Press freedom in Hungary: Harsh criticism from the U.S. Embassy

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A free, democratic society cannot exist without a free press, democratic governments must not attempt to silence their critics, said David Kostelancik, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Hungary. He said: negative trends are continuing” in the sphere of press freedom and there are „alarming developments” as well. He mentioned the purchase of media outlets by government allies, the targeted distribution of publicly-funded advertisements and the intimidation of journalists.

David Kostelancik

David Kostelancik, speaking to diplomats and journalists, said that the United States is following the situation in Hungarian media. They know that

journalists are not doing their job, if they don’t ask tough questions,

and the free press is a fundamental element of accountability, that governments owe to citizens they represent.

David Kostelancik reminded the audience that media freedom is not only protected by the First Amendment of the American Constitution, but also by the Hungarian Fundamental Law, and the importance of protecting press freedom is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the NATO treaty, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the OSCE’s Charter for European Security.

He said:

“A free, democratic society cannot exist without a free press,”

and “our strongest, most stable, most trustworthy allies are those that share this commitment”.

He warned that free press did not mean that the press cannot be criticized, if it gets the facts wrong, or reports only those facts that support a particular editorial bias. President Donald Trump often criticizes the media, he continued, but these are his personal views, and as journalists “often point out, not every criticism of the government is fake news”.

It is the most important, according to David Kostelancik, that

“democratic governments must not attempt to silence their critics”.

It can happen in multiple ways, through

  • legal and regulatory blockades;
  • monopoly control;
  • pressure on advertisers;
  • attempts by the government to manipulate the advertising market;
  • outright threats and intimidation of journalists.

He reminded that the United States has spoken on multiple occasions about negative trends in the sphere of press freedom in Hungary, and these negative trends are continuing.

Such trends are:

  • Government allies have steadily acquired control and influence over the media market, including the last remaining independent regional newspapers.
  • Journalists who work for these outlets must follow pro-government editorial guidelines, and that they do not have the freedom to publish articles that are critical of the government.
  • The government also directs substantial publicly-funded advertising contracts to the outlets of friendly owners, and almost none to independent outlets.

They also hear reports that businesses are told not to “advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution”.

He addressed his concerns about the publication of names of individual journalists by “some media outlets closely linked to the government” that characterized them as threats to Hungary. He called this

an alarming development.

He said: “We must protect free press, even when it is critical of us, as it is the very foundation of democracy.”

He thinks there are still independent media outlets in Hungary, but “their numbers are dwindling”, and they face pressure, intimidation and challenges in the advertising market that the pro-government outlets do not.

Answering some questions, he also said that “Hungary is an ally and partner of the United States”, and it is not for the embassy to pressure the government when they see something they disagree with. But they carry out discussions on what concerns them, they reach out to the “colleagues in the Hungarian government”. He also said: since Hungary is an OSCE member, it is a duty to uphold certain standards, including the protection of press freedom.

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