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A man holds up a sign during a protest in central Budapest on Jan. 2, 2012. (LASZLO BALOGH/REUTERS)
A man holds up a sign during a protest in central Budapest on Jan. 2, 2012. (LASZLO BALOGH/REUTERS)

PETER KLEIN

A letter on freedom to Hungary's Viktor Orbán Add to ...

Dear Prime Minister Orbán:

We met briefly about 20 years ago, back when I was a young journalist covering the birth of democracy in Hungary, and you were a young politician ushering it in. I remember thinking at the time that the name of your party, Fidesz – an acronym for “Alliance of Young Democrats” – seemed destined to be dated some day, since you and your cohort would not always be young. But I never imagined it was the reference to “democracy” that would quickly become so inaccurate.

Back then, I was struck by your intelligence and charisma, and hoped that, had my family not fled Communist Hungary during the revolution, I would have had a fraction of the courage you had shown living under Soviet control. You helped bring down the Communist regime with a powerful speech in 1989, demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Russian troops.

But today, you run a country that has become a pariah of the European Union. Last week, the European Commission charged Hungary with violating EU treaties with your 350 new laws, including several that squelch free press.

I know you’re a student of history, and you surely know that a vibrant media is a vital component of the kind of free and open society you championed in your early days. But when, on New Year’s weekend, 100,000 Hungarians took to the streets to protest against your controversial new constitution, Hungarian state TV didn’t bother covering the story – a stark reminder of how that broadcaster functioned in the bad old days of Communism.

When the public turned to Klubradio, which had been voicing the views of the opposition, your government pulled the station’s frequency licence. And the government now requires all media organizations to register with the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, risking serious fines if they violate “public interest, public morals or order.” What resulted over the past few weeks were hunger strikes by Hungarian journalists, and even more demonstrations that seemed to once again slip the eye of your state TV reporters.

As a journalism professor, I would send those state reporters back to the classroom. Either they don’t know a good story when they see one, or they’ve lost their journalistic moral compass.

After the censure from the EU last week, you appeared before the commission, claiming you’re simply misunderstood, and that you have the support of the people of Hungary. It is true that your government sent a poll to citizens of Hungary last year, but I went through the 12 questions, and not a single one makes any reference to the media. And while you received more than 50 per cent of the vote last year, recent polls show you to be incredibly unpopular in the wake of your wholesale revamping of the Hungarian constitution to suit the will of your centre-right party.

Back in the early 1990s, when Hungarians like me were full of hope about the future of the country, I moved back to Budapest to host a morning news show. I remember how some of my elderly Hungarian relatives still worried that I might get in trouble for reporting news so candidly, but I assured them you and your colleagues in parliament had left that legacy of Soviet-style control behind. How wrong I was.

Peter W. Klein is the director of University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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