articleimg-1
Apr 07, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

Hungary, says Washington Post, has unleashed a “xenophobic attack” on a “beacon of freedom”

Professional media outlets who fail to ask critical questions or consult a balance of sources, who favor a hysterical narrative over rational discourse, are simply not professional

The Washington Post is working overtime on Hungary.

Earlier this week, the American daily newspaper treated us to this: “Hungary’s xenophobic attack on Central European University is a threat to freedom everywhere,” an editorial submitted by trustees of the university. Late last week, the paper’s own editorial board served up this irresistible title – wait for it – “Hungary’s prime minister wants to shut down a beacon of freedom.”

You have to admire their flair for drama.

The “xenophobe” article trots out the “this recalls the darkest days of history” trope. It implies that the government has “shut down” an opposition newspaper and has pledged to “tighten its grip” on NGOs. This authoritarian drift, we’re told, resembles “Europe under fascism, the United States during the McCarthy period.”

The “xenophobic” part still has me baffled. The editorial claims that the new law was attached to an anti-immigration bill. It was not. The new legislation was an amendment to the law on education. It claims that the amendment makes it illegal for CEU to operate as an American university in Hungary. That’s not accurate.

The authors of the editorial fail to inform their readers that the university is in fact operating under two, different legal entities – a university registered in New York that offers no courses in New York, and a university legally registered in Hungary. They give out two diplomas in a strange sort of 2-for-1. Read more on that in CEU: facts versus frenzy.

In the “beacon of freedom” article, the editorial board frets that “Mr. Orban has forgotten the lessons, so obvious then [in 1989], about Eastern Europe’s communist rulers, whose demise was heartily celebrated by people sick of arbitrary rule and hungry for the kind of freedom that Central European University was founded to succor.”

I wonder if the members of the editorial board have any idea what it’s like to hunger for freedom. Perhaps. But aside from that, this ‘beacon of freedom’ angle is over the top, really.

We’re talking about ordinary administrative rules for running a university and fairly awarding legitimate degrees, but these editors on the Potomac are ready to chain themselves to the railings.

Because, after all, it’s “philanthropist and financier George Soros” who founded and funded this institution of higher education as “an anchor for the study of freedom in lands long tormented by tyranny,” a line that links directly to an interview with a CEU president. The editorial board’s idea of an independent source, it seems.

For those who didn’t get the point, the philanthropist George Soros and the CEU represent the source of light. Standing in for the forces of darkness, the threat to the “beacon of freedom”: Prime Minister Orbán.

He is, we are told, a “right-wing champion of barbed-wire fence borders,” a reference to the Orbán Government’s construction of a barrier to reinforce the southern border of Europe’s Schengen zone and to stop thousands from crossing illegally into the European Union, a requirement for being part of Schengen. It’s similar to the barrier that stands on stretches of the US’s southern border with Mexico, and ours has proven effective.

The Washington Post tells us that PM Orbán has also “vowed to wipe out liberal values in Hungary,” but he has not vowed to do anything of the kind. This new law would place “onerous restrictions” on the university, and the source for that assertion is another link to a CEU report.

You see, “the front line between liberal values of democracy and the darker forces of authoritarianism can often be found far from government offices, in a civic association or church hall, a newsroom or university classroom.” The CEU stands on that line, “the fault line of an intensifying contest between democracy and illiberal rule around the globe”.

What we’re witnessing here is the deliberate decision on the part of the leadership of the CEU, exploiting a compliant group of Washington DC editors, to turn what is essentially an administrative irregularity into an epic struggle between a “beacon of freedom” and “the darker forces.” That may serve the image of the CEU and the editorial board’s thirst for drama, but it’s unfortunate for resolving this matter.

In fact, there is no government proposal to shut down the CEU. Yes, the Hungarian Education Office found administrative errors and irregularities at CEU – as it did in the case of 26 other higher education institutions operating in Hungary. The Hungarian Parliament has passed an amendment to legislation that would require foreign institutions of higher education to meet certain requirements. One of these is that they should offer degree programs in their country of origin, which is the common practice when universities open programs in foreign countries. None of the requirements are impossible to meet for universities like the CEU or other foreign institutions operating in Hungary.

The CEU remains a strong, private university, and I myself chose to study and do research there. But it’s also true that it has enjoyed an unfair advantage in higher education in Hungary. That needs to be sorted out.

The other problem is of course the editorial board itself. Professional journalists who fail to ask critical questions or consult a balance of sources, who favor a hysterical narrative over rational discourse, are not professional.

The university is escalating what is a set of administrative regulations to a larger, ideological struggle. It’s a pity to see the Post’s editorial board play along.