On the surface, Hungary enjoys freedom of the press. There is a wide variety of newspapers that reflect different points of view from Nepszabadszag on the Left to Magyar Hirlap on the Right. There are some independent voices on the radio, including KlubRadio. The Internet is a veritable free-for-all displaying a full range of opinions.
But if you look a little deeper, this freedom of the press is actually quite limited. Most Hungarians – more than 70 percent – rely on television for their news, and the government maintains a lock on public television through a variety of complex mechanisms. Several private channels, including News TV and Echo TV, also hew close to the ruling Fidesz party. Only the cable station ATV maintains its independence. KlubRadio, meanwhile, overcame various challenges to renew its broadcast license in 2013, though it faces significant financial challenges and is down from 11 provincial stations to only one.
But journalist Balazs Nagy Navarro urges people to dig even deeper to understand how thoroughly the Hungarian media is compromised. The problems, for instance, didn’t begin with Fidesz taking power in 2010.
“The public media is always aligned with the government,” he told me in an interview last May. “It’s Left when the government is Left or Right when the government is Right. Now it’s changed completely. The media is now 80-90 percent controlled by the government and conservative, pro-business circles. Hungarian society is definitely not divided this way, 80 percent conservative and 20 percent leftist. But the biggest problem is that the access to information is very much controlled. It’s not just public media but also local media.”
I spoke with Nagy Navarro in the Budapest apartment he shares with his wife Julieta Nagy Navarro. But he spends much of his time camped outside the public media building in Obuda (which you can see in this short video). He’s been there for more than two years, protesting the government’s manipulations of the public media and his own shabby treatment by his employers. He kicked off the protest with a hunger strike in December 2011. Since then he has endured court challenges, attacks by security guards, and character defamation. And he has also garnered considerable coverage in the foreign press – though not so much in the domestic press – for his campaign. In 2012, he and his fellow journalist and trade unionist Aranka Szavuly won the Freedom and Future of the Media award in Germany.
Nagy Navarro has protested against government control of the media during the current Fidesz era but also during the previous rule by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. “If this is a democratic society and I’m against corruption and I see corruption in my workplace, I will say something,” he said. “If someone is trying to influence the public media, I will say something. I put my opinion on the noticeboard of the newsroom so that everyone can see. The government tried to place their own inept people in the media, and I pointed this out. I started my career in journalism after the changes. I wanted this to be a free and democratic country where we do free and objective reporting, not because these are the rules but because this is what we want.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
My first memory of the Berlin Wall was when I was six years old. It was just not comprehensible. You’d be going along this street and then suddenly there was this wall right in the middle of it and you couldn’t go to the other side. My parents tried to explain it to me. But even as a kid it just seemed wrong. It was the same thing as with 1956 –people just didn’t talk about it.
I was in Moscow in the autumn of 1989. The fall of the Wall was for me at the time not such a big surprise. Many things had already happened, some of them in Hungary. It seems that whenever these dramatic things happen in the world, I am abroad. In 1989, it was the first time I went to Japan, via Russia and Nakhodka. When Hungary opened the border for East Germans, which was the first big step for reunification, the Japanese news was full of Hungary, with people going across this smaller wall of barbed wire. At that time, things were happening very quickly, one after another. When I was in the Soviet Union, you could see internal changes in Russia as well, with Gorbachev and perestroika. We felt that it was inevitable, and the Soviets didn’t want to stop any of this. They didn’t have the power to do so.
For me, the whole change started when Brezhnev died, and there was the old Communist-style military ceremony to bid farewell to him. And then there was this quick succession of Soviet leaders — usually they hung around for a long time — but Andropov and Chernenko didn’t. They looked old and ill. And then came Gorbachev. The first time I was in Soviet Union was in 1986, during the Gorbachev period. For me it was eye opening. In this country that pretended to be number one, people were still queuing for basic food in Moscow, which was supposed to be the best place in the country. So you could feel that people were not happy and the country wouldn’t last for long. But we didn’t know for how long.
