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Vol 2, No 15
17 April 2000
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Csardas Stop Press:
The Juszt affair and the freedom of the press in Hungary
Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Part One: Prelude to a scandal.

For quite some time now in Hungary, it has not been necessary to apply for a permit to run a newspaper. There are no such permits. All you have to do is give notice and register. It is not possible to impose a ban [on a newspaper], merely to make life impossible [for the newspaper]. This is exactly what happened in our case. They dismantle the computers worth many millions, which we had not even bought outright yet, and stuff them into sacks (!). If you have ever had any dealings with computers, you know what this means in terms of a professional machine's "soul", not to mention the soul of the owner.

In the ten years that have elapsed since the collapse of Communism, Hungary has made slow but steady progress towards becoming a democracy in which the rule of law prevails not simply on paper as a pure formality (as was the case during even the darkest and bloodiest days of outright dictatorship), but as a part of daily practice so natural as to become embedded in the consciousness of every citizen.

From its very inception, for example, the Constitutional Court has demonstrated its independence, never balking at criticising the government in power no matter what its political hue. Ordinary civil and criminal courts are following suit, impartiality of judges debated at length in public. The principles are all in place and it is just a matter of time (and will on the part of the authorities) before their application becomes a matter of course. The prospect of EU membership has had a beneficial effect in maintaining the momentum for reform (the Copenhagen criteria represent a sacrosanct set of preconditions for accession).

The difficulties of transition

Too much is at stake for Hungary economically, socially and in terms of prestige for any risk to be taken that might postpone or jeopardise EU entry. This more than any other consideration will ensure that the country remains on the right track, as existing Member States will not tolerate moves to undermine or curb democracy.

In this context, I would like to examine two recent analyses of the state of political culture in Hungary, both of which highlight the need for further changes to be wrought within the system. The first is by István Schlett, a highly respected academic, political scientist and sociologist. In the course of an interview with István Jávorniczky (Magyar Nemzet, 23 January 1999), he addressed the question of the impact of scandals on political life:

The attitude that the government is the enemy of society is a typical feature of political culture in Hungary, which cannot automatically be true. The task of governance is rendered particularly difficult if this hostility to government as such is coupled with scare mongering about dictatorship. Allow me to refer to a train of thought put forward by József Eötvös. Power, he writes, has a natural desire to expand and this is why constraints have to be placed on it. The best means of restraint is to deprive it of all the instruments at its disposal.

If, however, we charge it with tasks and if we remove from it the instruments needed to carry out those tasks then who will carry out the tasks? In order to attain aims, the government needs strength, because the aims have to be attained in the face of opposing strength. One of the biggest problems that I had with the previous two governments was that the executive was not able to carry out the task assigned to it under the constitution and enforce the laws. In so far as the present government's ambitions are directed towards putting itself in a position to fulfil its constitutional duties I have no objections against it.

The discourse is not, however, focused on the issue of how far the state's sphere of tasks should extend and what instruments it needs to carry them out. A rational debate would make it impossible for members of the parties in government to catch a scent of conspiracy behind any opposition, whilst on the other side it would be impossible to presume that a desire for excessive power and to do away with democracy lurks behind the government's every measure. A debate of this type spawns political hysteria.

This situation is exacerbated by the chronic precariousness of tenure encountered by any party in a democracy:

The parties are very much at the mercy of a number of factors, such as the mood of the electorate, for example. The behaviour of the media is erratic as far as they are concerned: they cannot understand why the media build someone up and why they trample someone into the mud. The parties are also at the mercy of the elite groups of the economy, because the level of support they are allocated in the budget is not enough for their campaigns, let alone their survival.

There are many different threats to the autonomy of politics and within politics to the executive. This is why they might think that if they want to win next time round they will be compelled to employ illegitimate or semi-legal means, that they will have to collect money and gain influence over the media, that they need to build up a system of dependencies, that they need to train a group of tame intellectual retainers. It is also a fact that the parties do not have an identical starting base, either in terms of assets, or networks of contacts or influence over the media. They try to balance this out.

The shock of the new

Schlett's appraisal highlights some of the unspoken difficulties of transition, where political parties have to acclimatise themselves to competition over the good graces of voters and where these good graces actually have an immediate impact on their plans. Sloughing off the legacy of the past like a useless skin is easier in legal paragraphs than it is in the cut and thrust of politics.
Csardas Photo
László Juszt
After four decades where the ruling party could say and do as it pleased with impunity, the realisation that a government would be held accountable at the polls has proven a hard lesson to learn. The MSZP (Socialists) being a case in point. [Gyula] Horn and his companions could barely entertain the notion of defeat until they were ousted from a position to which they believed they were entitled. Much to their chagrin they were consigned to the opposition benches. I have my doubts as to whether they have recovered from the shock even yet!

Similarly, after forty years of lies, hypocrisy and ruthless exploitation (where the government systematically stripped the country bare of its human and economic resources) it is difficult for the average voter to lend credence to crusades against corruption and vested interests. Our gut reaction is to be suspicious of the motives of our political rulers and this is particularly true of when they claim to be acting in the name of the common good. (It is as well to bear in mind when evaluating the accusations that are regularly levelled against whoever happens to be at the helm of government that we are only just beginning to confront our heritage.

