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Critics Fear Democracy Is Eroding In Hungary

GUY RAZ, Host:

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Budapest.


M: (Foreign language spoken)


Hungarian Public Radio journalist Attila Mong is a co-host of his country's version of MORNING EDITION. His show "180 Minutes" is the most listened to news program in the country. Late last month, Mong protested the new media laws with one minute of dead air.

M: My main concern is that it can reinforce self-censorship mechanisms in a country which came out of dictatorship only 20 years ago.

WESTERVELT: For his protest, Mong was immediately suspended and pulled off the air. Some Hungarians now call him a press freedom hero. He finds it amusing and ironic that after 20 years of democracy, being silent for one minute passes for heroism. Mong says he was just trying to get people to reflect.

M: That something serious is going on with one of their fundamental rights, the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This one minute of silence was maybe an elegant way of saying that everybody should stop for a minute and think it over once again what's happening.

WESTERVELT: He says Prime Minister Viktor Orban has crafted an almost cult-like following among his ruling Fidesz party. And with his party's two-thirds majority in parliament, Horvath says, Orban is consolidating power across all institutions. He's done away with a fiscal council, which oversaw budgets, moved to replace the head of the Hungarian central bank, imposed retroactive so-called crisis taxes, and restricted the powers of the Supreme Court.

M: They have a constitutional majority in the parliament. So if it occurs to Mr. Orban that he would like to sleep with different virgins every night, he can legally introduce the right to first night, as in the medieval ages. There is no one, no one, contradicting him on any issues in his own party. The only limitation is imagination and any moral convictions he might or might not have.

WESTERVELT: Still Kovacs worries Orban's moves will do long-term political damage to the country.

M: Hungary could become a black sheep in the community. That it's a country, which violated the principle of democracy, the basic principles of European integration. Then Hungary will lose sympathy, credibility, and Hungary will lose support. And we will pay a very, very high price.

WESTERVELT: At a recent welcome event in Budapest for visiting EU officials, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso voiced confidence in Orban and Hungary's democracy.

M: This is a democratic country and I think it's important to have no doubts about it. And so, it's important also that the prime minister, this government, take all necessary steps for this to be clear in Hungary and outside Hungary.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.