It must have been surprising to go from Budapest to Moscow, the imperial center, and discover that things in Hungary were much better. That was my experience in 1985, when I spent a month in Hungary in the spring and then six weeks in Moscow in the summer. For me the comparison was dramatic.
Yes, it was dramatic. Hungary was considered the best in the bloc at the time. It wasn’t something we said about ourselves necessarily, but it was something I felt when I visited the Soviet Union. As students from Hungary, we were considered almost from the West. The ideological teachers pointed at us as the ones who betrayed socialism, that we were the reason that the Communist bloc was facing such problems. You could see that they lacked such basic things like eggs, butter, and meat in the normal shops. People were queuing for everything in Moscow, sometimes not because they needed the things then but because you never knew when the item might be back in the shops again.
We had friends from the Soviet Union who came here to Hungary and started queuing here. “You don’t have to queue here,” we said.
“But how do you know that tomorrow you will have the same shoes?”they asked.
I felt sorry for the Soviets. Forty years after the war and the government was pretending that everything was okay, and yet they didn’t even approach the level of Hungary, not to mention Western countries. For me it was such a puzzle how the country could produce sophisticated technology like missiles but still had problems with the basic economy.
Did it cause any shift in your political thinking?
Well, I always have questions about politics. For my wife, the perspective was different, coming from Latin America. She asks about socialism here, because they had a different view. We didn’t take free education as such a big benefit; we took it as granted. Now I know under capitalism that it’s important. But here they say it is a country run by workers, it was obviously a lie. I wasn’t against the regime, but I felt that it wasn’t true. If you went around the city you could see some people close to power living in beautiful places and others were not. There were already contradictions in the system.
I was not involved in anti-government activities, though at university I set up the first Hungarian non-official journalist student union. Then it turned out that we were under surveillance by the KGB and the Hungarian secret service. So even if it was non-political, they took it as a danger. This was in 1987-88, right after Hungary adopted a new law on freedom of assembly. You felt it as well in Moscow — if things were changing there, then things had to be changing in the satellites. In Russia, it felt like things were changing everyday. One day, they’d talk about Trotsky as a bad guy and then the next day he was a hero.
With this journalist association, we invited young students of journalism from other countries. I brought them on a visit to the last Communist Hungarian parliament. They went to the parliament not properly dressed: with t-shirts and shorts. Special guards accompanied them for two minutes to see the assembly hall and then they had to leave. I told the guard, almost as a joke, “Now it’s much easier to see the Soviet Supreme Assembly during this Gorbachev period than to visit the parliament here.”
In Hungary, we didn’t have such big opposition rallies. The changes were negotiated between the opposition and the Communists, who also played their parts. In Russia, there was the return of the extremists from the older period, and they appeared also on the street. At that time, it seemed like Russia was more interesting, because there were more things going on.
I left Hungary several times because of the so-called media war. For instance, we lived in Japan. Officially Japan is capitalist. But compared to the Soviet Union and Hungary, Japan was the most socialist country I’ve ever seen. They take care of people. And around 90 percent of the people were more or less at the same economic level. That’s what the Communist governments were preaching, and that’s what Japan achieved. Also, I never saw so many Marxist professors. I went to a state university in Japan, one of the best, and many of the professors considered themselves Marxists. Of course, they didn’t support the Soviet type of Communism. They supported the “real Marxism.”
I started to work in public TV, which was central to the media war. I started as a trainee in 1990. Then I went to Japan again in 1997 and came back in 1999. My situation was very special. I was fired twice. In the first case, which is still in the courts regarding the material claims, I got my job back and lost it again. This second time, I was fired after my hunger strike.
The media landscape hasn’t really changed very much. It’s basically the same problems as the 1990s. The biggest switch was at the end of the 1980s, when the liberal media became the majority. The conservative media was very small. The public media is always aligned with the government. It’s Left when the government is Left or Right when the government is Right. Now it’s changed completely. The media is now 80-90 percent controlled by the government and conservative, pro-business circles. Hungarian society is definitely not divided this way, 80 percent conservative and 20 percent leftist. But the biggest problem is that the access to information is very much controlled. It’s not just public media but also local media.
