Elected last year with a super-majority in Hungary's parliament, the right-wing Fidesz party and Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed a far-reaching media law giving the government broad power to regulate and fine media outlets it deems unbalanced. Hungarian newspapers printed blank front pages in protest and an international outcry soon followed.
Under the law, massive fines can be levied at news outlets for unbalanced reporting and offenses to "human dignity" and "public morality." Who has crossed the line of these incredibly fuzzy terms will be determined by the Media Council, composed entirely of members of the governing Fidesz party, who have already launched an inquiry into the left-liberal broadcaster Tilos Radio for playing a song from rapper Ice-T said to adversely effect the welfare of children.
While the EU declared the law as antithetical to its values, Hungary began its six-month term as rotating presidency of the European Union. Under pressure from the European Commission, Budapest revised some of the provisions, exempting reporters from foreign news outlets and blogs from mandatory balance in their coverage. These mostly cosmetic changes seemed to have dampened the EU uproar while keeping the core of the law intact for broadcasters and newspapers within the country.
I talked with three Hungarian editorial cartoonists and illustrators--Gábor Pápai, Joe Békési, and Péter Zsoldos--about how the media law will affect their work.
Matt Bors: The implications of this law are frightening if fully implemented. Assaulting the "human dignity" of politicians is what editorial cartoonists do for a living. How might this new media law effect cartoons?
Gábor Pápai: The consequences of the law are scary indeed. However, we did get unexpectedly strong support from the European Union. This can keep those in power from the abusing it for a while, but I fear they will use it against us once the EU presidency is over. I have a feeling, like when the abusive head of family is busy nodding to the policeman’s warning, but he can’t wait for the door to close so he can remain with his family. Regretfully the EU is not going in the direction of a federal union that I would prefer.
Joe Békési: This law is not dangerous to specific individuals, but editorial offices, publishing houses, and television channels that can be ruined or forced to continually self-censor. It will kill investigative journalism.
Péter Zsoldos: Since most of my work is caricatures, I would be strongly affected. I find those parts of the law specially alarming that give the right of deciding whether the content has been against the rules after the publication of the item. The trick is that the rules are flexible and all this is up to the Media Authority to decide what they find unbalanced.
They have the right to impose fines which must be paid, if the court doesn’t annul it, within thirty days. Knowing how the Hungarian courts work, these decisions will take years. The Media Authority’s political composition is also alarming, as it was proposed and voted by the governing party, excluding the other parties from proposing candidates.
Bors: What kind of restrictions--legally or editorially--are already placed on editorial cartoonists? Have you enjoyed a good deal of freedom to go after who and what you wanted? There are always editors afraid to rock the boat, but I wonder most about politicians. Have they felt content to throw their weight around before in restricting a free press?
Zsoldos: Until now, theoretically we had total freedom. And seldom did any official retribution happen. I must say, however, that there were many cases when after a caricature of an influential public figure was published, the paper suddenly stopped asking me for drawings. My colleague Fenekovács László had a caricature for which his paper was severely fined by the court for hurting privacy rights.
Békési: The promise of incredibly high fines for elusive things keeps editors from attacking power. The same applies for cartoonists. As you mentioned, they will fear rocking the boat. At the end of the eighties I had a little illegal print shop where I made leaflets and so on so I was feeling personally what I am speaking about. Now we went back into the past with that law. Lawmakers hope the terror of the high fines will enhance self-restrictions. It is a great trick of lawmakers that they want to use it after June when they'll be over the rotating presidency. Up to this date I don't know about any penalties.
Pápai: Although I have been drawing political caricatures daily for the last two decades, I never encountered any ban or expectations of a political nature. We did have hostile acquisitions at some of the papers where I was published, but in those cases I simply walked to other papers. I can proudly say that I could always draw whatever I wanted.
Bors: Could you describe the state of editorial cartooning in Hungary. Is there much oppositional or hard-hitting work? Do media figures and politicians in Hungary take note of this work and it is seen as important to the general public?
Zsoldos: The Hungarian caricaturists are just as divided politically as our society. But basically we are free. It is mostly the publishers who tell you how far you can go with a caricature.
Pápai: Very few people are doing political caricature in Hungary. Most of these are now in the opposition, which can frustrate those in power. Politicians haven’t given opinions on my drawings directly, but the right-wing media, which is supportive of the present government, often attacks my work.
The deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap, who I used to work for before it changed its political direction, compared my work to the Mohammed-cartoons, and he did not conceal that he sympathized with those who issue fatwas. In this article he incited violence against me. People commenting there publicized my personal data and address.
Another newspaper close to the government, Magyar Nemzet asked how long I will be allowed to depict the Prime Minister in a bad light. This is before the new media law. Because of all this I feel like these drawings are gaining importance, and drawing more and more attention.
Bors: How are your colleges at newspapers who work as reporters and editors taking this? Is this seen as an outrageous overreach that will be reversed or only the beginning of a more long-lasting and further reaching campaign against a free press.
Békési: That is the fear and it is a very bad example in the EU.
Pápai: Around me most people feel that they are in this for the long haul, and that the government will exert a total control of public speech. This, however, is destined to fail, and even if their plans for a single-party constitution materialize, the quickly eroding power will be followed by a first constitutional amendment, which will be about freedom of speech in Hungary too.
Zsoldos: On public radio, Mong Attila and the editor of the program were immediately sacked because they protested the media law with a minute of silence. This is definitely an abuse, especially because the law will be in force only after June 1st, after the end of the EU presidency. And this sacking was decided not by the media authority, but by the leadership of the radio. Since then several Facebook groups have been created to protest this decision online, and in street demonstrations as well.
Bors: Will this law and its potential consequences change anything about what you do?
Békési: No, I don’t think so. I retired.
Zsoldos: It will definitely influence my publishing possibilities. The law threatens such high fines that it could immediately lead a paper into bankruptcy. Also, the “flexibility” of the law makes it impossible to decide what is unbiased. Compared to this situation, it would be even better if we had a censor at each company: this way at least we would know what is allowed and what is not.
Pápai: I don’t think it can stop my work. The main part of the work will be moved to the Internet. I might even have to work from abroad for a Hungarian audience. Marx says this about destructive power: the shoe cannot stop the growth of the foot, it can only distort it.
Gábor Pápai is the cartoonist for Népszava in Budapest. Joe Békési served as president of the Hungarian Cartoonist Association. He began cartooning in the late 1980s as part of the underground Sumizdat movement. Péter Zsoldos works a cartoonist and caricaturist for various publications in and outside of Hungary.
The interviews were conducted separately and edited for length. A special thanks to Tibor Várady, Veronika Kozma, and Redjade for translating.
Image credits: Zsoldos self-portrait, Békési self-potrait, Pápai on the Victor Orbán, Békési on the EU, Pápai on Gaddafi, Zsoldos on the media law. All images © their respective creators.