U.S. Diplomat’s Criticism Leads to Questions on Hungary’s Press Freedom

Hungary’s foreign ministry summoned a top U.S. diplomat last week after he voiced his criticism for Hungary’s “negative trends” in press freedom, leading to international attention for the government’s increased control over news organizations.

To “summon” a diplomat, according to Foreign Policy, means that he or she gets “an earful from a foreign ministry, in a kind of high-level, public show of disapproval.”

In his speech to the Hungarian Association of Journalists, David Kostelancik, chargé dʼaffaires of the U.S. Embassy to Budapest, claimed that government allies are gaining increased control over the country’s media outlets, and that some news organizations have even published the names of journalists considered threats to the Hungarian government.

Kostelancik’s comments come after the pro-government blog 888.hu published “The List: Introducing Soros’ foreign propagandists” last month, which featured the names of journalists they claim are working for billionaire philanthropist George Soros. 888.hu is published by Modern Média Group Zrt., owned by Árpád Habony, an informal advisor to the prime minister, according to The Budapest Beacon.

Kostelancik went on to say that the U.S. condemns any “attempt to intimidate or silence journalists,” and that Hungary should seek to do the same.

“Protecting freedom of the press is a shared and sacred commitment, and a vital, ongoing imperative that must be practiced and valued in my country, in Hungary, and in every country that lays claim to democracy and freedom,” Kostelancik said.

Hungarian State Secretary Levente Magyar said that these comments by the diplomat were an attempt to interfere with the parliamentary elections expected to be held next year and that they led to diminished trust in the government, according to the Associated Press.

He also stated that if Kostelancik makes similar statements again in the future, it would “make the work between the two countries significantly difficult.”

This is the second time in recent months that Hungary summoned a diplomatic official over comments made about the government.

According to the Budapest Business Journal, Hungary’s ambassador to the Netherlands was summoned home after the outgoing ambassador criticized the Hungarian government in a newspaper interview. This move ended ambassadorial diplomatic ties for a time before they were resumed at the beginning of this month.

While Hungary’s constitution recognizes freedoms of speech and the press, various legislation enacted under the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has led to a tightened control over media in the country.

Since Orbán took office in 2010, Hungary has experienced a decline in overall press freedom according to the Freedom House Press Freedom Scale.

According to Freedom House’s latest report, the Hungarian penal code prohibits incitement to hatred, violence, and crimes against a community “committed by national socialist or communist systems.”

The penal code also considers defamation a criminal offense. A 2013 amendment to the penal code states that a prison sentence anywhere from one to three years can be given to those who knowingly create or publish false or defamatory video or audio recordings.

In recent years, people connected to the ruling party, the Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union, commonly referred to as Fidesz, have gained control of a number of news outlets in Hungary.

Last year, Hungary’s largest independent daily newspaper Népszabadság was suspended after reporting on scandals involving Fidesz. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mediaworks, the publisher of the newspaper, was sold to a company controlled by a close advisor to the prime minister.

With this change, Fidesz now has influence over a dozen regional daily newspapers and other media outlets. Figyelo, Hungary’s business and economic weekly, is now controlled by a wealthy businesswoman and close counsellor to the prime minister.

Kostelancik’s remarks have brought to light declining press freedom in a country whose constitution claims to protect it. Hungary’s response also leads to uncertainty over the future of U.S.-Hungarian relations and whether diplomatic officials will continue to speak out against Hungary’s influence over news organizations.

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