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US Embassy Head Criticizes Hungarian Gov’t Control of Media, Leading to Diplomatic Conflict

Tom Szigeti 2017.10.20.

On Tuesday, the interim head of the US Embassy in Budapest, Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik, gave a speech in which he criticized the state of press freedom in Hungary.

This, in turn, triggered an intense response from the Orbán government, whose representatives summoned to the foreign ministry for consultations and attacked the speech as American “interference” in Hungary’s domestic affairs.


The Speech

Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik addressing the Hungarian Association of Journalists (MÚOSZ) on October 17th (Photo: US Embassy – Attila Németh)

The entire issue began with a speech that Kostelancik gave to the Hungarian Association of Journalists, where the Chargé d’Affaires gave a speech entitled “Freedom of the Press: Enduring Values in a Dynamic Media Environment.”

In his talk, Kostelancik discussed “America’s commitment to the First Amendment,” a portion of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. He acknowledged the important role that the press plays in society, even when that role makes the work of diplomats more complicated. Ultimately, according to the embassy head, “we are more effective and more ethical representatives of our countries because we know that you’re out there, ready to report.”

From here, he moved on to the importance of free press, which is important to “men and women everywhere who cherish liberty” and which is “fundamental” to America’s “foreign policy interests.”

While acknowledging that “freedom of the press does not mean that the press should be free from criticism, including from a government,” Kostelancik emphasized that at no point should democratic governments ever “attempt to silence their critics.”

He then moved on to describe what he termed “negative trends in the sphere of press freedom in Hungary,” which he described as the following:

  • Government allies have steadily acquired control and influence over the media market, without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies. Most recently, companies affiliated with pro-government figures acquired control of the last remaining independent regional newspapers.

  • Journalists who work for these outlets— or who used to work for these outlets—tell us that they must follow pro-government editorial guidelines dictated by the outlets’ new owners, and that they do not have the freedom to publish articles that are critical of the government.

  • The government also directs substantial publicly-funded advertising contracts to the outlets of friendly owners, and almost none to independent outlets. We hear reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.

In these comments, the US diplomat was referring to Hungarian-American media mogul, and close ally of the Orbán government, Andy Vajna, who recently purchased the tabloid Bors and regional newspaper Délmagyarország, and has since then fired both papers’ editorial leadership.

In addition, Kostelancik was indirectly making reference to the controversial sale and subsequent closure of left-wing paper Népszabadság, which was purchased by a company with links to Lőrinc Mészáros, the former mayor of Viktor Orbán’s hometown, who has become one of the richest men in Hungary since Fidesz’s return to power in 2010.

Kostelancik also expressing concern at government-linked online tabloid 888.hu’s publication of the names of individual journalists who are supposedly Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros’ “propagandists”, a move that the Chargé described as “dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media.”


Orbán Government Reaction

PMO Chief János Lázár speaking at his weekly press briefing at the Hungarian Parliament on October 19th (Photo: MTI – Zoltán Máthé) 

Kostelancik’s remarks about the “worrying” state of press freedom in Hungary triggered a drastic reaction from the Hungarian government, which summoned the Chargé in for consultations on Wednesday.

Speaking to a press conference, foreign ministry state secretary Levente claimed that Kostelancik’s comments were seen as “interference” with Hungary’s domestic affairs, arguing that

Hungary, a sovereign state, protests that any country should interfere with its upcoming parliamentary election like that.

Magyar said that, during consultations at the foreign ministry on Wednesday morning, the US diplomat was told that such comments were detrimental to bilateral ties and he was asked to forbear from similar statements in future.

He added that Hungary was striving to build “the most constructive” cooperation with the US, but such statements could “make our work extremely difficult”.

Going even further, Magyar claimed that

 Americans should not only refrain from making false claims but from making any comments at all on developments in Hungary.

These comments were reinforced on Thursday by János Lázár, head of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In his weekly press briefing, Lázár claimed that Kostelancik’s description of the Hungarian media environment was “a lot of nonsense.”

Lázár said that US-Hungary ties would be greatly helped if America appointed an ambassador to Hungary.

In addition, the Fidesz politician claimed that part of the issue was that there are not enough US diplomats who speak Hungarian, since “if they spoke our language they would see that hundreds of articles criticizing the government are published daily.” He also claimed that it was “far from the case that criticism of the government was missing from the Hungarian press.”


Other Responses

Reacting to the entire debacle, the Hungarian Association of Journalists, which hosted Kostelancik’s speech in the first place, dismissed the government’s claims, arguing that neither Lázár nor Magyar had “refuted any of the claims” made by the Chargé. In addition, the Association argued that, in light of Vajna’s firing of the leadership of Bors and Délmagyarország, it would be hard to dispute the US diplomat’s assertions.

The Association described Kostelancik’s talk as “factual and polite,” and described the Chargé’s description of Hungary’s media landscape as realistic.


Via MTI, Hungary Matters, hu.usembassy.gov, and muosz.hu

Images via MTI and hu.usembassy.gov

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