The death of Hungary’s democracy is a worldwide press-freedom warning

On Friday—as concern spread internationally about Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, using the cover of the coronavirus to consolidate his personal power—Politico published an op-ed in which Judit Varga, Orbán’s justice minister, lashed out at the country’s critics. “False claims about a power grab in Hungary are spreading as quickly as the coronavirus,” Varga wrote; Orbán’s government, she argued, is being slandered by “Western European thinkers” who don’t like its “coherent, Christian-Conservative policy,” and by a “leftist-liberal media” that doesn’t like its treatment of migrants. (Hungary has erected razor-wire fences to keep migrants out; Orbán’s administration has accused George Soros, the philanthropist and conspiracy magnet, of plotting to destroy Hungary by flooding it with foreigners, and passed “Stop Soros” laws making it illegal to help undocumented migrants with asylum claims.) On Friday, Varga shared her Politico article on Twitter, with the caption, “Stop lecturing HU Gov by spreading #fakenews!”

The decision to publish Varga’s op-ed was troubling enough at the time. (“Why is Politico Europe giving an uncritical platform to the radical right?” Ben Stanley, a researcher, asked on Twitter. “Interview these people by all means and call them out on their mendacious nonsense, but don’t give them a megaphone.”) It now looks even worse. On Monday, Hungary’s Parliament—which is dominated by Orbán’s party—passed laws granting Orbán sweeping powers for an unlimited period of time. Parliament is shuttered, elections are banned, and Orbán now has the right to suspend existing laws and make new ones by executive fiat; as Ishaan Tharoor wrote in the Washington Post, the coronavirus has “killed its first democracy.” All this has happened in a European Union member state. Since the power grab passed, liberals around the bloc—including lawmakers from the European Parliament and Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy—have insisted that Hungary can’t remain a member state under these conditions. The EU’s official response was more diplomatic—so much so that it didn’t even mention the word “Hungary.” One man’s diplomacy is another’s shameful timidity.

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As Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote recently for CJR, governments worldwide are increasingly using the cover of the coronavirus to dodge scrutiny, and further weaken institutions, including the press, whose job it is to hold them to account. Last night, the Supreme Court in India—another country that has taken an authoritarian turn under its current prime minister, Narendra Modi—ordered news outlets to relay everything the government says about the virus. Elsewhere, Iran banned the printing and distribution of all newspapers, citing the risk of spreading the virus. Turkmenistan, one of the world’s worst countries for press freedom, banned the word “coronavirus” altogether.

Hungary is no exception to this trend. Under its new laws, anyone caught spreading “false” or “distorted” information that “alarms” the public or undermines its “successful protection” will face up to five years in prison. Orbán’s many critics have no doubt that he’ll weaponize that language to further clamp down on his country’s press. Journalism—like other democratic institutions in the country—is already in a parlous state. As CPJ puts it, Hungary, in recent years, has “systematically dismantled media independence and used verbal attacks, lawsuits, and other means to harass critical journalists”; since 2013, it’s fallen 31 places on Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index. (Last year, it ranked 87th out of 180 countries worldwide. The US ranked 48th.) Pro-Orbán oligarchs have acquired swathes of Hungary’s independent press. In 2018, loyalists founded a consortium grouping 500 friendly outlets; the government branded it an asset of “strategic national importance” and exempted it from competition rules. Some critical outlets have shuttered, due, in no small part, to the state’s stranglehold on advertising. Journalists at state-backed media outlets parrot regime propaganda.

A small cadre of dedicated reporters have continued their efforts to hold Orbán and his government to account. But good information is increasingly hard to obtain. In 2018, I spoke with Andras Petho, cofounder of the investigative outlet Direkt36, about his work on a transnational investigation of the medical-devices industry led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “I was hoping that this was going to be different,” he told me. “But the relationship between the government, the state agencies, and the remaining independent media has deteriorated to such a low level that even pursuing a story like this—which is not about oligarchs, it’s not about politics—we cannot really get help or cooperation.” Petho did eventually manage to get some data, and Direkt36 hasn’t stopped fighting—this week, it published a scathing report explaining how incessant administrative upheaval weakened Hungary’s public-health system ahead of the coronavirus crisis. But this type of scrutiny is an exception to an increasingly illiberal norm.

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Even in established democracies, the spread of the virus has led to encroachments on all sorts of liberties we previously took for granted. Drastic curbs, clearly, are necessary. But many governments will need no invitation to go too far, and the consequences, if they do, could be hard to entangle afterward. The press, in particular, must call this out. As Daniel Baer, a former US diplomat, wrote for Foreign Policy yesterday, we need to recognize that seeing “all things and all questions refracted through the prism of the pandemic can also blind us.” We can’t let the virus become “a veil that prevents us from keeping a longer-term perspective.”

As much as we might like them to, things will not simply go back to normal once the coronavirus threat has passed. In all sorts of areas—the economics of local journalism, for instance—its impacts will be deep, and possibly irreversible. The same is true of liberties, including of the press. Without vigilance, liberal democracies will become less liberal; authoritarian regimes will become more authoritarian; and “illiberal democracies”—as Hungary is often called—will slide into just being illiberal. The coronavirus has killed its first democracy, and it might not be done yet.

Below, more on the coronavirus:


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.