WASHINGTON – In recent weeks, the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban has frequently attacked Western media outlets but none more than CNN for its reports on the sorry state of Hungarian democracy. Hungarians can still watch CNN, but since January, the network is no longer part of the package offered by Hungary’s largest cable provider.
Klubradio, the country’s popular independent talk channel, has been even less fortunate. Despite widespread protests by its listeners, an effort supported by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the European Union, the government’s one-party Media Council has not renewed the station’s broadcasting license. Absent a last-minute reversal, Klubradio will be unplugged this spring.
With the fall of Hungary’s Western-style, pluralistic democracy, the time is right for the United States to reinstate Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian-language broadcasts. Hungarian would then join 28 other languages in which Radio Free Europe transmits its programs on radio stations in countries of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, South Asia and the Balkans. The president of one of these countries told one of us last year that he begins every morning by listening to RFE’s summary of the news.
While Hungary is a member of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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. All branches of government and all independent institutions, including the judiciary, are controlled by Orban and his party for nine years with automatic renewal for many more similar terms.
Since his election in 2010, Orban has followed a confrontational, nationalist foreign policy vis-a-vis the West, which stands in stark contrast to his approach to the authoritarians in Russia and, especially, China. He speaks kindly of “eastern winds” while predicting the “decline of the West.” He deploys statist yet utterly unpredictable economic policies, precipitating a downgrading of the Hungarian economy to junk status by all three major credit agencies. Finally, Orban is pursuing a ferocious cultural war calculated to court the supporters of Jobbik, an anti-Romany, anti-Semitic far-right party.
There are serious reasons for bringing back RFE’s Hungarian broadcasts, which ended in 1993:
• Hungarian media freedom, both the root and the finest fruit of all other liberties, has suffered a demise.
• One of the lessons of Europe’s last century is that broadcast monopolies by nationalist governments lead to international tensions and conflicts. Indeed, Orban’s anti-democratic measures could encourage politicians in nearby Slovakia and Romania to imitate his combination of anti-foreign sentiments and denial of free debate on public airwaves.
• 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. Supporting the EU’s repeated warnings about Hungary’s democracy deficit, Washington should take steps to counter emerging authoritarianism in Central Europe before it becomes a trend.
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, the channel 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 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.
Mark Palmer was the U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 1986 to 1990. Miklos Haraszti, a Hungarian author, was the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2004 to 2010. Charles Gati is a professorial lecturer in Russian & Eurasian studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.