In stark contrast to the Left’s timidity in the face of actual authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, the liberal media’s treatment of Hungary has aggressively crossed the line. Paul Krugman of the New York Times sounded the alarm after Hungary’s conservative Fidesz-KDNP alliance won 68 percent of the seats in Parliament in the 2010 elections. He foresaw a post-Soviet “re-establishment of authoritarian rule” in Hungary. The British Guardian fell into line, describing Hungary’s new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as an “autocratic leader.” The WashingtonPost, not to be outdone, compared Hungary to Belarus and Putin’s Russia. Not long after, and with great satisfaction, Hungarian émigré professor Charles Gati announced in an op-ed in the Times that Hungary is “no longer a Western-style democracy.” Having been drummed out of the West by left-wing editorialists, Hungary became fair game for the next phase of the liberal crusade: U.S. intervention. Slander has turned into absurd policy prescriptions, intent on destroying one of the most electorally effective center-right parties in Europe.
Writing in the Washington Post last week, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer, Gati, and another émigré professor, Miklos Haraszti, argue that the state of Hungarian democracy is dire and that Radio Free Europe (RFE) must recommence the type of broadcasts it made into Hungary during the Cold War. The goal this time, however, is not to destabilize a Soviet-imposed Communist regime but to undermine a democratically elected government. This unfortunate op-ed proposes that the U.S. government and American taxpayers get involved in combatting the specter of alleged tyranny in our NATO ally — an ally that has chosen to remain in Afghanistan until the bitter end, unlike several others.
The center-right coalition has received criticism for its 2010 Media Law, which when passed contained certain provisions that many deemed overly restrictive. However, these provisions were later invalidated by Hungary’s Constitutional Court — the very institution that many critics consider to be in Orbán’s pocket. Here is real proof that Hungary’s institutions are working as they should, even in the midst of constitutional change (Hungary’s new constitution took effect on January 1).
Nevertheless, Palmer, Haraszti, and Gati argue that freedom of speech and democracy itself are at risk in Hungary. They cite the removal of CNN from a cable-service bundle offered by one of Hungary’s cable providers, and the non-renewal of the license of a local talk and music station, Klubradio, as (the only) proof that Fidesz and Orbán are clamping down on Hungary’s free and open press.
In actuality, these changes are the result of market competition — and, as the bankruptcy of Hungary’s national airline last month demonstrates, telecommunications is not the only sector affected. Magyar Telekom dropped CNN from its most common service package (although it remains available from other cable operators) because CNN is largely unpopular in Hungary. Klubradio, a Budapest-based station known to be anti-Fidesz, lost a competitive bid organized by Hungary’s independent Media Council after its twelve-year broadcasting license expired. There are, of course, other opposition television and radio stations operating, as well as unrestricted and flourishing online and print media.
Free speech in this case is merely a red herring meant to bring down a government whose traditionalist policies are the real cause for alarm on the left. As Vernon Lowe correctly observes, Hungary’s conservative government has become a whipping boy for the international liberal punditocracy, which sees a fascist tyrant lurking underneath every coffee table with a Bible on top.
Yes, Hungary’s constitution has embraced the country’s heritage of Christianity, defined marriage in a traditional way, and proclaimed that life begins at conception. Hungary’s constitution also introduced a debt cap and reaffirmed Hungary’s 700-year-old forint as the national currency, to the chagrin of Brussels. These provisions reflect values held by most Hungarians and are therefore appropriately secured in their fundamental law. That Hungarians have decided to protect their traditional values unsurprisingly rankles the sensibilities of liberal pundits and bureaucrats in Europe and America, but it is hardly cause for crying “Dictatorship!”