attempt to bury the whole freedom of the press in Hungary. We judge the information published by the owners of the newspaper [Mediaworks] as one huge lie and diversion, especially as access to the newspaper’s online archives [blocked since Saturday morning] should not be affected in any way by economic considerations. It is impossible to believe that the costs incurred by keeping the server going were too high to merit the limitation of a priceless database of information and earlier articles.’

Many in the Hungarian press, including other mainstream daily newspapers like Magyar Nemzet, news portals such as 444.hu or anti-corruption organisations like atlatszo.hu believe that doing away with Nepszabadsag was a model punishment meted out upon the newspaper by the government for its investigative journalism, and a sign that this government is perfectly capable of grinding into the dust any number of Hungarian traditions and institutions, if they interfere with its selfish goals.

A sign that any critical voice aimed at the discovery of the truth is a threat to the propaganda machine, a grain of sand in the gears of the rather simplistic bombastically entitled Program of National Cooperation, adopted by the Hungarian Parliament in 2010 with a 2/3 FIDESZ majority and stating among other things that: ‘Hungarian voters have sent the message to all of us that national unity has prevailed, and the duty of the winner is to defend and represent national unity and the truth of such, and to overcome any circumstance, force, and endeavour which repudiates or endangers it.’

In this context, Népszabadság for many decades has pursued its independent program of credible, professionally informed and detailed journalism. It was for example one of the few publications that reported truthfully and impartially on the living conditions of Hungary’s Roma minority, and the issues most important to them. It was one of the instruments that was given to the voices of the oppressed such as Roma to make themselves heard and communicate a real image of themselves to the majority society, thus gradually breaking down the walls of prejudice.

On many occasions Népszabadság collaborated well with Roma and other news portals, reprinting in a professional and impartial way not only good news but also articles about issues of corruption for example in the Roma Minority Self-Governments, to make sure that no cases of misuse of funding, whether engaged in by majority or minority society, were left unreported. It’s time to return that favour.

Now a new wall has gone up and a big abyss has opened. This wall too needs to be broken down, and this abyss needs to be bridged through citizen solidarity, in a way that no government or political faction can attack and bring down.

One of the way that we see to express solidarity with Népszabadság is to follow the example of the already mentioned anti-corruption network atlatszo.hu and Romnet who have offered to regularly host contributions from Népszabadság free of charge on their own portals, in the interests of continuing in particular the series of searing exposes about the government’s corrupt practices started by Népszabadság, but also in the wider interests of press freedoms.

Both portals are committed to this course of action, and Atlatszo is even planing a crowdfunding campaign, as they recognize not only that Népszabadság would do the same for them, would the situation be reversed, but also that the fight for democratic rights must go on.

We call on openDemocracy and other progressive news sites to support this action of solidarity by contacting Népszabadság staff and offering them support such as editorial space. Let’s see if we can make this an international campaign for the freedom of the press.

The article was originally published by Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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