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Hungary and Radio Free Europe — a Touchy Question

Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán speaking in Budapest on February 10, 2019 (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)

On Friday, a headline in the New York Times read, “Radio Free Europe Is Poised to Return to a Less Free Hungary.” Last year, I did a piece on RFE — actually, RFE/RL, because the organization includes Radio Liberty — entitled “Still Broadcasting Freedom.” I thought about including the Hungarian question — Should the “radios” return to Hungary, given “democratic backsliding” in that country? — but I left it out. A magazine piece can’t include everything.

After reading the Times piece, I thought of Mark Palmer, an impressive figure of the late Cold War on the American side. In 2012, Palmer co-authored an op-ed piece arguing that the radios should return to Hungary. Before continuing, I would like to say a little about Palmer.

He was born in 1941, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (my hometown, though this has nothing to do with my admiration for him). He died in 2013, in Washington, D.C. Palmer went to Yale, then worked in journalism, for a while, then joined the Foreign Service. He became the top Kremlinologist in the State Department.

This passage from an obit will give you a flavor of him:

Throughout his career, Mr. Palmer was known for his advocacy of democratic principles of government. His notions were considered a bit quixotic in the 1970s, when U.S. foreign policy was geared more toward containment of the Soviet threat and monitoring human-rights abuses. But his ideals were vindicated over time, as democracy movements spread from one country to the next.

Palmer was a co-drafter of President Reagan’s famous speech to the British Parliament in 1982. (Sample: “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom of the people.”) In his second term, Reagan made Palmer his ambassador to Hungary. Palmer marched in the streets with such democratic leaders as Viktor Orbán.

But as Orbán, now in charge, consolidated his power, Palmer was dismayed. He saw the Hungarian leader patterning himself on Putin, a long way from a liberal-democratic revolution.

Earlier this year, Ferenc Katrein, a Hungarian former counterintelligence officer, was moved to speak to our Voice of America. He lives abroad now, needless to say. He said, “All the Russian services — the GRU, FSB, and SVR — are highly active in Hungary and they have free rein. That was my problem. There was no effort to curtail or control them. We are a member of NATO and we have a responsibility to our allies. The question some of us started asking was, ‘Who is our partner, NATO or the Russians?’”

In 2012, Mark Palmer and his two co-authors — Miklós Haraszti and Charles Gati, distinguished figures in their own rights — were moved to write their op-ed piece. “With the fall of Hungary’s Western-style, pluralistic democracy,” they said, “the time is right for the United States to reinstate Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian-language broadcasts.” Here is some more from that piece: “While Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union, it is at risk of becoming a constitutional dictatorship and a pariah in the West. Its hastily adopted new constitution has no meaningful provisions for checks and balances.”

The authors listed three “serious reasons” for the return of the broadcasts. “The first is the current demise of Hungarian media freedom.” And second? “One of the lessons of Europe’s last century is that broadcast monopolies by nationalist governments lead to international tensions and conflicts.” And third? “Given the similarities in recent Russian and Hungarian attacks on the United States, Hungary may well be the first ideological outpost of Putin’s constitutional dictatorship.”

Wrapping up, the authors said this:

A new Hungarian channel, by making full use of gifted editors and reporters in Hungary, should become a hub for quality journalism, a provider of inclusive debates and fair information, inviting to all and detached from all. By cultivating rational and civilized debates, it should be a wellspring for democracy and good journalism. It should not revive the confrontational spirit of the early years of the Cold War, nor should it even turn into an opposition channel broadcasting only “bad news” that gets omitted by the official and semi-official media.

When it seemed that pluralistic democracy and a free market had taken root in Hungary, Radio Free Europe appeared to have fulfilled its mission. Now those values are officially deposed, and a legal system has been built to prevent their comeback even after the next elections. Restoring the Hungarian service could be a crucial step in promoting fair and decent values in Hungary, and in protecting democratic achievements elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.

This op-ed ticked off a lot of people — the Orbán camp, which is not confined to Hungary but spills into other countries, including our own. Viktor Orbán is a hero and darling of nationalists and populists in America and elsewhere.

Relations between him and President Trump are very warm. “It’s like we’re twins,” Trump remarked to his counterpart. The U.S. ambassador to Hungary is David Cornstein, a New York businessman and a longtime acquaintance of Trump. Pressed by Franklin Foer of The Atlantic on what Orbán calls “illiberal democracy,” Cornstein said, “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”

Ambassador Cornstein appears in the New York Times piece published on Friday — the one about what seems the imminent return of RFE/RL to Hungary. The ambassador

sought to blunt the effect of Radio Free Europe’s return to Hungary.

Mr. Cornstein . . . sought assurances from the agency that its service would not focus on negative stories about the Hungarian government, or investigative journalism, and that it would not undermine his efforts as ambassador, according to United States officials. . . .

The United States International Broadcasting Act prohibits American government officials, including Mr. Cornstein, from interfering in Radio Free Europe’s reporting.

“It’s literally illegal for the U.S. government to interfere in our editorial independence,” Mr. Lansing said.

John F. Lansing is the CEO and director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which used to be called the “Broadcasting Board of Governors.”

Already this year, the radios have returned to Bulgaria and Romania. This is a sad development, however necessary it may be. Readers can study up on those countries and decide for themselves whether the return was warranted. They can do the same with regard to Hungary. I think they would find ample warrant for the return of the radios. I further think that they themselves would want the option of the radios, were they in Hungary, desiring a diversity of media, including media independent of the government.

A return of the radios would be a grave insult to the Orbán government and its supporters, of course. But RFE/RL has been insulting governments for 70 years. I am unbothered by this. What I’m bothered by is the governments.

The Orbán question is one of the great dividing lines on the American right today. Some see Orbán as a great defender of the West, of Christian civilization itself. In 2017, Congressman Steve King (R., Iowa) tweeted, “History will record PM Orban the Winston Churchill of Western Civilization.” (Some of us might accord that honor to Churchill himself.) In 2018, Patrick J. Buchanan was characteristically blunt: “The democracy worshippers of the West cannot compete with the authoritarians in meeting the crisis of our time because they do not see what is happening to the West as a crisis.” Hungarians, he said, “have used democratic means to elect autocratic men who will put the Hungarian nation first.”

Others — critics — see Orbán as a junior Putin. (Of course, so do some of his admirers.)

So, Ronald Reagan and Mark Palmer? Viktor Orbán and his friends? Whaddaya like? Possibly, you did not expect this debate, but here we are.

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