Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has finally received the invitation he’s long desired. After years of being shunned by senior White House officials for his assault on human rights and the rule of law, Orban will be welcomed to Washington by President Donald J. Trump on May 13. While Orban lacks the global notoriety of leaders like Vladimir Putin, he has clearly been studying their playbooks. Since he began his second term as prime minister in 2010, Orban has strangled civil society, muzzled independent media, and erected a powerful surveillance apparatus.
Orban shares Putin’s affinity for repression and willingness to trample public freedoms for personal gain and has gambled that he can silence criticism without resorting to the kind of violence that draws greater international criticism. The White House, so far, has committed to letting this gamble pay off.
And so, the meeting will be tightly scripted: the two leaders will flatter one another and take pains to prove there is no daylight between their interests. However, away from the diplomatic spectacle, there is still a chance for actors in the U.S. government to defend embattled freedoms in Hungary.
Hungary’s Civil Society and Media
Hungary’s civil society, which grew rapidly after the fall of Communism, has been undercut by a series of laws. One 2017 bill, which clearly echoes a similar law in Russia, put in place multiple restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad, demanding that they publicly describe themselves as operating against the interests of the state.
Amnesty International has experienced this chilling effect firsthand. In March, Amnesty International Hungary was invited to conduct a workshop for high school teachers on human rights. A week before the workshop, Amnesty received a letter stating that the headmaster had denied staff permission to enter the school or organize a program of any kind.
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, Hungarians are again avoiding participating in civil life for fear of retaliation.
In a free society, the media could exercise oversight over the government and inform the public. That’s not possible in Hungary. According to the investigative outlet Atlatszo, one of the few left in Hungary, some 500 newspapers, radio stations, television channels, online portals, and journals are controlled by Orban’s allies. This constitutes almost 80 percent of the country’s media market.
Like his counterpart in the Kremlin, Orban is virtually insulated from public criticism of his policies or information about their ill effects.
— Amnesty Magyarország (@AmnestyHungary) April 18, 2019
In recent months, Orban’s government has broadened his targets from organizations that criticize him to average Hungarians. The capital Budapest is replete with video cameras and, following a 2018 law, their contents are stored in a government database where they are accessible to security services and vulnerable to hacking. The law builds on an earlier measure that allows authorities to surveil almost anyone in the country without reasonable suspicion or a judge’s warrant.
United States and Hungary
Even since President Trump took office, there have been signs that there are those in the U.S. government who are not willing to stand by idly while human rights in Hungary are compromised.
In 2017, the Department of State announced a $700,000 grant to support media freedom in Hungary. However, that funding was inexplicably rescinded shortly thereafter. That program must now be reinstated. To further contest the Hungarian government’s media monopoly, the U.S. Agency for Global Media should restart Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasting in the country.
To forestall greater deterioration, the State Department and United States Agency for International Development should fund Hungarian civil society focused on transparency, the rule of law, and minority rights. If the Trump administration doesn’t act, Congress should by conducting a hearing on Viktor Orban’s human rights record to help shine a spotlight on his abuses.
A free media, civil society, and citizenry serve a critical purpose: they are a check on abuses of power and corruption. Orban understands this truth, which is why he fears it and why U.S. officials should embrace it.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.