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U.S.-Funded Radio Free Europe In Hungary Would Be An 'Insult,' Says Foreign Minister

Oct 1, 2019
Originally published on October 2, 2019 5:30 pm

Hungary's government is pushing back against European Union assertions that it is putting democracy in danger, says Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

The fierce loyalist of hard-line, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban is also calling the U.S. intention to restart Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the country an "insult."

Run by the independent federal U.S. Agency for Global Media, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's mission is to broadcast uncensored news and open debate in countries where press freedoms are scant and repression is growing.

Szijjarto is adamant that the move is unwarranted.

"It's fake news about Hungary. There is absolutely a media freedom in [the country]," he tells NPR's Noel King.

Szijjarto, who spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, asserts that the largest outlets in the country are critical of the government. But as NPR has reported, the Orban government and its allies have taken control of the majority of Hungary's media, which routinely amplify the government line.

The Orban administration has portrayed itself as a defender of Europe's borders and what it considers to be a Christian way of life. It staunchly opposes EU plans to resettle hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in Europe each year.

Yet the country is facing a worsening labor shortage. Hungary could lose more than 12% of its population by 2050, according to a United Nations estimate, as younger citizens seek higher wages and better working conditions in other parts of the EU.

Instead of integrating migrants to fill the empty jobs in Hungary's economy, forecast to grow 3.6% this year, the government is banking on expanded family programs such as a lifetime income tax exemption for mothers who have at least four children.

"We want to support our own families instead of supporting migrants," Szijjarto says.

Critics have derided the government's anti-migrant policies as well as its moves that they say have eroded judicial independence, free press, free speech and other democratic norms in the former communist country.

Last year, the European Parliament launched an investigation of what it called Hungary's "systematic threats" to democracy.

The Hungarian government ardently denied the charges, calling them a biased attack on the country's conservative Christian values. Orban has responded to EU assertions that he's eroding liberal democracy by declaring Hungary an "illiberal" one.


Interview Highlights

On press freedom

There is absolutely a media freedom in Hungary. You cannot name one sector of media — be it Internet, be it radio, be it television — where the market leader would be pro-government.

How can you say 90% of the media would be in favor of the government when I told you very, very clearly ... that you find no sector, no section of media where the top outlets would be in favor of the government?

On Hungary's relationship with the EU

You know we are a country which respects the sovereignty of other countries. We always respect the decisions of the citizens of other countries regarding their own country, and we expect others to respect the decisions of the Hungarians about the future of Hungary, so mutual respect. This is very important: Don't put pressure on the others and let them decide about their own future.

On labor shortages, migrants and family planning

We want to support our own families instead of supporting migrants. You have not seen those 400,000 illegal migrants who marched through the country back in 2015. Thank you very much. We don't want them to stay in Hungary.

You know the European Union would like to apply obligatory resettlement quotas in the framework of which they want a couple of thousand to be received in Hungary. But thank you very much. We don't want that and we reject that and you'll never receive any kind of illegal migrants in Hungary [as long as we] are in office.

We are really proud of our family policy. We are really proud that we support our families.

I don't agree that migration would be the solution here. I simply don't agree. Because if you look at the Western European countries, migration was not the solution. Migration created ... parallel societies. They have not found any kind of answer to their labor market challenges, and I'm pretty sure that we are not going to find any kind of solutions.

: 10/02/19

In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say that RFE/RL's move to Hungary is pending congressional approval. Congress has approved a "notification" that allows RFE/RL's governing body — the U.S. Agency for Global Media — to budget for reopening in the country. However, the news outlet has still not relaunched. Some procedural steps and negotiations with the Hungarian government are continuing.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This week and last, world leaders met at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. A notable absence was the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. Hungary is arguably very relevant to the United States. The Trump administration's harsh policies against Central American migrants mirror Hungary's equally harsh policies against largely Muslim migrants from Syria and Iraq. Orban's Fidesz Party has captured the country's judicial system and eviscerated its free press. Many people say Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy. Worth noting - President Trump welcomed Viktor Orban to the White House earlier this year.

Recently, I talked to Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, when he was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. Joanna Kakissis has done extensive reporting on Hungary, and she's here to help walk us through this interview. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So I started by asking Foreign Minister Szijjarto about a proposal by the Agency for Global Media to restart Radio Free Europe in Hungary.

This is a U.S. news service that broadcasts in countries where there's no free flow of information, often because governments have banned it. It closed down in Hungary in the early 1990s at the end of the Soviet era. The implication then was Hungary is moving toward a free state. And I should note that the U.S. Congress has not approved this yet, but this agency is effectively saying that Hungary does not have a free media in 2019, which means, by our standards, it's not a free country. What do you make of that?

