While the rest of Europe is trying to keep citizens from mass economic ruin, the Hungarian government uses the coronavirus for another power grab, also coming down on theatres and transgender people. Orbán knows he can get away with it because he offers a key political product.
Varga keeps insisting that there is nothing disproportionate about her government’s latest power grab, which includes a regulation that allows for prison sentences of up to five years for those who ‘make intentionally false statements or distort true facts that can compromise or frustrate defence measures’ during the corona crisis. In Hungarian this is called a ‘rubber regulation’: a blanket rule that can be applied flexibly for political ends, for instance to silence criticism of the illiberal response to coronavirus. The consequences are manifold; self-censorship is one of them.
In an interview with the Austrian ORF, Varga claimed that the new regulation defines objective criteria. And in Politico she suggested that international concerns are ‘based on an incorrect interpretation, or in some cases intentional distortion’. Hungarian must indeed be a very tricky language.
Freedom of speech, according to Varga, does not exist in Europe because only liberal voices get heard; 80 percent of the media in Hungary are, she alleged, oppositional. In reality, Fidesz and its satellites dominate over 77 percent of Hungarian media – including all public broadcast, which function as a Fox News-like propaganda machine.
These are just three days’ worth of statements from a government that has long been actively perpetrating disinformation, not only about independent media and NGOs, but also about international crises – most notably the migration crisis in 2015.
The emergency mandate has already started to show its nature. While the rest of Europe is introducing stimulus packages, discussing whether to issue corona stocks to save the euro, and trying to keep citizens from mass economic ruin, the Orbán administration has been following its strictly neoliberal fiscal policy. The truth is that Hungary has offered far less help to those who have lost their jobs and their homes than any other country in the region.
Using the crisis as a diversion, an omnibus proposal – or ‘salad law’ (salátatörvény) in Hungarian – calls for stripping municipalities of their authority, appointing government overseers in theatres, granting a Fidesz-loyal historical institute some choice real estate and – most bizarrely – abolishing the legal recognition of gender transition. Further shady deals were proposed overnight aiming at privatizing certain universities, sealing the records of an almost two-billion-euro railway renovation project, and more.
Although the plan to paralyze local governments was withdrawn after public outcry, it was a blatant attempt at stripping recently elected opposition majors of the opportunity to gain popularity. For it is they who have to make up for the failures of the central administration and addressing the long-standing shortages in public health.
In her statement of concern about authoritarian responses to the corona crisis, Ursula von der Leyen avoided naming Hungary. A joint statement by members of the EPP called for the expulsion of Fidesz, with the notable absences of Germany and Austria. And sixteen member states’ foreign ministers confirmed their support for a close monitoring of crisis measures.
However stark these words seem, Orbán knows he can afford to ignore them, as he has been doing for almost a decade now. Despite being at the top of the OLAF fraud-statistics, and despite being subject to an Article 7 procedure for the violation of the rule of law, Orbán has found the ways to blame the relatively minor fallout on an imaginary European liberal mainstream, the Hungarian opposition, human rights NGOs, and independent media. For a country utterly dependent on EU funding, it is striking how much Fidesz ignores institutional checks and balances.
Although Hungary is a relatively meaningless player in the EU economy – more precisely, a servile semi-peripheral market aggressively complying with German invertors’ interests – Orbán has just the political product that many are looking for. He stretches the boundaries of legality for those who want to abuse it. He makes space for somewhat less radical allies like Kaczyński’s PiS in Poland. But Orbán also serves as a vehicle for others to signal their democratic virtues. And he offers a distraction from much deeper structural problems within the Union.
It may be true that his regime is faulty and doesn’t meet even the basic requirements of democratic operations. But the EU is now in limbo for the second time in twelve years, indecisive about whether a joint fiscal policy should bail out weaker members during crisis, or function merely as a giant advantage to stronger economies. This debate is decades’ old and has not yet produced any acceptable outcomes.
Illiberal ‘whataboutism’ is a good way to remind other members of all the problem areas they get to hide as long as the public discourse is focused on a more unruly player.
Beside individual failings – some of them listed by Index on Censorship’s press freedom monitoring program – and the breakdown of joint action in the EU, there is the responsibility that political classes share throughout Europe and beyond for the global capitalism that allowed this pandemic to happen in the first place. Our new miniseries reports on the virus’s effect on refugees and others who have no home at which to ‘stay’ – the people whom the European Union has collectively failed. Bilgin Ayata reminds that the responses so far have been confined to nation states, with the Union standing on the sidelines. In Italy, politicians have blamed migrants arriving in Sicily for the epidemic, even though it broke out in the north of the country. Reports from Greece and Ukraine are to come next week.
The coronavirus turmoil, which is scary enough at the level of public health, has also brought irrevocable social and economic consequences. One very frightening possibility is that institutions founded to provide aid, justice and oversight won’t deliver. In such a desperate moment, one may as well take Timothy Morton’s advice to not count on a deus ex machina – nowadays mostly imagined as institutions of international law – and to admit that this mess is ours to clean up.
Published 3 April 2020
Original in English
First published by Eurozine
31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals
Are you concerned about press freedom and integrity in central eastern Europe? The 31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals, livestreamed from Budapest on Saturday 14 November, gives you the chance to hear journalists from the region speak about their current predicament and responses.
Corporate capture of the media by the state is not just an eastern European speciality, nor does it take place in an economic vacuum. The 31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals will be focusing on how political interference and market pressure are threatening independent publishing in Europe today.