Hungary: Threats To Liberty, Autonomy And Diversity In Education And Media

May 3, 2017 • Media and Politics, Recent • by


Hungary’s government has threatened to close Budapest’s Central European University. Is this part of a wider attack against intellectual freedom?

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has introduced new legislation that could lead to the closure of Budapest’s Central European University. Gabor Polyak, a media law and policy specialist at University of Pecs, Budapest, argues the move is part of an ongoing attack on intellectual freedom in the country:

It isn’t particularly difficult or far-fetched to see the parallels between the Hungarian government’s respective efforts to shut down Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), squeeze NGOs, and eliminate press freedom. Universities, NGOs and free media embody everything that Fidesz, the country’s ruling party, seems to hate and fear.

A few weeks ago one of my students asked me if universities in Hungary could continue to be free. It was a Media and Politics course, and that day’s topic was Hungarian political culture. I won’t pretend that at that point we did not temporarily diverge from the narrow scientific approach; it is not easy teaching media studies these days. And the student had asked a difficult question.

Before this question came up, we had in all probability discussed the sins of regime transition, and we had probably also touched on the friend-turned enemy of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister: media mogul and oligarch Lajos Simicska; as well as Orbán’s new favourite media adviser, Árpád Habony. These issues have a habit of creeping in.

University: liberty to disagree and agree

There were five of us in the room, four open-minded and active students and myself. We had excellent discussions in a great atmosphere. What is freedom, if not this very scenario? Yes, in the closed confines of the university one can speak freely; one can listen to the opinions of others; one can debate; and though one is definitely not compelled to do so, one can even agree with others.

I have never experienced any disadvantage – neither in my capacity as a university teacher nor as the representative of an NGO – despite sharing my opinions on Facebook, during interviews and at events. Even in the worst-case scenario, students are used to the fact that I’m a loud, outspoken type of person. Indeed, a university is the space where scientific thinking and worldviews are given free rein. It is the space of rational debate and great insights. That is one answer to the student’s question.

Funding cuts and a loss of autonomy

Yet there is another answer, too. It is that Hungarian higher education, as an institutional structure, lost its autonomy long ago. At every step on the way it opted for adaptation rather than resistance. If it received less state funding, then it bought less printing paper, scrapped the library upgrades, revoked travel grants, failed to refill the soap and paper towel dispensers in the washrooms, turned down the heating, merged departments and, if absolutely unavoidable, it laid off colleagues. Obviously, this was done at the expense of the quality of research and teaching. But the worst aspect, without a doubt, is that it learned to seek and accept the graces of those in power, and to be so immeasurably grateful for each morsel ultimately thrown its way. Funding unpredictability compels every institution to cut individual deals – and to compromise itself.

Then came the new “chancellery” system: chancellors are nominated by government to oversee all financial aspects of university management, thereby openly depriving higher education institutions of their financial autonomy. “Financial autonomy” is, of course, self-deception. How could one decide autonomously about the use of educational and research capacities when there is actually no money? Since the competencies of chancellors are not clearly circumscribed, there are typically continuous conflicts between the university presidents and the chancellors.

Parallel structures have emerged, obviously in the interest of improved financial management and higher savings. Yet, this, too, had not been decided without involving the universities. The university senates gave the government’s plan a smooth ride. I was there, I saw it – mine was the only vote against. Another university senate unanimously elected the governing party’s chief ideologue as the university’s president, and a candidate who had applied to be dean was unanimously rejected by colleagues when the minister let it be known through the university president that he did not agree with the appointment of that person.

Bit by bit, since 2010, universities have given up their autonomy and have gradually come to terms with the cutbacks and the humiliations. In the meanwhile, there is some bargaining going on in the background, and then there is an argument to legitimise all this: at least we survive. As a part of this system, how could I be mad at someone who has managed to secure my next annual salary?

But why did it never occur to universities to join forces and show some strength? If we had reacted forcefully the first time when we experienced the ravings of politics the whole country might face better prospects for the future.

In other words, the other response to my student’s question must be that universities are not free, they are not free at all. And that this owes to a significant extent to their own failures.

Whatever the outcome of the CEU case, the attack against it has made it clear that Fidesz can completely crush the entire higher education system any time it chooses. It has no interest in globally recognised, state of the art knowledge; independent opinion-formation and critical thinking are downright discouraged; and even the benefits that CEU brings to Hungary – including some that are readily measured in money – also appear unimportant to Fidesz.

New legislation: against diversity in higher education?

In reality, Fidesz appears to detest autonomy, and diversity even more so. It seems to loathe the two values that CEU –  and, under more fortuitous circumstances, higher education in general – stands for.  They can’t keep CEU on a leash and humiliate it in the same way that they do with state universities, so they need something far more brutal.

George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist who founded the CEU, only serves as an alibi in all this. He is just another one of the Fidesz-created demons, an untouchable and invisible enemy to whip up the passions of the governing party’s supporters. Fidesz’s communication depend on such demons. The heroic struggle against these demons is needed to legitimatize all flawed government acts.

Soros appears an ideal demon because he represents everything that Fidesz dislikes. But ultimately it’s just a label that can be attached to anything they see fit. That is why it’s a grave mistake – and an impermissible simplification – for Der Spiegel or The Guardian newspapers to refer to CEU as the “Soros university”.

CEU is to Hungarian higher education what Népszabadság, the country’s largest paper that closed last year amid claims of government pressure, was to the freedom of the press. A red line that we all thought the government could not and would not ever cross. We were wrong.

Another reason why this is an apt analogy is because it is equally hard to answer the question whether press freedom prevails in Hungary as the one asking whether universities are free. There are free journalists and free media outlets, and it’s not even rare for them to uncover government scandals. But press freedom is more than that. It’s a system whereby all viewpoints have an equal chance to reach the audience and each media outlet has an equal chance to compete in the market for advertisements, to buy distribution capacities and to access government information.

If, on the whole, the media operate under these conditions, then there is a chance the public will have access to decent information. Then there is a chance that public debates will reflect social diversity and citizens will be autonomous in making their political choices.

Liberty, diversity and autonomy fuel education and journalism. They are essential for a successful society. What future can there be for a society that gives up those values?

See also: “Media Pluralism and Democracy”, speech by Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of CEU, Nov 2016.

Picture credit: Dimitris Kamaras, Flickr Creative Commons licence

This post gives the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the position of the European Journalism Observatory.

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