Tell me about the first time you were fired.
It was in December 2005. To be brief, I was seen as a troublemaker by my bosses, and not just as a journalist. If this is a democratic society and I’m against corruption and I see corruption in my workplace, I will say something. If someone is trying to influence the public media, I will say something. I put my opinion on the noticeboard of the newsroom so that everyone can see. The government tried to place their own inept people in the media, and I pointed this out. I started my career in journalism after the changes. I wanted this to be a free and democratic country where we do free and objective reporting, not because these are the rules but because this is what we want. Nobody ever said in response that we should tell lies. They didn’t confront me like that. They simply started to make an uncomfortable situation by not raising my salary and no longer sending me abroad as I used to. After five years, I was making the same salary, which was less than my trainees and subeditors. And of course their message was: you can say what you want, but this is the result.
I took them to court on equal work, equal pay. I said, “Even if you don’t like my face and not even taking into consideration my experience, you should pay me at least the same as my coworkers.”It was quite an unprecedented lawsuit. Before the first level trial, they should have paid me five years of damages and raised my salary more than 100 percent. But three days before the verdict, they fired me. The said, “We’ve got one too many foreign news editors in the newsroom and by chance it’s you. It has nothing to do with the lawsuit.”
Three days later, I won my original lawsuit on equal work equal pay at the first level. The verdict said that I had been discriminated against for five years because of my opinion. They appealed, of course, so there were two lawsuits going on at the same time — on the discrimination and the second on the illegal firing that itself was a retaliation.
That was in 2005, and the dismissal case is still going on concerning damages. The discrimination lawsuit went up to the Supreme Court. I won at all levels. Finally, in 2013, the court also declared in the other lawsuit that the employer’s actions to fire me were illegal and discriminatory. In addition to the damages, the court ordered the public television station to pay the difference between what the salaries are today and what they were in 2005. This verdict was upheld in court but the judges at the second level cut the sum. So I took it to the Supreme Court, and now we are waiting. It’s also interesting that while at the first level my judges were always different, at second level at the Budapest Capital court I always got the same council, and they upheld the decisions but always tried to cut back on damages.
When the verdict was upheld the first time, back in 2009, I got my job back. But I couldn’t work until the elections were finished, so I started working again in October 2010. The first time I was fired it was during the Socialist-Liberal government. So, today, pro-government people sometimes ask me, “What were you doing when the Socialist-Liberal government was doing the same things as the Fidesz government?”
I say, “I’m sorry but I was saying the same things. I pointed out wrong things, and I was fired. And later when I did the same under a different government, I was fired again.” This is one of the reasons that I fought and won the cases.
This is also why I was invited to start an independent trade union, the Independent Union of Film and Television Makers. That started my second troublemaking period. Setting up this union has been part of my continual fight for workers’ rights in the public media, which has included a fight against the current government and its attempt to control the public media. The last stage was this hunger strike. I started it on December 10, 2011.
The official reason for the second firing, which they hid from the public statements but which became known in the trial process, was that I went to a political protest and said, “In 1989 a young guy was brave enough to say that the Russians should leave this country. We should now say that this guy, Viktor Orban, should leave this country for the benefit of Hungarians.” They had a transcript of this speech, and now this is my crime. According to the law, however, this is not a crime, since we have freedom of speech. In reality, my crime is my trade union work and staging the hunger strike because of news manipulation in the public media — in other words, challenging the government policy. But of course they didn’t say this when I was fired.
At this time, after finishing the hunger strike but continuing the protest, we created a “Clean Hands”movement, and our movement was at its peak with 5-10,000 people. At that time, my employer didn’t want to say that I was fired for political reasons, so they said it was for different reasons. But I’d expected that sooner or later they would do it.
The hunger strike lasted for how long?
