NEW Jan. 23-28: Hungary's Media Law and András Schiff: a Backgrounder

by Bernard Sherman who is by no means an expert on Hungary; this page is meant to organize the publicly available information to help those of us interested in keeping track. UPDATE, February 8, 2011: Hungary will present an amendment to is Media Law to the EU on Thursday, February 10th; UPDATE: ON Feb 10 it presented an amendment - outcome tbd. February 11th Financial Times non-firewalled article includes such developments as Moody's cutting Hungary's bond rating to junk level, and explains nationalist defiance in the high-debt nation toward the IMF and "foreign" businesses. Excellent articles by Doug Saunders of the Toronto Globe and Mail can be found here and in its linksl he notes that Orban is not a fascist or racist, but a power-seeking nationalist.

Pianist András Schiff, conductor Ádám Fischer, and other intellectuals, musicians, and artists published an open letter on January 17 critical of their native Hungary. A quote: "To a shocking degree, the daily life of Hungary is infected with racism against Roma, with homophobia and with antisemitism. At the same time, the freedom of the media, of the arts and artists, and of those who could most effectively act against such tendencies is more and more curtailed."

That last sentence refers to a media law giving new censorship powers to the populist government of Viktor Orbán. Orbán, leader of the nationalist FIDESZ ("Alliance of Young Democrats") party, was able to pass the law because he has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian legislature (he won about 52% of the vote in the April 2010 Hungarian elections - partly, reports NPR, as a backlash against eight years of dysfunctional rule by the Socialist party). The media law was passed in December and came into effect on January 1, just as Hungary assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. Members of the European Parliament protested the law, and the Hungarian presidency seemed "likely to be overshadowed" by controversy over it. Indeed, on January 21, the EU Digital Agenda Commissioner, Neely Kroes (of the Netherlands), wrote a letter to Hungary's deputy prime minister (obtained and leaked by an opposition Hungarian newspaper). It expressed "serious doubts as to the compatibility of Hungarian legislation with Union law," and admonished the Hungarian government "to submit within two weeks observations on how these serious doubts may be addressed." The doubts:

1) the media law's "obligation [of all audiovisual media] to provide balanced coverage" (with balance to be determined by a five-person "media council" of FIDESZ appointees, all given 9-year terms), appears to violate the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights;
2) Hungary can restrict content from other member states or impose large fines on media in other states - but EU law forbids such restrictions except in cases of incitement to hatred or danger to minors;
3) the media law requires all media - including bloggers - to register, which Kroes calls "a disproportionate restriction to the freedom of establishment and the free provision of services" and "an infringement on the fundamental right of freedom expression and information."

On January 21, Hungary' s secretary for government communication dismissed these as "questions of a technical nature" (on the same day, Orban told the European Jewish Congress that his law - like, he said with an eye toward the EU, German media law - is aimed at "combating anti-Semitism and racism" and "ensuring the rights of Jews").

As of January 28, the EU has put behind-the-scenes pressure on Hungary to clear up the media law, and Hungary's Foreign Minister told the press that the law is under "a review which offers an acceptable solution to all concerned." UPDATE, February 8: Hungary will present an amendment to is Media Law to the EU on Thursday, February 10th. It will still have the appointed board of "media authority." Update Feb 10: presented

Hungarian dissent has been expressed in street protests and a "minute of silence" on a radio broadcast. (The Hungarian equivalent of Morning Edition; its host was suspended by FIDESZ, whose approach to the media is often compared to that of Berlusconi).

Schiff's involvement began with a January 1 letter to the Washington Post questioning Hungary's worthiness for the EU rotating presidency. The letter occasioned an anti-Semitic rant by a far-right politician in Hungary. (Schiff is Jewish, as is Ádám Fischer.) On January 16, Schiff told Vanessa Mock of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "I am absolutely persona non grata in Hungary now. I don't believe I'll ever perform in Hungary again, or even visit..." Schiff's concerns include not only ethnic intolerance but also autocracy; he says, "What's going on now in Hungary reminds me of some of the awful dictatorships. Politicians interfere in the choice of singers or decide who is going to play first clarinet in an orchestra."

Take the case of Ádám Fischer: he resigned his post as head of the Hungarian State Opera in October over government interference in his duties (he remains chief of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra). His brother, the conductor Iván Fischer, is staying with the orchestra he co-founded, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, but told a reporter: ""The situation is uncomfortable but our concerts with the Budapest Festival Orchestra are important to many people there, including the 100,000 Jews in Budapest. There is growing nationalism and racism in Hungary, with hatred against the gypsy community [or "Roma," 2-3% of the Hungarian population. The exact number is disputed but is at least 190,000; relatively few live in Budapest]. One needs to stand up against these tendencies."

Note that resident orchestras can operate only in their home cities, while pianists can work anywhere. Schiff is an ex-pat who took UK citizenship in 2001 (during the first Orbán government, which was from 1998-2002); he lives in London and Florence, and is in great demand as a performer around the world. While the career consequences of opposition are different for him than for the Fischers, it was principled and admirable for all of them to speak out forcefully. I have no evidence that these musicians influenced the situation at home or in Western Europe, but the EU response has mattered enormously.

The media law is far from the only international concern with Hungary. Hungarian nationalist resentment has historical roots: Orban has created a "National Unity Day" of mourning for the Treaty of Trianon, which in 1920 reduced Hungary's border as reparation for its role in World War I; and he wants to grant citizenship to non-resident ethnic Hungarians in adjacent states. And he is part of a larger pattern; Hungary represents the latest flash point in the European project in Eastern Europe. Stay tuned.