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Hungary's Embrace of Propaganda
Editor’s Note: In the modern age, authoritarians of all stripes understand that control of information is the key to managing a society, assuring adequate levels of support for national undertakings such as war, transfers of wealth, or internal repression.
So, it is never surprising when a ruling elite targets independent-minded journalists and other media figures as a first step toward getting the population in line, as has happened subtly in the United States, more brazenly in Russia and China – and now overtly in rightist-ruled Hungary, as Abby Martin notes in this guest essay:
Naomi Wolf's book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, argues that there are ten steps common to every state that has made the transition into fascism.
One step is the targeting of key individuals or demographics: artists, academics, activists, civil servants, gays, Jews; the public blacklisting of those who don't tow the party line.
Another move towards fascism is the control over the press — all dictatorships and would-be dictators target journalists and make sweeping media reforms to increase their control and their ability to censor information.
Her book conveys the inklings of fascism here in America, but in a globalized society, the West sets the tone for policy and culture that influences the rest of the world.
As Orwellian rhetoric becomes commonplace – wars are being waged to maintain "peace" and draconian bills that curtail civil liberties are being litigated as "patriotic" – countries worldwide have been enacting Wolf's ten steps, some with more haste than others.
After decades of post-Soviet, post-Holocaust political and economic strife, Hungary is starting to embody Orwell's dystopian portrayal. This April, Fidesz, Hungary's center-right conservative party, won two-thirds control over Parliament, putting the conservative party in power for the first time since World War II.
Moreover, Fidesz now controls 22 out of the 23 major cities in the country. This complete takeover by one party is significant, because the Hungarian Constitution can be effectively changed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, an advantage now regularly enacted by the new party in power.
In the hundred days following the election, sweeping measures were passed by the Parliament that curtail Hungarians' freedoms. The reforms include an installation of a "media presidium," drastic legislation against journalistic independence and an attempt to control the content coming from the last remaining independent art centers and theatres.
The government is taking these actions under the new mantra of "re-nationalization," an effort where judicial law is compromised and the consolidation of power is increased under nationalist rhetoric. This new mantra is conveyed in a government manifesto that is now required by law to be displayed in every public sphere across the country.
Another indication of Hungary's shift to the right is Jobbik, a right-wing nationalist party known for its anti-Semitic and anti-gay speech that won an unprecedented 47 seats in Parliament. The growing influence of prominent extreme right political players is in part a backlash from the Socialist Party's failures which resulted in a disenfranchised, fragmented left.
In 2008, Hungary experienced an economic collapse and was subsequently bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. Amid this economic struggle, Hungarians became disillusioned with Socialism, leading to the eventual takeover by the center and far right.
Presently, under Fidesz's reign, the public lives in an unpredictable political climate in which Jobbik's bigoted ideology could gain momentum among alienated Hungarians who feel unrepresented by the current government.
Already, an anonymously published list of many prominent Jewish, Bolshevik and homosexual Hungarian political and cultural figures has been circulated, bolstering a climate of demonization that is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy's Cold War-era blacklisting in the United States.
The targeting and slandering of different groups and demographics of the population are essential tools for a would-be dictatorship to propagate the fear required for a compliant culture.
In an attempt to eliminate society's free expression, the Cultural Committee of the government has recommended the "removal of independent theatres and contemporary moving art companies from the roll of accredited artistic organizations."
Fidesz has refused to disperse one-third of the money already allocated for the independent theater and art sector, resulting in cancellations of major festivals and closure of numerous art centers. A complete cessation of government funds would not only threaten thousands of jobs but would also significantly threaten Hungary's celebrated culture and heritage.
The art organizations that remain are receiving "content recommendations" from government, requiring that the art reflect kindly on the nation. This is particularly alarming given the crucial role of independent art and media in times of political and societal despair.
In every country, such outlets have served an essential role in society by reflecting a cultural climate and shaping people's greater understanding of the world in which they live. Forums for dialogue and independent expression naturally breed dissent against the status quo, which likely explains the harsh crackdown on the art and media sector since Hungary's abrupt political transition.
Many are disagreeing with the suppression. There have already been multiple high-profile resignations attributed to the government's intrusion in this field.