We have tended to let wounds suppurate, hushing up what went on rather than facing up to the wrongs perpetrated and finally clearing the air. There is a great deal that certain old faces on the political scene would not like to see raked over or come to light in the first place. Better for them therefore to deflect attention from the manifold skeletons in their own cupboards by concentrating on the "anti-democratic" practices of the new kids on the block. There is also a long-standing tradition in Hungary of "shutting down" troublemakers rather than having it out with them in the open. This response to potential embarrassment, especially where the detractor is in the right, has become ingrained to the extent that it is a reflex amongst those in power. Here we arrive at the root of the present problems).

As Schlett makes clear, our history has also furnished us with the terms in which critical rhetoric is to be couched. The prevailing consensus wholeheartedly embraces democracy and freedom. The opposite of freedom is dictatorship, a concept with which we are only too familiar. We are hypersensitive to any attack on our hard-won freedom and our aversion to a style that even remotely smacks of authoritarianism is often reflected in the choice of words we use to decry it. We have at our disposal a convenient polemical weapon to deploy against dissenters, regardless of where we place ourselves (and them!) on the political spectrum.

The rough with the smooth

Recently, the deterioration in relations between the Fidesz-led coalition and the MSZP and SZDSZ (Liberals) as the main opposition parties has been observed and commented on at length in the arena of public debate. The tenor of Parliamentary debate corroborates this with exchanges of recriminations dominating speaking time. There is no middle ground, no real effort to compromise (the Hungarian word eldurvulás, increasing coarseness or roughness eloquently summarises the state of play) and the MSZP has staged walkouts or boycotted votes to heighten the drama of the proceedings. Such petulance is not conducive to objectivity or constructive give and take: every unpopular proposal put forward by the Fidesz coalition is branded undemocratic and dictatorial whether merited or not. Clearly, it would be a mistake to take these criticisms too literally.

László Lengyel, distinguished sociologist and the author of the second analysis (published in Népszabadság, 25 March 2000), draws a distinction between civilisation and barbarism in political life:

Political barbarism means that the individuals who brought about the change of system [the label given in Hungarian to the transition from Communism to democracy] proved incapable not only of ennobling political culture, but of establishing certain civilised standards for politics as well. They ought to have consolidated the political structure.

The political structure in Hungary specifically differs from the type that exists in the West or from the form that is generally encountered there in two ways. One is that although the Hungarian political system itself is structurally durable and that it is therefore not likely that Parliamentary democracy will be overturned, there are also extremely significant fluctuations in the behaviour of the electorate and in the political structure.

We can safely say that the pendulum regularly swings back and forth in opposite directions, that there are hate-votes rather than one party replacing the other in a natural rotation. Natural political rotation is different to the world that comes into being when the search is on for "another party we didn't vote for" [and which did not let us down]. Political impotence leads to enforced stability and certainty, but this stability is extremely sensitive and based on a toleration unacceptable emotionally.

The second feature is linked to this. In essence the Hungarian political structure is the same in the heads of politicians as it is in the eyes of the voters, involving a dominant, one-party way of thinking and a one-party structure. Parliamentary democracy will function - as far as they are concerned - even without an opposition. From the point of view of dominant party thinking, the opposition will never end up in power. It will always be us, who will be here, in the same way as it was for forty years when our predecessors were here. The question about the opposition returning is not allowed to arise, in spite of the fact that the possible return of the opposition is always at the back of the mind. From József Antall, through Gyula Horn to Viktor Orbán each Prime Minister thought that his adversaries would never return [...].

A civilising process must follow on from the process of barbarisation in politics. One of the preconditions of such a process is to bring about a true reduction in the power disparities between the governing and the governed, in other words, that institutionalised democracy, the rotation of parties in government come into being. Secondly, the power disparities between the various segments of society must be reduced, with the extension of political representation to include groups in society unable to defend their interests instead of just including groups already able to make their interests be taken into account.

Young bucks

The arrogance often displayed by government parties in Hungary (in general) is linked to this monopolar thinking. The young men of Fidesz came of age during the change of system (before Orbán cropped his hair, banished his five o’clock shadow and donned a suit and tie). The original name of their party (Young Democrats, now supplemented by Civic Party to lend them an air of gravitas and responsibility) is itself redolent of the associations they wanted to have linked to themselves and their programme: freshness, forward-looking, the future, energetic, progressive, rejecting the staid and the conventional, moving ahead vigorously.

They were not tainted with having been part of the apparatus, they were not implicated in the sins of yesteryear. Once in power, they made a conscious choice to consolidate this side of their image by taking the moral high ground. They would eliminate every last remnant of malpractice, tirelessly fighting for the rights of the citizenry by weeding out the complacent elements from the civil service, restoring a proper balance in the public interest (naturally by removing high-ranking officials firmly ensconced in their positions for years and replacing them with the ideologically pure - their supporters).

