Critics Fear Democracy Is Eroding In Hungary

The European Union faces enormous challenges as the sovereign debt crisis continues to rattle the 27 nation bloc. As Hungary takes over the body's rotating presidency this month, the EU would prefer to focus on reform of the euro, energy security and other big issues. But instead Hungary finds itself on the defensive for changes at home that some critics say are chipping away at democracy in the former communist country.

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GUY RAZ, host:

There were demonstrations in Hungary as well yesterday as thousands took to the streets of Budapest, protesting new restrictions on the media. Those protests come as Hungary takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union this month. It should be a moment of pride for the former communist nation, but instead Hungary finds itself on the defensive. And critics say the media restrictions aren't the only way democracy is eroding there.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Budapest.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ATTILA MONG (Journalist; Host, "180 Minutes"): (Foreign language spoken)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Hungarian Public Radio journalist Attila Mong is a co-host of his country's version of MORNING EDITION. His show "180 Minutes" is the most listened to news program in the country. Late last month, Mong protested the new media laws with one minute of dead air.

Mr. MONG: My main concern is that it can reinforce self-censorship mechanisms in a country which came out of dictatorship only 20 years ago.

WESTERVELT: For his protest, Mong was immediately suspended and pulled off the air. Some Hungarians now call him a press freedom hero. He finds it amusing and ironic that after 20 years of democracy, being silent for one minute passes for heroism. Mong says he was just trying to get people to reflect.

Mr. MONG: That something serious is going on with one of their fundamental rights, the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This one minute of silence was maybe an elegant way of saying that everybody should stop for a minute and think it over once again what's happening.

WESTERVELT: The problem is that fear of the erosion of democratic values in Hungary goes far beyond media restrictions, says Hungarian newspaper editor Gabor Horvath.

He says Prime Minister Viktor Orban has crafted an almost cult-like following among his ruling Fidesz party. And with his party's two-thirds majority in parliament, Horvath says, Orban is consolidating power across all institutions. He's done away with a fiscal council, which oversaw budgets, moved to replace the head of the Hungarian central bank, imposed retroactive so-called crisis taxes, and restricted the powers of the Supreme Court.

Mr. GABOR HORVATH (Deputy Editor, Nepszabadsag): They have a constitutional majority in the parliament. So if it occurs to Mr. Orban that he would like to sleep with different virgins every night, he can legally introduce the right to first night, as in the medieval ages. There is no one, no one, contradicting him on any issues in his own party. The only limitation is imagination and any moral convictions he might or might not have.

WESTERVELT: The European Commission is now looking into whether Hungary's media restrictions and new taxes on mostly foreign companies comply with EU rules. But there's very little, beyond political pressure, that the EU can really do about a member state's domestic politics unless a country is in clear violation of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Hungarian lawmaker Laszlo Kovacs, a leader of the opposition Socialist, says it's possible Hungary's voting rights could be suspended if it's found in persistent breach of the EU's core values. But that's not likely. The EU backed away from a fight with France last year over its forcible expulsion of Roma.

Still Kovacs worries Orban's moves will do long-term political damage to the country.

Mr. LASZLO KOVACS (Former Commissioner, European Union): Hungary could become a black sheep in the community. That it's a country, which violated the principle of democracy, the basic principles of European integration. Then Hungary will lose sympathy, credibility, and Hungary will lose support. And we will pay a very, very high price.

WESTERVELT: But Kovacs' Socialist Party helped create Orban's popularity through eight ruinous years in power marked by corruption and financial pain. And to the right wing of Orban is the xenophobic, anti-Semitic Jobbik Party which won nearly 17 percent of the vote last election, its highest total ever.

Orban has positioned himself as a populist, nationalist safeguard against both parties and calls his reforms a revolution. Orban insists what he's doing is in line with EU rules and says the new media law is merely aimed at curbing the excesses of the Hungarian media.

At a recent welcome event in Budapest for visiting EU officials, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso voiced confidence in Orban and Hungary's democracy.

Mr. JOSE MANUEL BARROSO (President, European Commission): This is a democratic country and I think it's important to have no doubts about it. And so, it's important also that the prime minister, this government, take all necessary steps for this to be clear in Hungary and outside Hungary.

WESTERVELT: But to some, the mere fact that Barroso had to reassure people that democratic values are not under threat here, highlights how real that concern is.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Budapest.

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