First published at BIKYAMASR
It was approximately one-year ago, almost coinciding with the uprising in Tunisia that soon turned into the Arab Spring that a controversial media law was announced in Hungary and raised alarms all over Europe, with the concern that Hungary might become fascist again.
The controversial law, proposed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has been compared to the way press was suppressed in Hungary during the long Communist era and under totalitarianism in general.
Under this law, a government-appointed media council would be in charge of what is technically censorship, being able to decide whether a publication has broken the rules of what they term “balanced” and “moral reporting” and would be endowed also with the authority to issue fines.
Print and Internet media can face fines of more than $100,000 and broadcasters nearly $1 million if their coverage is deemed unbalanced.
News programs will not be able to use more than 20 percent of airtime on crime-related stories and journalists might be forced to reveal sources. Presenters at state-run Hungarian radio were dismissed for protesting the law.
The controversy was only augmented as Hungary took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. According to some EU politicians, the law raised the question whether such a country was worthy of leading the EU and it was said that it was the worst media law in all European countries.
Critics of the media legislation said that it could turn Hungary into “Orbanistan” and intellectuals in the country expressed their concerns about how Hungary could take again a sinister turn into totalitarianism.
In February 2011, the EU stated that Hungary agreed to amend the controversial media law in order to comply with EU requirements and EU telecommunications chief Neelie Kroes said that the European bloc was pleased with the proposed changes.
Several related incidents however, have raised alarms again:
The Hungarian parliament is currently debating a bill on family protection that would grant the status of households only to married couples, excluding same-sex registered couples and unmarried heterosexual couples. The bill will be voted on December 23.
Recently, a prominent Roma intellectual in Hungary filed for refugee status in Canada, and argued that Hungarian Roma are fleeing to Canada since the visa requirement was lifted in 2008, not because of economic reasons but fear of persecution.
Last week, Hungarian dissident and former Yale University Dean Eva Balogh wrote on her blog that the right-wing prime minister and his party Fidesz control over two-thirds of parliamentary seats, arguing that they are putting the country through a thorough makeover. Her post was titled: “Hungarian democracy in tatters.”
The final straw in a long series of worrying events was a TV report from December 3 on the state-run MTV channel and Duna Television, in which the face of a former chief judge, Zoltan Lomnici was pixelated, giving the impression that the former judge, who is a critic of the government, had a dubious reputation.
In protest, a group of Hungarian journalists have been on hunger strike since December 10 in front of the Hungarian Media Center in Budapest, and according to one of them, Balazs Nagy Navarro, they are planning to stay until their demands for free media are met, even if there is a risk of hospitalization.
Navarro added: “Our strike will continue until the world realizes that what is happening in Hungary under the label of press freedom, are employees being terrorized and programs being manipulated or falsified.”
With a new constitution coming in 2012, there are concerns about this law, which according to international observers remains highly troubling.
Even though media censorship is the dish of the day everywhere in the Middle East, from Morocco to Bahrain, including also imprisonment and constant harassment of journalists, it seems that the incident in Hungary together with the recently announced SOPA, introduced in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, point towards a global trend that has also emerged in many other countries.
Free speech, the most basic requirement for political freedom remains dovetailed in the Middle East: Dissidents Maikel Nabil and Alaa Abdel Fattah remain imprisoned on bogus charges for nothing but their opinions; Bahraini blogger Ali Abduleman has been missing since March and only recently, Syrian blogger Razzan Ghazzawi spent weeks imprisoned.
While the struggle in the Middle East is always about more free speech, the West seems to have gone repressively in the opposite direction, leaving us with a bad taste about the near future.
In Hungary, when the media law was announced, prominent Hungarian thinker Agnes Heller, who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Hungary and who has spent over fifty years understanding the phenomena behind totalitarianism, said that the government does not realize that things have changed in the Internet era.
According to Heller, “nowadays you can have a server in another country and you cannot censor Internet production if the server is in another country. Some people organize a so-called ‘samizdat’ television station on the Internet and asked me to participate. So the technology is above it. In the classical style of the Soviet Union, technology allowed that everything could be supervised. Now not everything can be supervised. So, Orban will not succeed.”
What Heller expressed early in 2011 has become a living reality in the Middle East where the Internet has significantly aided the revolutions and enabled free media to sprout everywhere, no matter how tight is the censorship in one or another country. It is still uncertain however, if this will continue being the case, reason for which many nowadays are becoming increasingly worried about the future of Internet freedom everywhere, and not only in the Middle East.