LIKE freed prisoners greedily devouring gigantic meals after years of living on bread and water, Hungarian journalists are gorging on their new found freedoms now that Communist Party media monopoly, censorship, and reporting taboos are gone. The result is a press which is generally sensationalist and journalism which in great measure lacks professionalism and ethical standards. In the four decades of party media monopoly and heavy-handed censorship, the ethical and professional standards of Hungarian journalism were simple: Anything and everything that served the interests of the regime and party was acceptable.
Now that a mushrooming independent press is changing the nation's media landscape and journalists are free to write about anything and express a wide range of views, there is no new ethical code and press law to guide them. For some, the old communist press ethic is still valid with only a slight alteration which makes the journalists' and the publications' interests the arbiters of professional behavior.
``You no longer need to be brave, just professional and that is one of the biggest problems facing Hungarian journalism,'' says Gyorgyi Kocsis, editor of the respected World Economic Review and a reformer in the Association of Hungarian Journalists. ``Freedom of the press appears to many to be freedom to write anything without attention to truth and privacy.''
That was certainly the case in June on the occasion of President George Bush's visit to Hungary when Reform, a year-old independent Budapest weekly which resembles the National Enquirer, published an article about a Hungarian photographer's attempt to assassinate the president.
The publication knew there was no attempted assassination and therefore no story. The photographer handed a policeman a prop revolver he had in his bag to avoid a problem in approaching President Bush to photograph him - and landed on the front page of the 320,000-circulation tabloid, accused of being a would-be assassin. Reform never published a correction.
Hungarian journalists in the last year have compiled a long record of writing fallacious stories, an aspect of the new journalism decried by Mr. Kocsis and others in and out of Hungarian journalism. Nevertheless, freedom of the press has to be absolute, insists Ferenc Pallagi, one of the founders of the new daily MaiNap (Today).
Mr. Pallagi, Kocsis, and others fondly remember what Count Michael Karolyi, the first president of the Hungarian republic had to say about press freedom in 1918 when he outlined the best possible press law. It should contain only two articles, he said, one which proclaims that no one should control freedom of the press, and the other which specifies the date on which the law becomes effective.
Yet, while Mr. Karolyi's stance on press freedom is admired by Hungarians who for 40 years have fought censorship, many are convinced that a press law which addresses libel and invasion of privacy, as well as an enforceable code of ethics, is necessary.
Indeed, a new press law is now being written and will address these issues, including the right of reply and foreign ownership, says Edit Papacsy, a Ministry of Justice department head who is preparing the law. Its enactment is expected sometime after the parliamentary elections in May or June.
Hungary's present press law was approved by Parliament in 1986 and now seems a lame duck in the aftermath of the changes occurring in the last two years. Editors, journalists, and government offices which register new press ventures are operating on the basis of anticipated ground rules to be laid out by the new law, or on no rules at all. The recent Code of Ethics is also anathema to journalists rushing away from rules established under the communist regime.
Competition for readers, listeners, viewers, and advertisers is itself rewriting the rules. Journalists are caught in the middle of this new found freedom to compete, eager to make a name for themselves and cash in on the higher wages now paid by some of the over 100 new publications and on the expected future bounty in a free-market system.
Adding to the competitive frenzy is a slow but significant influx of foreign investors. Last October, Rupert Murdoch outbid the West German Axel Springer company to buy 50 percent interest in Reform and in the 100,000-circulation MaiNap (the first computerized paper in East Europe).
Kocsis and others are optimistic that once the transformation from Marxist-Leninist communism to a democratic, free-enterprise system is completed the ``sense of ethics will get stronger.'' They are convinced that a key ingredient in increasing media responsibility and ethics is a better journalism education program, preferably at the university level. Currently, there is only a one-year training program, offered by the Association of Hungarian Journalists, dealing mainly with the technical aspects of the craft. Above all, they insist that freedom of the press has to be maintained if a true democracy is to take hold in Hungary.
Sounding Jeffersonian, Pallagi, who used to work for the government Evening Daily News says, ``For us to survive (as a paper) there must be democracy. And for democracy to survive there must be freedom to communicate, freedom of the press.''