Not that in so doing they have been departing from normal practice, even in a democracy. I actually believe that the shake-up has done some good: I know of too many so-called civil servants (!), who have slavishly done the bidding of their political masters, taking care of the dirty work only to retreat, unassailable, behind the wall of protekció, from whence they can survey the damage they have caused. This is a style of administrative "culture" we can really do without.

The real (self-induced) headache for Fidesz has been in falling prey to the illusion that they have a monopoly on truth and fairness, that there is no room for any challenge to the authority such a faith bestows upon them. Any challenge, real or imagined, even when so innocuous as to question their judgement on a matter of policy, is tantamount to treason. It becomes extremely hard to admit to mistakes when you are squeaky clean, yet to err is human...

The Juszt affair

The origins of the Juszt affair are to be sought in allegations made by Fidesz concerning illegal surveillance operations targeted against leading politicians in the party and funded by public money. The Prime Minister caused a stir by announcing on 25 August 1998 that not only had data been compiled by private detectives concerning Zoltán Pokorni and Tamás Deutsch, but against his own person as well, all during the term of office of the previous government. The charges were so serious that the furore surrounding them could not die down and a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry was set up to investigate the matter (the megfigyelési bizottság, the surveillance committee, named after the epithet that has attached to the scandal, the megfigyelési ügy or surveillance affair).

As long as they remained unsubstantiated, Mr Orbán's claims could be dismissed as a botched attempt at discrediting his rivals in the MSZP - who were in power at the time, under Gyula Horn - by undermining its democratic credentials. The line of argument is clear: the MSZP cannot be trusted in government, as it has failed to abandon the kind of practice it was free to indulge in during Communist rule (it is the successor party of the Communists, after all), but which have no place in a fully-functioning open society where politicians, no matter how influential, are held accountable for their deeds. (Mr Horn himself has a dubious past, which has been conveniently forgotten. He played a part in the suppression of the 1956 Revolution and was linked to the dreaded Állam Védelmi Osztály, although his precise role has never been clarified. In the meantime, he capitalises on a reputation he might not even fully deserve as he happened to be Foreign Minister when the frontiers to Austria were opened to the great jubilation of East and West Germans alike ten years ago. No doubt this provides a very lucrative source of income from lecture tours...).

The application of methods such as undercover surveillance and telephone tapping might be a matter of routine under an authoritarian regime (an indispensable tool of coercion),
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but is subject to rigorous controls in a democracy. A certain degree of paranoia continues to suffuse Hungarian society and, in many instances, it is quite legitimate. In the bad old days, a telephone exchange operator was entitled to listen in on private conversations at the request of the police, who were themselves within their rights to authorise such a procedure on the basis of a letter of complaint, voicing nothing more than suspicions.

Thus nagging doubts linger on in our minds and they are amplified by the knowledge that the police of today are not immune to bribery or outside influence. Partly this is due to their chronically low level of income. In many ways, I would find it hard to blame them for supplementing their pay by doing a little covert observation on the side were it not so dangerous a precedent to set. In this case, however, we are dealing with officers from the secret service, that special elite whose activities are shrouded in mystery and particularly resistant to democratic checks. Never the most beloved element in the machinery of state, its reputation does not inspire confidence in the average citizen.

Spirits in the machine

Unfair though it may be to lend credence to vague instincts and untested beliefs, Mr Orbán's avowals cannot help but have an air of plausibility about them. There is no smoke without fire, as the saying goes. So much so that the mud sticks even without evidence being presented. Potentially incriminating documents have a peculiar habit of vanishing into thin air in Hungary (or perhaps it is better to say of being spirited away!), so it would have come as no surprise had Fidesz been unable to come up with unequivocal proof through no fault of its own (Fidesz could have saved face to an extent regardless of the ultimate outcome in other words). This was Mr Orbán's trump card. Why appear in front of the dutifully assembled press and be put on record recounting a series of events if there is no substance to the story? The floodgates would be opened up to an inundation of libel suits! Hara-kiri live on camera three!

The blunder committed by Fidesz in what followed was not to trust in the persuasiveness of its own image of integrity, but to lapse into a pathological fit of panic (to borrow from the title of [László] Juszt's book, "The Anatomy of the Government's Panic Disorder"), succumbing to the temptation of resorting to tactics familiar from the reign of censorship by barring the inquisitive eye of the public from access to the proceedings of the committee, suppressing the documentary evidence it was called upon to examine.

I am no apologist on behalf of Fidesz: the course the party adopted in its treatment of Juszt was inexcusable. When the journalist, one of the most popular and highly respected in Hungary, entitled to look back with pride on a long and distinguished career dating back to the modest beginnings of crime reporting in Hungary, had the audacity to reproduce documents relevant to the surveillance affair classified as state secrets (although their contents hardly merit the designation) in the pages of his magazine Kriminális he was summarily sacked from his position in MTV as editor-in-chief/presenter of the TV programme of the same name and his publishing venture was - to all intents and purposes - driven out of business with the seizure of the computers referred to above.

He was left hanging out to dry...Martyrdom does not, after all, pay the bills.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 16 April 2000

Moving on:

Next Week in Part Two:The Background to the Surveillance Scandal, the banned edition of Kriminális in my translation and Juszt's account (taken from his book on the subject).


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