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Nov 17, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

What’s this if not the US interfering in Hungarian elections and politics?

“Paid for by the taxpayers of the United States of America.” This would be the disclaimer that you might see on certain publications, if the US State Department were to begin handing out money next year, as it announced earlier this week, to support “independent” media outlets in Hungary.

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, according to the announcement, has committed 700,000 USD (approximately 200 million HUF) to “fund rural media outlets in Hungary to help train and equip journalists in defense of an independent media.” The program, “Supporting Objective Media in Hungary,” offers technical and financial assistance, increased local and international exposure, small grants and other tools.

“Astonishing and quite unusual,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó, who summoned the US chargé d’affaires following the announcement. “What’s this, if not interference in the election campaign and in Hungary’s internal political processes? Which Washington office can judge the applications of media organizations from a Hungarian county and what kind of balanced service they would like to offer?” the minister asked.

Astonishing indeed and disappointing coming from an ally. Here we have the US government tapping its own, precious public funds to invest in the media of an allied democratic state for the express objective of defending independent media. In what other allied country, the foreign minister reportedly asked the US chargé d’affaires, is the US government funding similar activities? It’s so odd and, frankly, lacks any reasonable goals.

Others would quickly point out that, beyond the clear interference in the domestic affairs of ally, the media in the US has its own issues. Criticisms related to concentration of media ownership, commercial relationships and mainstream media bias – Harvey Weinstein, anyone? -- are now the stuff of everyday in the US. Put that aside and, more to the immediate point, consider what the US Department of Justice just did with Russian-affiliated media.

Two Russian-owned media entities, RT and Sputnik, were told that they would have to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, one of the strictest regulations that any NATO state imposes upon foreign entities mixing in domestic issues. The US government deemed that the media outlets are tied to the Russian government so they should register as foreign agents.

The timing of the State Department’s announcement is also a little unfortunate. Transparency International – a George Soros-funded NGO – also recently announced a training program for journalists with funding worth about half of what the State Department has committed. The mentors of the program are from media outlets that Soros-affiliated organizations have already invested in or are related to opposition parties. There’s clearly a political flavor to the Soros-funded Transparency International media program.

It was the second time in about a month that the chargé d’affaires, David Kostelancik, was summoned to the foreign ministry. Last month, he got a call following his public statements expressing concerns about independent media, remarks he delivered seated next to an emblematic figure of journalism under the communist era in Hungary in the headquarters of a journalist association closely affiliated with the former communist apparatus. To make it all more absurd, a director of a Hungarian television channel that enjoys the largest audience share in the country (and is not considered pro-government by any means) fundamentally contradicted the chargé’s points in an interview published that same week.

We could have a conversation about the lively media landscape in Hungary, about the orientation of the largest TV channel, the largest online news sites, the largest newspapers and the balance of radio stations and weeklies. We could have that conversation – and the stubborn facts would probably be a little inconvenient for some at the State Department – but what’s at issue here is more fundamental, it’s the questions that Minister Szijjártó asked:

“What’s this, if not interference in the election campaign and in Hungary’s internal political processes?”