Fidesz's latest assault on the arts is focused on the internationally acclaimed National Theatre of Hungary and its award-winning art director, Robert Alfoldi. Members of Parliament have pronounced the Theatre "dangerous, anti-national and anti-Hungarian" for its plans to host a Romanian holiday concert, and are calling for the immediate resignation of Alfoldi for his "betrayal."
On Dec. 1, Jobbik held a rally outside of the National Theatre building with the purpose of instigating Alfoldi's expulsion. If Alfoldi is dismissed early from his term without legal basis, his removal would signify a dangerous precedent in which leaders from any cultural institution can be dismissed simply because of the ruling party's ideals.
At the same time, an even more controversial piece of legislation passed under Fidesz is the new "Media Constitution" or Bill T/363, which set up the framework to regulate Hungary media on a day-to-day basis for the next nine years or longer.
According to Dr. Karol Jakubowicz, an international expert in broadcasting and a member of the Kosovo Independent Media Commission, Bill T/393 creates a registration system that would construct potential legal and political barriers to new content entering the media landscape in conjunction with providing Hungary's government the ability to take increased action against existing providers of "vaguely unwanted content."
Another aspect of the bill prohibits the inciting of hatred against nations, ethnic, religious, minority or majority groups. According to Jakubowicz, the vague restriction of "inciting hatred" is a slippery slope that would undoubtedly lead to similar sanctions of unintentional insult or inadvertent incitement to hatred from media outlets that are simply capable of insult and exclusion.
Jakubowicz writes that Bill T/363 "require[s] instituting a system of surveillance, supervision and possible repression that are unacceptable in a democratic society... placing Hungary alongside authoritarian countries seeking to control all forms of social communication."
The moves by the Fidesz government to alter the constitution, as well as to control modes of communication and social networks in the country, amount to a current political setting that has unsettling similarities to Germany's slide into fascism before World War II.
Dictatorships and developing fascist states have always exploited nationalist rhetoric and Party propaganda to justify the takeover of a free society — the Nazis in Germany believed propaganda was a vital tool in achieving their goals, and produced it under the Orwellian "Ministry of Public Enlightenment."
In the Nazi Party manifesto, the first point demanded the "union of all Germans in a Great Germany on the basis of the principle of self-determination of all peoples." Similar propaganda is emerging in Hungary in the guise of the Fidesz Party's manifesto, The Hungarian National Assembly of National Cooperation, which states that Hungary has "regained the right and power of self-determination."
Fidesz's political declaration is now mandated to be prominently displayed and framed in most public spaces across the country.
The manifesto further declares that a Hungarian revolution took place in April's elections in which "Hungarians decided to create a new system: The National Cooperation System. With this historical act the Hungarian nation obliged the incoming National Assembly and Government to take the helm at this endeavor, resolute, uncompromising and with deliberation, and control the construction of the National Cooperation System in Hungary."
The document also explains that this "new social contract" will "bring together the diverse Hungarian nation," creating a future based on the societal pillars of "work, home, family, health and order." Hungary's nationalist rhetoric is all too similar to the coded words ringing from previous regimes that sought to homogenize the face and values of the nations they ruled.
In Nazi Germany, journalists, writers, and actors were required to tow the official Party line on world events, and had to get their work pre-approved by the state before disseminating it to the public.
In Hungary, artists are receiving "content recommendations" from the government, and the new Hungarian Media Constitution requires that all media shall provide "appropriate information" that is "factual, timely and balanced" – all factors that are determined by Fidesz.
Nazism and Communism still scar Hungary's past. The country's regression toward its dark history should be watched closely by the international community, especially the European Union (EU).
Hungary's 2004 membership into the EU symbolized an agreement to operate under an ethical code of political and societal conduct established by the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter prohibits discrimination and enshrines the freedom of expression, thought, and religion for all EU citizens.
Already, Fidesz has set up a legal framework restricting free expression, and has created a climate of fear that impinges upon Hungarians' fundamental rights protected by the EU Charter.
If international attention and criticism are not received in time, Hungary could continue down an authoritarian road similar to the Nazis — eventually condemning, incarcerating or even killing those who do not uphold the principles of the Party.
Abby Martin is a freelance writer, citizen journalist, activist and artist living in Oakland, California. You can find more of her writing at www.MediaRoots.org and view her artwork at www.AbbyMartin.org
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