Like most Americans, I don’t know much about the history of Hungary. And that’s a shame because I expect we could learn from the people there — today’s generation and those that came before — plenty about freedom and what it means to be free.
I spent six weeks this past fall living primarily in Budapest but seeing some other places in Hungary as well, such as Szeged. And I opined in this digital space at the time that Budapest represented to me a city of contrasts: an old, historic and beautiful city still making the transition economically to a free market economy and politically from the domination of the Soviet Union and others throughout history.
The people there know something about freedom — and not just from the textbooks. So I read with interest this NYT editorial, “Mr. Orban Forgets“:
Hungarians are justly proud of the way their country stood up to Soviet tanks in 1956 and helped breach the Iron Curtain with freer emigration in 1989. But they can take no pride in a new media law that took effect this week, just as Hungary took over the rotating presidency of the European Union.
The law, enacted by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party, marks a sorry step back toward the kind of political censorship Hungary suffered under Communist rule. It should have no place in a democratic Europe. It creates a press supervision council, all members named by Fidesz, with authority to oversee all broadcast, print and Internet outlets and decide whether their coverage is “unbalanced,” “immoral” or “offensive to human dignity.” If the council disapproves, it can impose crippling fines of up to $1 million.
Mr. Orban’s party, which won a two-thirds parliamentary majority last year, is not stopping there in its grab for power. It has been waging all-out war on the institutional checks and balances designed to protect democracy from domination by a single party.
Fidesz has already passed legislation limiting the powers of Hungary’s constitutional court to review financial measures, including Mr. Orban’s appropriation of pension funds to balance the budget. It has cut funding for the country’s independent fiscal council and packed other important oversight posts with reliable party loyalists. Not content to stop there, Mr. Orban has named a council to rewrite Hungary’s Constitution. Mr. Orban made his name in the late 1980s with his resistance to Soviet repression and his championing of an independent political life. Two decades later, he and his party appear to have forgotten those ideals.
The new press law has rightly drawn criticism from many other European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, leading members of the European Parliament, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the continent’s monitor of electoral fairness. Mr. Orban, sounding like an old-style Soviet-bloc leader, dismissively retorted that “criticism from afar or from Western Europe doesn’t frighten us.”
Hungarians have refused to quietly fall in line. After Parliament passed the media law last month, several newspapers protested by publishing blank front pages. They deserve strong, continued international support. Mr. Orban may have forgotten, but Hungary’s tragic history has taught its people that a free press — and a checked government — cannot be taken for granted.
And you can’t take freedom for granted either — a lesson those of us in the USA can learn from the people in Hungary.