PETER SZIJJARTO: Well, you know, it's an insult on our country. It's fake news about Hungary. There is absolutely a media freedom in Hungary. You cannot name one sector of media, be it Internet, be it radio, be television, that the market leader would be pro-government.

KING: Earlier this year in May, our reporter, Joanna Kakissis, was in Hungary. She reported a story on press freedom, that the Orban government and its allies have systematically taken control of about 90% of media outlets there.

SZIJJARTO: But it's not true.

KING: So Joanna was lying.

SZIJJARTO: It's not - yeah, yeah. Yeah, she was because it's not true.

KING: OK. Joanna, I do not think you're a liar, but I think that this exchange helps make the point that, you know, when Hungarian officials are confronted with facts about their government, they tend to call people liars. They say it's fake news. You went to Hungary.

KAKISSIS: That's correct.

KING: You reported a story on the media there. What did you find?

KAKISSIS: Well, what I found is when there is a news outlet that's independent, what happens is that some organization close to Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party will take it over and will fire the journalists and hire journalists who are loyal to them.

KING: There is a really fascinating dynamic in Hungary, which is that the country has made clear it does not want migrants coming and staying and working there. At the same time, it's also facing shortages of labor in many parts of the country. People are migrating out, and it's become a problem for Hungary's economy, so much so that the country has instituted a policy reportedly starting in 2020 where women who have at least four children will never have to pay income tax again.

SZIJJARTO: We want to support our own families instead of supporting migrants. You have not seen those 400,000 illegal migrants who marched through the country back in 2015. Thank you very much. We don't want them to stay in Hungary. We don't need...

KING: But they didn't want to stay either, and that was very well documented.

SZIJJARTO: Yeah, but now, you know, the European Union would like to apply obligatory resettlement quotas in the framework of which they want a couple thousand to be received in Hungary of those ones. But thank you very much. We don't want that, and we reject that, and we will never receive any kind of illegal migrants - any illegal migrants in Hungary until we are in office. So we are very proud...

KING: Let me make the economic argument...

SZIJJARTO: Sorry, we are very - we are really proud on our family policy. We are really proud that we support our families.

KING: And yet it will be 18 years before any of those children that you want to be born are able to go into the workforce. Many other countries have identified migrants as a solution to a problem.

SZIJJARTO: OK. I don't agree. I don't agree that migration would be the solution here. I simply don't agree. Because if you look at the western European countries, migration was not the solution. Migration created, as you call, parallel societies. They have not found any kind of answer to their labor market challenges. And I'm pretty sure that we are not going to find any kind or we would not find any kind of solutions.

KING: So, Joanna, obviously Hungary believes migrants are not good for Hungary.

KAKISSIS: In terms of the family policy, as you pointed out, the family policy is not going to produce Hungarian workers anytime soon. And it's been very hard for Hungary to lure Hungarians back to Hungary to work there. In terms of what's happening in the rest of Europe, yes, there are places like France where the integration policies have not been great. And so people have been kept out of the economy and working on the fringes of it. But in places like Germany, which took in hundreds of thousands of refugees just in 2015, they found jobs. I mean, a good percentage of them are working now or are in school. And they've learned the language, and it's working. You know, it's working one village, one town, one city, one city block at a time.

KING: You know, I asked Peter Szijjarto what Hungary's end game is here in Europe.

Many analysts look at Hungary as sort of a leader in being unwelcoming to migrants, calling them invaders, cracking down on the press, rejiggering the judiciary, rewriting the laws to suit them. Do you want to export what's happening in Hungary to other parts of Europe?

SZIJJARTO: Why should we? You know, we are a country which respects the sovereignty of other countries. We always respect the decisions of the citizens of other countries regarding their own country. And we expect others to respect the decisions of the Hungarians about the future of Hungary. So mutual respect - this is very important. Don't put pressure on the others and let them decide about their own future.

KING: Joanna, it sounds like Hungary doesn't seem to respect the values of the European Union.

KAKISSIS: No. I mean, this idea of, yeah, we get to do what we want because we're a sovereign nation, I mean, that's acceptable in the European Union to a certain extent. But the European Union is a partnership. There are values that it was founded on - promoting a free press, promoting fair elections, not introducing divisive rhetoric. So Hungary saying things like, no, we're nationalists, we're going to do what we want, and you have to respect what we say because this is all about what we want, that's just not going to fly in today's European Union.

KING: Joanna Kakissis, thanks so much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say that RFE/RL's move to Hungary is pending congressional approval. Congress has approved a "notification" that allows RFE/RL's governing body — the U.S. Agency for Global Media — to budget for reopening in the country. However, the news outlet has still not relaunched. Some procedural steps and negotiations with the Hungarian government are continuing.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.