For me it was 22 days. We didn’t take solid foods, just liquids like water, tea, and juice. It wasn’t like Gandhi, but still it was 22 days. When we launched the Clean Hands movement in front of the parliament building, I declared that I would finish the hunger strike. Many people joined at the beginning, and it lasted for two to three weeks. There were also solidarity strikes after I finished for 1-2 days. And from the start of the hunger strike there have been protests in front of the public media building. There’s been almost a total blackout in the Hungarian media about this. People don’t know that we started this hunger strike, who started it, or that the protests are still going on. More people on the outside of Hungary know about it. Last week I did an interview with Al-Jazeera English. It’s not true that just government control is the problem with the media. It’s a much deeper problem with how the media works. If the political elite and the business elite are corrupt, the media elite is corrupt in the same way. The so-called oppositional media is small, weak, and also selective along party and ideological lines.
For the camp in front of the public media building, do you have specific demands?
It started when the image of the former head of the Supreme Court was blurred out in public news. It turned out that this had been on the instruction of the head of the news who said, “I just don’t want this guy seen on my television.” We asked for those responsible for this to be disciplined or fired. They were basically manipulating the news and telling open lies. This was not soft manipulation, but direct manipulation. The reporters, out of fear or who knows what kind of loyalty, just followed the orders. We put out six names of those responsible. Two of the six left. One real bad guy, the mastermind of the manipulation, was fired on the sixth day of the hunger strike. Another left on his own. The rest are still there, heading the news departments and continuing the manipulation.
If the other four people leave, would that be a victory?
I don’t see victory for these people just to be fired. This is only the first step. We need to change the system so that this kind of thing can never happen again. Instead of undertaking an investigation, the CEO of the company started a campaign against us. He took me to court for defamation. Now I have three court cases against me initiated by him, three of which he has already lost. It is unbelievable but the company even initiated a criminal process against me, asking for a one-year suspended prison sentence for my supposedly defamatory remarks. But I had been acquitted at the first level, and at the second level they rejected their claims as totally unfounded. So it is now my turn to sue them for false accusation. They accused me of spreading lies that peaceful protesters were attacked in November 2012, even though these facts have been proven. But the importance of this is the chilling effect. The message for everyone is that if you speak out, if you protest, we cannot only fire you regardless of your trade union protection but we can also intimidate you with the threat of a prison sentence.
We have a very hierarchical system in the public media. The CEO of the public media system is appointed by the head of the media council, which created this new media law. This council is supposed to be just a supervisory body. And it’s supposed to be independent. But how can it be independent when it appoints the CEO of this company, and the head of the media council is basically picked up by the prime minister.
How long will you maintain this action then?
Some people say, “You should stay here, Balazs, until the government falls.”But then how long do they want me to stay, because in 2014 things won’t change. So that means 2018. But even if there is a change in government in 2014, I’m sorry to say that I would have many reasons to stay. I don’t expect that the government-controlled public media landscape would change from one day to another. I don’t know when I can finish the protest and how.
It’s difficult to explain to people that it’s not just about to change the government and get rid of Orban. That would be necessary. But it wouldn’t really change the picture. Even if we had a different government that was more suitable for the EU, that didn’t create such dramatic scandals, that wasn’t so nationalist, the basic system wouldn’t be so different. You have to have a change in the entire mindset of people. You need tens of thousands of people outside of parliament, and then they can’t ignore you. We have these so-called democratic systems now –in Russia, in Hungary. But so much of it hasn’t changed. They are even using the same agents.
We were also attacked physically by private security contractors. It was in December 2011 when we started the hunger strike. After two or three weeks, they started using harder techniques against us. They started to use Guantanamo style of torture. They put up sound boxes and played these two songs over and over, 24 hours, for seven days. They used reflectors in front of the building so that we couldn’t sleep. That’s why I call it Guantanamo style. Then they tried to put up fences to keep us away. But some of our supporters among the opposition parliamentary members pulled down the fences.
There was a silent period until November 2, 2012. Then they attacked just three weeks after I got the Freedom and the Future of the Media Prize with my colleague in Germany. We were celebrated there and were even received, with our freedom of media petition, at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office just one hour before Orban officially talked with her. That was too much for them. That was the time when the company got the green light to get rid of us. They evicted two activists from the camp and started to build a 30-meter-high glass security wall in order to keep us out. We settled down at the other entrance of the company complex. The second attack came on November 19.
