Facing Orbán's 'Death Star,' Hungary's protesters strike back

Why We Wrote This

Protests in Hungary show the strength of Viktor Orbán's grip on power. But they also highlight the stakes – as the media monopoly that has stifled the opposition leaves them feeling they have no other options.

Balazs Mohai/MTI/AP
Anna Donath, vice chair of Hungary’s Momentum Party, attends a protest against Viktor Orbán's government in Budapest, Hungary, on Dec. 16.

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It is not a mistake that the demonstrations against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have become focused around the state television building. Although the sparks for the protests were two laws that had no connection to the press, media control is a linchpin of Mr. Orbán’s eight-year campaign to consolidate government control, change the electoral system to benefit his party, and crack down on civil society. The state media refuses to air voices critical of Orbán, and its coverage has steadfastly ignored the protests happening right outside the studios. As parts of private media have been consolidated under Orbán allies, many Hungarians no longer have access to independent news. That media monopoly is motivating the protesters on Budapest’s streets now. “If you cannot be informed fairly about what is going on in the country, you cannot make a reasonable decision about whom to vote for and what to think about the regime,” says Kriszta Tóth, a social worker at the protests. “I don’t think there is any other way but demonstrating. That is why I go every night.”

Kriszta Tóth has been on the streets of Budapest since the protests against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began last week. Like many of her fellow demonstrators, Ms. Tóth sees taking to the street as the last avenue they have left for expressing dissent, thanks to Mr. Orbán’s effective monopoly of the media.

“I don’t think there is any other way but demonstrating,” the social worker says. “That is why I go every night.”

For eight years, Mr. Orbán has been steadily eroding democratic norms and the rule of law in Hungary. He has consolidated control over the media and the judiciary, changed the electoral system to benefit his party, and cracked down on civil society, all while stoking nationalist hatred against immigrants. And he has done so with relatively wide support from the populace. Dissent has been muted, partly because Orbán has cemented control of the media.

But when Orbán’s ruling party, Fidesz, passed two controversial laws last week, it spurred raucous protests in the capital, united the opposition, and electrified Hungarians critical of their leader’s tightening authoritarian grip. On Sunday the protests moved to the state television building, a powerful symbol of Orbán’s dominance. While the demonstrations do not pose an immediate danger to Orbán, they appear to have invigorated the opposition – and show how critical they consider the threat to the media to be.

“Freedom of the press is just the basis of everything,” says Tóth. “This is the most important pillar of a democracy. If you cannot be informed fairly about what is going on in the country, you cannot make a reasonable decision about whom to vote for and what to think about the regime.”

Francisco Seco/AP
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting prior to an EU summit in Brussels on Dec. 13.

Confronting 'the Death Star'

The two laws that sparked the uproar were pushed through parliament last week by Fidesz. One, which many in Hungary have dubbed the “slave law,” allows companies to demand their employees work up to 400 hours of overtime a year, a move the opposition says weakens labor protections. The other creates a new court system for cases related to “public administration,” and Orbán’s justice minister will oversee the hiring of its judges. Critics say it’s a dangerous expansion of executive power over the judiciary that erodes judicial independence.

The government says that the judicial law conforms with European norms, and that the labor law would allow workers to work and earn more. Government spokesman István Hollik condemned the protests in a statement, calling them violent. “It was apparent that the aggressive political activists who were on the streets yesterday do not respect anybody or anything. They don’t respect Christianity, they don’t respect the law and they don’t respect others.”

The ruling party prevented the opposition from debating the controversial moves, spurring opposition lawmakers to protest, first in parliament, and then on the street. Thousands joined them by the weekend, and took the protest to the state television building, which one member of parliament, Bernadett Széll, referred to as “the Death Star.” Parliament members tried to enter to read a petition, but some – including Ms. Széll – were dragged out of the building by security guards, and at least one was injured.

The state media refuses to air voices critical of Orbán, and its coverage has steadfastly ignored the protests happening right outside the studios. As parts of private media have been consolidated under Orbán allies, many Hungarians no longer have access to independent news. Most of the daily newspapers in Hungary, and many radio stations, local television stations, and popular online news sites, are now friendly to the prime minister and his party.

The public television building has become “the symbol of lies and the unscrupulousness of Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian regime,” says Krisztián Szabados, a political analyst and head of Political Capital, a think tank in Budapest.

“This media dominance is key for Orbán’s power, as being the most effective tool to control political discourse and prevent the escalation of public discontent over the high level of corruption, the poor quality of health care, and the deteriorating education system,” he says. “It is without precedent in any democracy that members of the opposition parties are not allowed to appear on public TV and radio, where government criticism is censured and the public broadcaster is the main source of Russian-style fake news and unrestrained government propaganda.”

Shades of 1956?

Opposition member of parliament Bence Tordai filmed himself confronting Orbán in parliament last week about the “slave law.” That’s something Hungarians have not seen in some time amid such a docile media landscape. Many Hungarians who do not support Orbán and Fidesz have been frustrated that the opposition has been unable to muster any coherent alliance to work against the ruling party. That changed Wednesday, as a broad range of previously fragmented opposition parties – including the far-right Jobbik party – came together to protest, and have been working together since.

“We want to offer an alternative to the voters as well, so we started to work together with every party of the opposition in order to have a program for the new world that we want to achieve,” Mr. Tordai says. He compared the protests at the public television station to the beginning of the revolution against the Soviet regime in 1956, when Hungarians marched to the state radio station to demand their petition be read on the air, and security forces fired on the crowd. “Although there is no violence, people are equally desperate and decisive about what they want to achieve this time,” he says.

That’s an optimistic comparison. Mr. Szabados, the analyst, says the protests do not pose a danger to Orbán, at least in the short term, considering Orbán’s strong grip on government institutions. But it’s significant, Szabados adds, that “the long-time fragmented … opposition parties have acted [with] surprising unity in the last days, applying unusually radical tools against the oppressive power.”

Budapest is the center of anti-Orbán sentiment in the country but he has high support in rural areas. To keep momentum going, Tordai says it would be important to take the protests outside the city and to employ other tactics like strikes and barricades. Opposition groups have said they will organize a general strike if the president signs the law. In a sign that momentum was carrying, on Tuesday night protests were organized in rural cities where demonstrations have been rare. Many Hungarians abroad have protested as well, including in Britain, where many Hungarians opposed to Orbán have emigrated.

Some protesters said they were determined to continue. Erika Miskolci, who was demonstrating Monday, says she is upset with a range of government actions: the control of the media, the new court system, corruption, the decimation of public healthcare and education. “I don’t see any other way to show them that we are unhappy and we want them to go than protesting as long as we can,” she says.

•Kristen Chick contributed from Cambridge, England.

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