Reflections on the Hungarian Coronavirus Law — or, why it might be time to get over Orbán-bashing4 min read

 In Central Europe, COVID-19, Hungary, Opinion, Politics

As the coronavirus spread over Europe throughout March and April, many governments passed emergency legislative measures aimed at slowing the diffusion of the pandemic. In this context, the Hungarian government was no exception, and passed a law declaring a state of danger within the country by the end of March. The law – since revoked with great fanfare – allowed the executive to rule by decree “until the end of the period of state of danger”, that is, without a clear time limit. The legislation also foresaw a punishment for those spreading misinformation likely to challenge the efficiency of the state of emergency.

The decision conjured a storm in European media, and soon in the political bubbles of Europe and beyond, where reporters represented the law as another blatant attack on Hungary’s fragile democracy. On the online press, journalists did not hesitate to write with thunderous titles and sensational language. Some questioned the compatibility of the law with democratic standards: “La crise du coronavirus et les entorses à la démocratie” (Coronavirus crisis and democracy infringements), “Orbán cruza la raya” (Orbán crosses the line), “Wie Autokraten die Coronakrise  missbrauchen” (How Autocrats Abuse the Corona Crisis), others laconically announced the death of the Hungarian democracy (“Coronavirus to father EU’s ‘first dictatorship’?”, “Coronavirus kills its first democracy“). While there is no doubt that the Hungarian coronavirus law raised questions about its compatibility with democracy and rule of law, its hasty and wide condemnation by many in the media reflected little critical perspective on the events unfolding.

In fact, many journalists seem to have forgotten that similar measures had been taken in other countries. In France for instance, the government passed in March a new law establishing a public health emergency for two months, that was recently extended to July. This law notably allows the Prime Minister to take measures limiting freedom of movement and assembly by decree, that is, without going through the Parliament. Yet, few articles have taken the time to actually question: to what extent does the Hungarian decision differ from other countries? Worse, the few in question were often associated with conservative or far-right politics, condemning Western double-standards to better justify Orbán’s political lines.

Alas! If the answer to this question matters, it is not to excuse the Hungarian government, but because it is our mission as journalists to provide a contextualised and critical perspective on political affairs. These last months, many journalists appeared simply unaware of what was going on elsewhere on the globe, or worse, like they chose to ignore it. Undoubtedly, either way does not help (re)building trust in the media, and ultimately feeds into Orbán’s very own rhetoric—the media are against me.

Moreover, when it comes to the media coverage of Hungary, and more generally of Eastern Europe, I cannot help but suspect writers of reproducing conscious or unconscious representations of the East as a xenophobic, ignorant, authoritarian-by-nature region. Representations of Central and Eastern Europe in the media often reflect journalist biases. In the case of the coronavirus law, Hungary has often been compared to Poland, Romania, and further to Turkey and Israel, while, in the context of the current pandemic, mainstream media have been reluctant to compare Hungary with France, Spain, or Italy.

I believe Hungary is often othered through the depiction of its political leader as the father of all evils in Europe, a depiction which implies, by contrast, a bright, democratic, and idealised vision of the other side of the continent, and very often of the European Union leadership. This is a serious issue, as journalists engaged in beating down on Viktor Orbán also take the risk of blindly subscribing to a vision of Europe wherein there are only two alternatives: the economically neoliberal, xenophobic, and populist camp against the neoliberal, cosmopolitan, and technocratic one (go figure).

Yes, the political context is sensitive and subject to discord. Yes, it is difficult, perhaps now more than ever, for journalists to write about politics without blindly reproducing political discourses. Yet, the sensationalist media tumult around the Hungarian coronavirus law has proved once again the necessity for journalists to put information in perspective, reflect on the treatment of the East in mainstream media, and, crucially, refuse to take part in political battles whose rules are already defined. It might be time to get over Orbán-bashing, and hold all political actors accountable for their abuses of power, in Hungary—and beyond.

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