It was around the time when former premier Gyurcsany’s party organized a human chain around the parliament against voter registration legislation that was abolished later by the constitutional court. They took advantage of the fact that there were fewer people in our camp. They set up heavy mobile fences and containers this time to blur us out from the view of the public. We started to protest in the middle of the street as the local police overlooked the attack and did not prevent the repeated aggression against peaceful protestors. To make it worse, the police removed us from the street upon instructions three weeks later, and three of us were even detained for seven hours. These moves were later ruled illegal and unconstitutional by the court. On December 20, there was another attack. Now again it’s a silent period. Various investigations into these attacks are going on. But the prosecutor’s office has already said on one of the cases that no crime was committed. The prosecutor’s office has never listened to us. So we don’t have big expectations around that. But we have also had three rulings by the court saying that we have the right to freedom of assembly and our rights were seriously violated by the police.
Is it mostly journalists who have joined you?
At the beginning when I started, a colleague joined me. He was a vice-president of the same trade union, and we were both later fired for the same reason. Five or six other colleagues also participated. Later, we were joined by people from civil society: pensioners, workers, teachers, doctors, engineers. Now, basically, it’s almost everybody except journalists. Many people came from the countryside to support us and brought food and blankets. There have been caravans of support. They were very upset that there were very few media workers in general. It’s sad. As a trade union, we were fighting for the jobs of these people. They say that they are afraid of losing their jobs, which is understandable. In the public media sector, 25 percent has been fired over the last 2 years. The public media sector had about 4,000 people, and now it’s down to 3,000. So, where are those 1,000 people? That tells you a story.
So many social groups have been hurt, from firefighters to doctors and teachers. But you don’t see huge protests against the government. There’s no solidarity. People try to manage their problems by themselves. They just try to survive.
Have you gotten support from other trade unions?
A bit at the beginning. Over all, there are 15 trade unions just in the public media field. It’s very fragmented, and not just politically. Four or five of the unions supported us, mostly by words. We’ve also gotten support from other movements, like Solidarity. The rail workers trade union gave us a tent. I was also one of the presenters when the Solidarity movement was created. So, the unions are not against us, but we haven’t gotten a lot of support.
Everyone I’ve talked to has complained about the media law and the firing of people. The issue is not forgotten.
Everyone is complaining about the public media law, but I haven’t seen them in front of the public media building, not even the journalists. Sometimes listeners to talk shows ask the journalists why they are not there. They’ll say, “We think we can give much more support if we are in front of the microphone and on TV.”But they don’t do much.
Especially those I would call big mouths: they write tough articles, make harsh comments in liberal circles, but when it is time to show up they are just never there. These are the brave ones who don’t risk anything real .
When you think about the media, many things have happened that are not as a result of the law. The creation of the public media company is not in the law. Such everyday practices as firing 1,000 people is not in the law. We have two public TV stations, one radio station, and one press agency. They’ve become like skeletons. Each one employs fewer than 50 people, including the CEO. Why fewer than 50? According to the regulations, if there are more than 50 people, they can elect a workers’ council that has certain management rights. The government also created a new entity: the media service supporting and financial assets managing fund called MTVA. That is where 90 percent of the public media workers are employed. And this is where the production is taking place. This is where the real power and money is. And the CEO is appointed directly by the media council head, who is appointed by the prime minister. So there’s a very direct link. What’s more, the MTVA is officially not the public media service provider, so it doesn’t have editorial responsibilities or really any responsibilities .
Aside from the law, there are many more problems. For the last two or three years, the government has been trying to take away the license from KlubRadio, which is a pro-leftist radio. That’s been presented as the only case of Hungarian media workers fighting for their freedom of speech, which is not true. It’s an enterprise of a private businessman who got a lot of money from government advertising when it was a pro-leftist government. Then came the conservative government and no more advertising. Why is it possible for governments to make these decisions? Everyone tacitly accepts that this is the way. But this time the Orban government went too far. They basically wanted not just to suffocate the radio by stopping state-funded ads but basically remove it from the air, a battle they finally lost in the courts.
