The Risks to Freedom in Hungary

The country’s independent media has largely been stifled. One of its remaining voices explains what it’s like to try to hold an aspiring strongman to account.

Viktor Orban delivers his annual state of the nation speech in Budapest, Hungary, on February 18, 2018.  (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)

Hungary is a NATO ally, a member nation of the European Union, a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights—and also, since 2010, an increasingly authoritarian and illiberal state. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has politicized the country’s court, central bank, and media. On April 8, Orbán and his Fidesz party face the voters. Fidesz has recently suffered losses in local elections. Orbán has responded by running an inflammatory national campaign attributing complaints against his rule to the Hungarian-born financier, George Soros—a campaign whose anti-Semitic messaging has become more and more overt as the vote nears.

One of the last remaining independent media organizations in Hungary is Direkt36. Non-state television and radio have been purchased by political allies of Orbán; print media have been brought to heel by aggressive use of government advertising money to reward and punish. I talked in March to the head of Direkt36, Andras Petho, about the risks to freedom in Hungary—and the prospects for holding Orbán to account. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation, conducted via Google Document, follows:

David Frum: In so many ways, Hungary has been the warning case for the rise of authoritarian kleptocracy—or whatever we want to call this new challenge to democracy. Can you briefly summarize the state of affairs in your country as of March 2018?

Andras Petho: Well, we have definitely have gone a long way since 2010, when the current government came into power. I remember how stunned we were when [the ruling Fidesz party] picked a member of their own party to lead the State Audit Office, a supposedly independent institution. By now, basically every similar institution is led by people close to the government, and of course a big chunk of the formerly independent media is also under the control of Viktor Orbán and his people. And of course this is true for the economy as well. More and more sectors are controlled to some extent by people close to the prime minister.

Frum: Direkt36, your organization, stands as one of the few independent voices remaining in Hungary. What is it like for you? Are you pressured—or can Orbán achieve what he needs by isolating and reviling you?

Petho: It’s true that the space for independent journalism has been shrinking quite rapidly in Hungary, but you can still do it. But it’s becoming harder. For example, we had to create our own organization to be able to continue this kind of journalism. My colleagues and I used to work for Origo, a news site, but left in 2014, after it came under political influence. So, now we are running an organization that is relying mostly on the micro-payments of our audience and the support of some foundations. We also need to work hard for getting our stories out. Since much of the media is under government control, we need to find the right channels for reaching the audience. It works but of course it’s much harder than in a healthy media environment.

Frum: Do you and your colleagues appear on TV or radio in Hungary?

Petho: Yes, we do appear. Our stories are often picked up by the remaining independent broadcast outlets. But there are fewer and fewer channels like that. A big commercial TV channel was taken over by a government-linked investor a few years ago. He happens to be a former Hollywood producer, Andy Vajna, who runs the movie industry now in Hungary.

Frum: To what extent is your work protected by Orbán’s concern not to overstep the tolerance of the European Union authorities and German public opinion?

Petho: I’m not sure he cares so much about that. But if we accept that he’s following the Russian playbook then I think he will leave some independent outlets alive so that they can always point to them as examples of press freedom.

Frum: Do you have any concerns for personal security and that of your loved ones—or are the pressures all economic and psychic? Does that take a toll?

Petho: So far, we have received only legal threats. Once a politician we exposed [as] having undeclared assets got so angry that he filed a complaint with the police for harassment. He basically said that we asked too many questions. Ridiculous as it sounds, the police took it seriously and launched an investigation. Fortunately, they dropped it and nobody got charged. Of course, what happened in Slovakia where a young journalist investigating political corruption got murdered shocked us. He was working on the kind stories that many of us here in Hungary work [on] as well.

Frum: Decode for an American audience what Orbán is trying to communicate and achieve by attributing all criticism of his rule to George Soros.

Petho: Orbán built his whole story on the notion that Hungary is under attack and he is the only one who can defend it. There were all kinds of enemies—Brussels, the communists, or the IMF. Now it’s Soros.

Frum: But why Soros? How odd that NATO head of government Viktor Orbán’s Public Enemy Number One is also that of Vladimir Putin.

