That moment when a US diplomat wonders if there is press freedom in Hungary, and an RTL Klub producer has the answer

Earlier this week, the chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Budapest delivered remarks on the freedom of the press. The remarks garnered a lot of attention not least because of the senior US diplomat’s very pointed criticisms and assertion that “negative trends are continuing” in the sphere of press freedom in Hungary.

As someone who works every day with the Hungarian press, I was surprised to learn of these “negative trends,” but there was one detail that I found particularly astonishing. During the question and answer session following his remarks, Mr. Kostelancik was reportedly asked a straight-forward question: Is the press free in Hungary?

And he failed to give a straight-forward answer.

Let me help. Here’s an answer for Mr. Kostelancik, and it’s not even from me. It comes from an interview in 168óra with Péter Kolosi, a producer and deputy chief executive at RTL Klub. Ironically, it was published the day before the US diplomat delivered his remarks at MUOSZ, and neither one of those media outlets, 168óra or RTL Klub, would ever be described as linked to the Orbán Government. Here’s the exchange:

168óra: Is there press freedom in Hungary?

Péter Kolosi: There is. If there weren’t, then there wouldn’t be an RTL Klub either.

Kolosi, an accomplished media professional, swats the question away with a deft reply. Really, what reasonable, Hungarian-speaking person would look at the media landscape in Hungary and seriously wonder about the freedom of the media? The fact that the US chargé can’t swat the question away with a similarly definite answer makes one wonder whether he, and his colleagues in the State Department, have a firm grasp of what’s going on in Hungarian media.

That raises the larger question: Why? As Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister of State Levente Magyar pointed out yesterday, nobody asked the senior US diplomat to make a statement, and he has no mandate to do so. We’re in an election year here in Hungary, and this government takes exception to any country interfering in our elections in that way.

The whole scene reminded me for a moment of my old Twitter pal, the former chargé André Goodfriend, who cost the US a great deal of credibility with similarly ill-advised public statements. That the current chargé does this – because the remarks were poorly informed and biased and because it was simply inappropriate for a foreign diplomat to make such remarks – reinforces a perception that the State Department remains partisan in its attitude toward Hungary. That’s unfortunate.

Last, but most definitely not least, the optics of the whole event: the moderator, the venue and the crowd in attendance. The chief US diplomat in Budapest fretted publicly about freedom of the press in Hungary while seated next to György Baló in the building of MUOSZ, the National Association of Hungarian Journalists. In attendance were what could only be described as many from the “old guard” of communist Hungarian journalism, including the former editor-in-chief of Népszabadság who once published a letter by Edward Teller worried about extremism in Hungary, a letter that was later proven to be a forgery. At one point, Kolancik even had a remark recalling the brave publishers of samizdat as the only alternative to the “official news” in the communist era. That made my stomach turn.

Today, Baló hosts a popular news program (on RTL Klub), but anyone who really knows Hungarian media remembers him for the role he used to play. Let’s just say he wasn’t publishing samizdat when he was at Hungarian state television back in the communist 1970s and ‘80s. In fact, he was a foreign editor… MUOSZ likes to brag about being founded in 1896, but it was completely changed in 1945 and played a major role in propping up the communist system, closely tied to the communist-era security services.

The notion that Baló and MUOSZ and a forgery-publishing former newspaper editor are now concerned about press freedom in Hungary is a little hard to swallow. And if you don’t understand why those are terrible optics to deliver what are wholly inappropriate, ill-informed remarks, then it’s further proof that you just don’t get it.