Before my second firing, I organized a small protest in front of the public media building with a coffin protesting massive firing in the public media after the new media law. We asked people to bring candles and flowers, and then we put public media into the coffin. The CEO of the station was very upset. He started negotiations and made some deals. Then the most pro-Fidesz union and the most pro-left union heads came together to bow in front of the CEO calling for compromise and saying that I was the bad guy. In trade union politics, what you expect from the outside is not what happens on the inside. They’ve learned that it’s important to be loyal to the existing political formations.
Are other parties like LMP sympathetic to this struggle?
LMP — Politics Can Be Different — proved that politics can’t be different, at least not the way as they tried. The leader of LMP was also in one of those human rights NGOs, and he helped me out on one of my old court cases. Actually he lost. Since then I have represented myself, which has so far proved more successful. LMP could have created something good. There was a need. The two big parties created after the change of system, the liberals and conservatives, were both voted out of parliament. This was a clear signal from Hungarian society that people were not happy with the changes. It’s not really analyzed that these two parties, which made the changes of the 1990s, simply disappeared. Many pro-liberals from SzDSz and the Greens decided to support this new LMP. But it couldn’t decide to be a Green party — people here are not really concerned about environmental politics — or a Left party.
Now the split in LMP could mean the end of its career. I think they chose the bad option. With this separation, both parts have seriously damaged themselves, although certain persons in the party will have a future. For many people, this just confirms their belief that politics can’t be different, that there is just Left and Right, and with the split, you have to choose for or against Orban. Maybe there will be new developments, but I don’t really see them emerge.
We met someone who left her parliamentary mandate for LMP. We were protesting, and she supported our action. She liked the idea of trying to really change things, by putting up tents and demanding real changes. She felt that she wasn’t able to do anything like that inside parliament. Also her party was not doing what it was supposed to do. I understand that situation. It’s easy to give advice. But even if you are small, there are things that you can do that are real and gain notice. You do what you believe and people will get the message.
Can you explain the Clean Hands campaign?
It started with this protest and the hunger strike in front of the public media building. As days passed, more people from different parts of society came who didn’t have anything to do with the media. But somehow they felt that it was important to support me and my colleagues. And they started to talk about other problems, such as basic freedoms and democratic rights. We felt that there were a few common things besides the media that we could agree on: that basic democratic values were endangered by government actions. We felt that we should say something about this.
The name comes from the movement in Italy against political corruption. Both countries are entrenched in corruption to an almost unbearable degree. Of course our movement is different. It’s not initiated and managed by independent judges picking a fight against criminal and political gangsters. But even though we don’t have the Mafia here, we do have the total corruption of everyday life. A change in government will not change this. We issued a call to all those who support us around the freedom of media, the defense of constitutional and democratic rights, and the fight against political and business corruption. These are the three pillars. Our first meeting was in front of parliament on the last day of December. There was almost no media presence. But there were 5-10,000 people. The last day of the year is Silvester, which is a time for parties. We were very happy that so many people showed up. Important people gave speeches, like Tamas Gaspar Miklos. We took an oath to defend these basic issues. That’s how it started.
After that moment, which was the peak of the protest, it turned out that people thought differently about why we were doing this. We had lots of pressure from different sides to join political parties. But the big call had nothing to do with the different political parties. These three issues cannot be the privilege of any political side. They should be a common objective. But some people were upset that we didn’t join a particular political movement. I started to experience some attacks from behind. For instance, we accepted to join a protest of all democratic forces just a few days after we formed our movement. I was supposed to be one of the official speakers. They never officially took off my name but I didn’t end up speaking. Someone told me that they took off my name because of this question of political parties. You start something with good ideas, but if you don’t fit into the political setting, they simply try to suffocate you. As I said, we had hundreds of interviews with the foreign press — with BBC, Reuters–but very few on domestic media. Even the pro-opposition media has its own rules. Some people told me that my protest in front of the public media building is not only upsetting for the government but also for some people on our side because it makes people feel guilty.
