Mar 26, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

The boy who cried “Wolf!” for ten, long years

These vociferous criticisms of Hungary’s proposed coronavirus defense bill come as nothing new. Even so, it’s disappointing and pathetic.

“Europe needs to send Hungary a signal” about its “attacks on democracy and the rule of law,” they wrote. That was November 2010, only seven months after Prime Minister Orbán took office following a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections that year.

They declared the “death of press freedom” and the dawn of a new “era of censorship reversing the democratic gains of the past 20 years.” Expressed “concerns” about the independence of the judiciary and “checks and balances.” That was 2011.

They fretted over our new constitution, the Fundamental Law, which came into effect in 2012. They said it provoked concerns – there’s that word again – over human rights and the separation of powers and seemed perplexed at its references to Hungary’s Christian identity and culture.

“Hungary is no longer a democracy,” they said in 2013. The government’s “attack” on democracy has been “clear and continuous: crippling restriction of the freedom of the press, political direction of the Central Bank, inclusion in the Constitution of Christian religious references…impunity afforded to perpetrators of racist murders” and more. The latest constitutional reforms, they cried, “wipe[d] out what was left of opposition forces against the government.” Oh, my!

So bad was the year 2013 that Hungary had become the “rotting core” of Europe. That was according to a group of 40 “intellectuals” from Austria and Germany who signed a letter written by German playwright Klaus Pierwoss under the dramatic call to action, “Stiftet Aufruhr!” – roughly, Give rise to revolt! Shall we “Fight or surrender?” it asked, demanding that something just has to be done to fix Hungary.

We got a great press haul in 2014, particularly after Prime Minister Orbán’s speech at Tusnádfürdő in July when he coined the term “illiberal democracy.” Look, this was surely the end, they cried, he said it himself. Of those who have cited the prime minister’s reference to illiberal democracy as iron-clad proof of his alleged authoritarian tendencies, how many read the speech?... Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Then came the migration crisis of 2015 and our construction of a fence to protect the external border of Europe’s Schengen Area against illegal immigration (and meet our treaty obligations). Hungary’s response to the migrant crisis, they said, “brings up memories of our Continent's darkest period.”  Where was our respect for European values and solidarity, they said, arguing that EU funding should be tied to cooperation with a mandatory migrant quota.

Every year we’ve faced charges of anti-Semitism from critics who have no clue what the Orbán Governments have done to support the Jewish community in Hungary. Those charges hit fever pitch in 2018 when the ruling party’s campaign dared to push back at a political opponent named George Soros.

So why should anyone have been surprised this week with the outrageous claims that a law the government proposed in Parliament last Friday introducing additional measures to fight the coronavirus would mean, as this writer claimed on Twitter, that “Hungarian journalists could end up spending several years in jail,” and, as another claimed, a “state of emergency til end of 2020, rule by decree, Parliament suspended.” A certain Dutch Green MEP well known to Hungarians snidely suggested it was all just a power grab and added cynically, “Never waste a good crisis?”

The Hungarians among them knew it wasn’t accurate but it made for good click bait. As for the others, none of them bothered to read the text of the proposal. They were just regurgitating the lines they had heard from those driving a political agenda.

We’ve been through a decade of this malicious and inaccurate reporting on Hungary. Meanwhile, here at home, we still have a democracy, a free media, a boisterous opposition and, prior to the present coronavirus crisis, one of the strongest economies in the EU.

After what we’ve seen over the last ten years, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. But somehow I thought – as we all face the most serious pandemic in a century, when governments everywhere are battling an unknown enemy and doing our best to protect the population against the spread of the virus and to save lives – I guess I hoped that this time we’d see a little more solidarity.