A Magyar Melange: Politics Still Control Hungarian Television and Radio, but Newspapers Are Freer and Vibrant

Article excerpt

The Hungarian media is an easy mark for Western critics prone to measure it against values and practices in their own countries.

Political control of network television and radio is one reason for criticism. An overabundance of foreign ownership is another. Unseemly intrusion by banking interests, an uneven monopoly over distribution by the post office, a hangover from communist style journalism, unethical practices and poor professional training all leave a surface impression of a media lacking dedication to the principles of a democratic society.

To draw such a picture is tempting enough, but under closer scrutiny, is it at least partly out-of-focus?

Consider two important factors:

First, the Hungarian printed press is more vibrant, relatively sophisticated and certainly freer than virtually any other press in the former Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe or the Balkans. Only Poland and the Czech Republic are comparable. Contributing to this vibrancy is the same foreign ownership that some Hungarians most violently rail against.

Secondly, one cannot weigh the media situation today without putting it in its proper historical perspective.

My first experience with the Communist-controlled Hungarian press goes back 45 years when I was based in neighboring Vienna as Central European correspondent for International News Service. Because of the Iron Curtain imposed by the Soviets, Hungary was off-limits to U.S. correspondents. We covered Hungary, as best we could, by staying in phone contact with diplomats at the American Embassy in Budapest, by reading the dull, gray propaganda sheets that passed as newspapers in those days. We also had a stringer in Budapest named Eugen Szatmari. Szatmari was a fearless reporter and paid for it. One day in 1950 he simply disappeared from Budapest. Whether Szatmari died in one of the dark Andrassy jail cells of the communist security forces is unknown. What is known is that other journalists did forfeit their freedom there.

That was Hungary then, end for many years there after. Consider the red phone on every editor's desk, connected to Communist Party headquarters. A call on the red phone could command: "Don't print the resignation of so and so from the Central Committee," or "Give page one to the speech Prime Minister Rakosi will make tonight." Purges of non-complying editors or freethinking reporters were not uncommon. Those who pandered to the demanding Communist rulers were rewarded with vacations at cost-free summer resorts, subsidized cafeterias, an assured income. Their papers had access to state printing presses, a state distribution system--and no need to worry about selling advertising to stay afloat.

Ironically, the country where press freedom was perhaps most suppressed was the first to start breaking free. The 1956 Hungarian revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks and infantry, but Moscow apparently had learned a lesson and a subsequent more liberal approach led by Hungarian communist leader Janos Kadar led to a more open media policy. So long as the printed press did not threaten the influence of state-controlled TV, limits were eased and became less severe than in neighboring Soviet bloc states. Loosening of reins on television was not forthcoming then or now, however, and as 1996 dawned, television was still caught in a political morass, partly as a result of the so-called "media wars" that started in the early 1990's.

The Hungarian communist regime of Janos Kadarwas ousted in 1988 even before the fall of the Berlin wall. The next year Hungary proclaimed the abolition of communist rule and renamed itself the Republic of Hungary. Free elections led to the naming of Jozsef Antall as prime minister in 1990 and set off the "media wars."

Antall's conservative party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, fell under unremitting attack from "intellectuals" in the media largely left-leaning former communists. …