The announcement that Radio Free Europe will resume in Hungary has been welcomed with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, there is enthusiasm – especially by a group of journalists and experts who have raised alarm bells about the gradual collapse of the democratic system in this country. However, for those who remember the recent past correctly, the development comes as a bitter reflection that Hungarian freedom must again be defended by an agency from the Cold War set up in the United States.

Hungary was then recognized as an society without information sovereignty (meaning the people did not have access to reliable information), and now, once again, freedom will be sustained by an American institution.

A distorted view

Radio Free Europe (RFE) was established in 1949 by the US Agency for Global Media to provide objective information to societies subjected to mass brainwashing by communist governments, and for many years the director of the Polish antenna was the notable figure, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański.

A fundraising advertisement for Radio Free Europe

In line with its mission, RFE works for societies in which the free flow of information is prohibited by governmental bodies or is not fully developed. This is usually the case where, as if from an Orwellian textbook, the authorities use “new media” to create subterfuge and convince the populace that a policy does the opposite activity of what it really performs.

Viktor Orbán is one of those leaders who likes to raise the banner of sovereignty in his war on democracy. At the same time, his government assures the people are only shown a distorted view which removes their ability to see that Orbán’s version of Hungarian sovereignty is making the government dependent on Moscow’s influence, that their economy is built on nepotism and that the very society revolves around the partisan messages served by government-dominated channels.

The ruling Fidesz party, in effect, went so far as to fight the opposition in the political struggle instead of – as it is in democratic countries – competition on equal terms. Of course, if Hungary were to be left alone, Orbán would continue building a regime to be used at his disposal and that would be most convenient for him to hold power indefinitely.

However, this is not true sovereignty, and in particular information sovereignty. Because, as Timothy Snyder explained about Poland, to build information sovereignty you need to educate citizens in a spirit of freedom of speech and maintain the diversity of informational sources.

In Hungary, the opposite happens, and the governments that follow Orbán’s example – including in Poland – are following the path of fighting with independent journalists. The effects are particularly visible in a wider comparison.

In this year’s World Press Freedom Index, prepared by Reporters Without Borders, Hungary fell by as much as 14 places. Of course, the Orbán government pays little to no attention to these indicators and continues consistently to take over subsequent publications on the market before consolidating them as part of a government holding gracefully named the Central European Press and Media Foundation. This group, of course, is not aimed at promoting media education, critical thinking or a pluralism of views. It serves primarily to centralise advertising market revenues while maintaining a system of seemingly pluralistic and competing media, and then redirecting them exclusively to propaganda channels.

It is also a fancy tool for expelling independent journalists and replacing them with obedient trolls whose main task is to replicate messages formulated by the party. Sometimes the caricatured nature of this activity is caught by investigative journalists, such as the Atlatszo portal, which in visualisations showed what pluralism looks like as part of the information channels taken over by the government:

 

Exporting the tactic

This alarming strategy is so simple and attractive to the followers of Orbán that the first attempts have already been seen several times in Poland.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, after an unsatisfactory result in the local elections in November 2018, has just announced changes on the media market that would distort the sense of information sovereignty.

So far, however, media pluralism in Poland is doing much better than in Hungary, and maybe even thanks to the “successes” of Orbán’s government. Media takeovers in this country are accompanied by an increasing penetration of the public sphere by ideological messages formulated by Moscow’s information tools. This situation has rung alarm bells in NATO, and US security interests call these moves Russia’s revisionist aspirations.

As Central European societies, we are on the front line of the fight for information sovereignty – a pillar of a democratic state – and this is primarily a war not of words alone, but of words and facts. These can prove deadly for regimes that maintain their existence through lies.

And as in any war, there is no shortage of subversive activities even within their own ranks. Benjamin Novak, writes for the New York Times, reported that the behind-the-scenes enemy of Radio Free Europe in Hungary turned out to be US Ambassador David Cornstein, a retired jeweller from New York who is a political appointee and personal friend of Donald Trump.

According to NYT sources, Cornstein lobbied clandestinely to limit the mandate of RFE in Hungary so that the US radio would abandon more ambitious investigative material, and he would not have to explain to the government in Budapest how this could happen from a US-funded agency. Thus, he would be breaking the International Broadcasting Act, which prohibits any US administration officials from exerting influence on Radio Free Europe.

Certainly, the matter will be dealt with by Congress, and, in the end, Cornstein’s slip-up did not shake but in fact strengthened the agency’s resolve to start operating in Hungary once again.

Poland has also been considered as the fourth country in which RFE was to resume operations (RFE opened a Bulgarian and Romanian service early in the year), but so far, no such decision has been made. Although the government is making efforts to subordinate a larger media sector, the current situation is not as alarming as in Hungary, and American companies that have recently increased their portfolio in the Polish media market are giving even better instruments to defend free press in the country.

As we need NATO to defend our borders, we need free media to defend our information sovereignty. Sometimes the best guarantees are international ownership structures for the media market.

 

*Correction (13.9.2019): Originally, the article stated that Hungary was the first country to resume RFE service. It has been corrected to recognise that earlier in the year Bulgarian and Romanian services had already resumed. 

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was also published in Polish on Polityka.pl and can be found here.

Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine - a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and a Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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