Petho: He seems to be the perfect target. He is liberal. Organizations supported by his foundation helped refugees. He does not live here and most people only know him through the government propaganda. Some argue that the government also targeted him because he is Jewish. Of course they deny this.

Frum: In your estimation, how rich is Viktor Orbán now?

Petho: Officially, he’s not a wealthy person. According to his latest wealth declaration, he has less than $4,000 in savings. But we know that his immediate family members and people close to him got quite rich in the past few years—and thanks to public projects. His son-in-law’s company won several state contracts, just like the firms of his father and brothers. One of his friends, Lorinc Meszaros, who had been a gas fitter before 2010, became one of Hungary’s richest men in just a few years.

Frum: To understand his method of rule, then, we need to understand the finances of his whole family, not only Orbán personally?

Petho: Yes, he’s been careful not to let himself be linked to financial controversies. For a while it looked like that was true for his family members as well. In 2001, during his first term as prime minister [he served from 1998 until 2002 before coming back to power in 2010], he famously said in an interview that he asked his father (who has a stone mine) not to supply material for public construction [projects]. By now, things have apparently changed, because our investigations showed that his father’s companies are involved in several state projects. Ironically enough, these projects are often funded by the European Union, a frequent target of Orbán’s attacks.

Frum: Orbán took a defeat at the polls on February 24. What happened, why, and what (if anything) does it mean?

Petho: It was definitely a surprise and shook the political world in Hungary that the people of Hódmezővásárhely, a stronghold of [Orbán’s party] Fidesz for two decades, elected the candidate who ran against Orbán’s party. But as they always say it in the U.S. as well, we need to be careful with drawing conclusions from special elections. In that election the otherwise fragmented opposition united [for] one candidate, a person who was widely known and respected in the town. This is not the case in most districts where voters will elect the new members of parliament on April 8.

Frum: And that united opposition included Jobbik, usually regarded in the United States as an outright neofascist party.

Petho: Yes, Jobbik also stood behind that candidate. Jobbik is a difficult case. In recent years they tried to reposition themselves as a more moderate party. Some of the hardliners were purged but there are still some radical members. Now even some on the left argue that in order to defeat Orbán, it is okay to work with Jobbik as well.

Frum: The larger question—to what extent is Orbán still checkable by electoral means? Or has he found the path to escape democratic accountability without going all the way to abolishing democratic processes?

Petho: The election in Hódmezővásárhely showed that Fidesz can still be defeated. That could have given optimism for those who were afraid that democracy was already over. We’ll see what happens during the upcoming election. We know that observers from OSCE (an international body overseeing democratic institutions in Europe ) had serious concerns at the previous elections in 2014. They are here again. We’ll see what they say.

Frum: If Fidesz suffers losses on April 8, will Orbán leave power? Or will external pressure be required to compel him to accept defeat?

Petho: He said several times that he lost elections in the past and he would in the future as well. That implied that he knows that he won’t be in power forever. Since the regime change, the transition of power has always been in order. I think everybody hopes that this would stay like that.

Frum: Yet the polls indicate Orbán is not likely to lose.

Petho: Yes, the electoral math is in his favor. The opposition is still very fragmented in most electoral districts and that is a huge help for Fidesz.

Frum: If Orbán rules four more years in the way he has ruled since 2010, how much further can he move Hungary away from democracy?

Petho: I don’t like to speculate but I don’t think that the current direction will change. At some points in the past eight years, some senior government officials sometimes said that okay, we went too far, we broke so many things, now we need to calm down and consolidate things. But this consolidation never happened. And I think the government entered a spiral with the rhetoric on refugees and migrants and also on Soros that it will be hard to get out from.

Frum: The United States formerly spoke against Orbán’s authoritarianism. That seems to have ceased, in private as well as in public. Has the presidency of Donald Trump enhanced Orbán’s feelings of impunity?

Petho: After the election of Trump, the Orbán government and its supporters definitely felt emboldened. Then it changed a little, especially after they saw the U.S.’s response to the government’s plans to shut down CEU, the Budapest-based university founded by George Soros. Lately, Hungarian government officials seem to be more upbeat about the relations with the U.S. But to be honest, I don’t know yet where it’s going.