Media Democracy, Hungarian Style

Bild: isobrown. Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0. Original: Flickr

January 17, 2011
Wolfgang Klotz
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After the Fidesz party’s landslide victory in Hungary’s April 2010 elections, writer Péter Nádas wrote a text entitled “Der Stand der Dinge” (The State of Affairs). In it, he presents a devastating vision of the transformations his country has undergone since the end of Communism. He compares Hungary to developments in other “Central European” countries, and – as if staging a contest for the worst policy of the last 20 years – he claims victory for Hungary.

Were the countries of South-Eastern Europe contestants, too, the outcome would be less certain. The “softenings” that characterised Hungarian Communism under Kádár, thus distinguishing it from its Polish and Czechoslovak neighbours, and that allegedly allowed for a certain degree of laissez faire is interpreted by Nádas as the system of a shadow economy running much deeper in society than in any other Eastern Bloc country. Because of that, after 1990, privatisation in Hungary played almost exclusively into the hands of such actors of the old shadow economy who had access to a monopoly of information encompassing all of the economy. During privatisation, any kind of information advantage gave you a head start when it came to grabbing up potentially profitable parts of the economy.

In the middle of the planned economy, the shadow economy followed capitalist rules. It goes without saying that these capitalist elements knew nothing about social standards or responsibilities. According to Nádas, it was “an unregulated version, one following family and tribal egotisms and calling for an authoritarian structure of society.” The shadow economy per se had no ideology; it was pragmatic in that it followed private and particular egotisms.

Péter Nádas’ literary oeuvre can be read as the possibly most subtle analysis and description of a tradition usually connected with the “European bourgeoisie of the 19th and 20th century” – or, more to the point, as an obsessively detailed search for its traces during a period when it was already vanishing. The expectation that, at the end of the last century, and as a result of the transformation, such a bourgeoisie would once more emerge as a social class animated by a public spirit and acting in a consensual way in the best interest of the community as a whole, this expectation has been exposed as a singularly naïve notion. Instead, the former clandestine shadow economy relabelled itself a “free market” and emerged victorious. Moreover, one trait of its former shadowy underground existence proved to be particularly apt for life in a privatised public sphere – corruption.

Corruption is free of ideology, too, and was thus able to thrive in coalition with almost any party. And that is exactly what happened. Corruption, according to Nádas, needs alliances in order to defend whatever it has siphoned off from the public sphere. Although it can, from times past, still make use of old boys’ networks that include parts of the police, secret services, and the judiciary, this will turn to be insufficient. In order to retain power, the new era demands different, “democratic” modes. Thus, what is needed, are policies that combine the process of appropriating economic influence with a “state-run show of care.”

In Péter Nádas’ analysis: “The moment the turnaround happened, it was already clear that the third republic would fluctuate between caring and corporative state, i.e. between the traditions of the Kádar era and the Horthy era, respectively. Over the last two decades, it has not been able to decide between the two.” The pendulum thus followed the political swings of the recent past, with the two traditions being represented by the Socialist Party, on the one hand, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidész, on the other.

However, postmodernism has reached Hungary, too, and as a consequence Kádar’s and Horthy’s worlds can only be staged as specious enactments of politics, the latter as right-wing populism, the former as dishonest left rhetoric about “ordinary people.” Yet, it is noticeable, that the props at hand for populist stagings are much more plentiful than the ones that may be used for a theatre of care the proliferation of which is being seriously curtailed by an ebb of public monies. In 2006, the uneven match of the two sides led to the desperate effort by former Socialist prime minister Gyurcsány, to open up new political terrain with an honest speech about the all-pervading lies.

The thoroughly corrupt transformation Nádas describes, was already in full swing during Orbán’s first period in power. Back then the people were mainly won over or placated by nationalist policies. In an act of grandiose hubris the states welfare was extended to include the Hungarian brothers and sisters living in the diaspora. With a “Hungarian passport” (Magyar Igazolvány) they were able to enter Hungary, seek employment there, and get access to medical care.

In Serbian Vojvodina, this made sense for many of the Hungarians living there, as, after the destruction of Vukovar, they could not be certain whether for example Vojislav Šešely with his private militias would march on Novi Sad. At the same time, Hungary did thus abandon the Central European convoy and set the country on a course with its South-Eastern European neighbours. As Serbia’s historic trauma was the Battle of Kosovo, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon became Hungary’s obsession, the root and cause of all its troubles. Budapest markets offered Hungary it the borders of 1918 as a jigsaw, as a board game, as pastry, and one could even snack on the traditionally ring-shaped liver sausages made in the shape of the country’s then borders.

Nádas compares Hungary’s transformation with what occurred in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. For him the difference is that in Hungary the shadow economy was much more powerful and that its players where able, through corruption, to redirect the process of privatisation to their advantage. If this were the case, Hungary would not be unique but rather share a common trait with its southerly neighbours, the countries that emerged out of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

A second Hungarian intellectual, philosopher Tamás Gáspár Miklós, recently wrote an article concerning the media law for Berlin’s die tageszeitung. It opens with a precautionary disclaimer: Miklós does not want readers to believe that his plea for the freedom of the media makes him a Liberal. He does not want to appear as someone “who believes that liberal democracy, as represented by the Europe of the 21st century, is a political regime that should be upheld without reforms.” For him, after 20 years of transformation in Hungary, this liberal European democracy is nothing but a collection of “chaos, poverty, corruption, sycophancy, venality, haggling, disregard for the lower classes, inequality, and hypocrisy.” Miklós insists on being a “left philosopher,” albeit one with nowhere to turn to in the present political landscape.

Meanwhile, in Austria, a former Croatian prime minister is in provisional detention while awaiting extradition on charges of corruption. In Montenegro, after 20 years in power, Prime Minister Djukanovic resigned following the “enlightened example” of Vladimir Putin. Observers hold that it was about time, as the country’s EU accession process demands some cleaning up of organised crime. At the same time, the Council of Europe has published an expert report, accusing Kosovo’s newly elected prime minister and members of his cabinet of involvement, eleven years ago, in systematic killings perpetrated to profit from the organ trade. In Serbia, where privatisation following the pattern of Hungary, has not even been completed, President Tadic, in a newly popular discourse, is accusing the nouveau riche tycoons of exploiting the people. As, at the same time, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin – who has repeatedly done the same – has procured a new court order against his erstwhile rival Khodorkovsky, it is difficult to decide what to make of this.

Everything T. G. Miklós describes as a Hungarian built-up of “chaos, poverty…“ is, with very little exception, also true for many of its southern neighbours. On balance, it is all very much about holding on to political and economic power while joining or trying to join the EU. Because of Europe there has to be at least a semblance of democracy. Hence, Viktor Orbán will stress over and over that all the decisions he has made since May 2010 are nothing but an expression of the will of the people who, after all, gave him a two-thirds majority in parliament. In order to create and uphold this semblance there is but one way – control of the media.

For the moment, politics in these countries cannot do quite without the traditional provider of “opium of the people.” For some time to come, religion will continue to be useful, and every president likes to be filmed going to church service. We do not want to claim unduly that the conversion to Catholicism of the former secretary of the Communist youth league, Peter Orbán, was nothing but a sham. He and his fellow travellers certainly are converts of a certain kind. Yet, there remain unavoidable doubts concerning his all too showy display of his newfound devoutness. Then there is the question whether politics will still be able to rely on the support of the churches, once all their formerly nationalised properties have been returned to them, as this is part of the overall gamble of privatisation.

As in today’s Hungary, the ratings of the privately owned RTL TV station is more than double that of the state-owned outlets, and as the former’s thinly-veiled erotic fare is hugely more popular than Sunday’s sermon against sexual aberrations, the media is, for politics, the main pawn in the game. Whoever controls the media will not have to worry about the next election. According to German news magazine Der Spiegel, this is a further trait shared by Hungary and its South-Eastern European neighbours: “In 2010, Hungary’s media is dominated by the Ringier-owned RTL ProSieben and Sat.1, by Springer, and by the WAZ consortium. Until now they have not protested against Orbán and his media law – a shocking signal from the camp of the Western community of values.” (1) Yet, to expect them to protest would be as naïve, as the tentative hope mentioned by Nadás, that a newly awakened bourgeoisie would come to the rescue. Why is that?
The main accusation facing former Croatian Prime Minister Sanander is concerning activities involving an advertising agency. The closest adviser of the Serbian president is the owner of such an agency, one whose powerful position on the market is only second to the ones owned by the mayor of Belgrade. In Bosnia’s and Bulgaria’s economy, media, and politics similar patterns can be detected. Within the triangle of economy, media, and politics advertising is the link between the economy and media in the same way that party financing is the link between the economy and politics. Ownership of the Hungarian media is a result of privatisation, and thus the media have always been free of ideology. The only time they might defend Western values is when the purchase of yet another publisher or the access to cheap EU credits is at stake.

In other countries, the political control of the media is mainly effected through economic pressure, which is sometimes steered by politics. It seems that in Hungary this mechanism worked insufficiently, thus necessitating direct political control through legal means and a monopoly on the organs controlling the media. Only a cynic would claim that this is a sign for hope.

Wolfgang Klotz is head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s office for South-Eastern Europe in Belgrade.
(1) Ringier is a Swiss media group, Springer and WAZ are German.

Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.

Dossier: Focus on Hungary

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has compiled a dossier containing articles and interviews on the situation in Hungary since the right wing government came to power in April 2010. The driving goal behind the project is to analyze and interpret the changes in the domain of public life at ‘half-time’, two years before the next parliamentary elections.

This text is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.