The crowd phase of the Clean Hands movement is over. We have an active Facebook group. If we do an activity, the information goes out to 4-5,000 people. In one district of Budapest, for instance, there’s a clinic that the local government, which is also pro-Fidesz, wanted to close for no real reason. They just wanted to get their hands on the property. First there was a civic protest, and we were invited. Again it was an unpleasant situation. Clean Hands was invited to speak out as well. Then when I got to the stage, there was a scuffle. It turned out that the local Socialist party branch didn’t want me to speak. The organizers were a little nervous that our appearance would attract too much attention. Finally they let me speak, and one week later we did our more successful protest in front of the clinic. We decided to show up at assembly meetings of the local government.
At the end, the local government withdrew their decision because of too much political backlash. It was a very local affair, and people got involved who had nothing to do with media. But we could show that it was very important to stand up for the rights, that the government just can’t close a clinic for no good reason. Even if we are not numerous, we are creative. We have placards that draw the attention of the media. Sometimes the organizers are not happy that we are stealing the show, according to them. That is not our aim, but sometimes it is just unbelievable that some organizations stage protests without even banners and slogans. How can they tell people what they want and how can they mobilize people for their cause when they are not able even to articulate it?
The media law upsets some people. But everyone seems upset by corruption. A movement based on anti-corruption could be big. But as you said, both major parties have also been implicated in major corruption scandals, which makes it difficult to launch such a campaign.
Precisely. At the birth of this organization, which was just skinheads, the opposition got worried. That’s why I was immediately attacked in their intellectual circles. The message I got was the same that LMP got when Gordon Bajnai appeared: “Okay, you did your thing, now give way to us. Balazs it was enough, don’t overdo it.” Now, this is the big decision for us, for me. The media law and media freedom is a campaign for the very few. You can’t really move people with this. They don’t get the message, even though it’s very important and they should. But with corruption they get the message. The core countries are deeply involved in this. The average guy, the taxi driver: everyone is part of this system. Yes, anti-corruption should be the focus. But if you do it openly, it’s like a crusade. Without media, without support, it would be very difficult. Somebody should do this, but I have the feeling that I’m going against the tide. It’s necessary to make some alliance. But how can I make an alliance with a party I know is corrupt, whose second tier of people is the same as before?
Four years ago, that’s how people felt about the previous government. That’s why most people remain undecided today. They know that the current government is stealing very openly. But the other side did the same. You can argue who is the bigger thief, but they both engaged in theft. And if it’s happening on top, then it goes all the way through. People say, “If those at the top are robbing with their own hands, why shouldn’t I do the same?” I should do something. The clock is ticking.
The clock is ticking in terms of the next elections?
Yes, the next election. We already saw that it’s limited what civic movements can do. With everything you need money. Money is important, but it’s not the most important. More important is how to get people involved and active. Most of our supporters are over 40 and 50, the same people who experienced what happened 20-30 years ago, and they know how hard a struggle it is. But to be successful you need the young generation too. And those young people I’d like to get involved say that they don’t have any hope in this country. “I don’t want to lose 10 years fighting with you,”they tell me. “I prefer to go to the UK, the United States, Austria.” But if this is what the capable people are saying, what can you expect from the others?
This is not an issue for one year. It’s long term. I wish I’d been younger when I started. If I were in my twenties or thirties, I would be able to see the fruits in my forties or fifties. I should have set up the Clean Hands movement 20 years ago and found people to count on. If it’s a good structure, people can keep it going. Instead of putting notices on the notice board or speaking out against my bosses, I should have done this. Maybe if I had done this 20 years ago, I could have made a difference.
If you were to go back to 1991 and you had a chance to do anything differently in terms of your activism or your journalism, what would you have done anything differently?
I wouldn’t have become a journalist. You couldn’t be a journalist in public media here without being loyal to government or corporate interests. And I couldn’t do that. It’s not a good moment when journalists don’t think they can be real journalists any more in Hungary. In other countries like Mexico, journalists are taking risks that can get them killed. Here, you just get fired, and no one, relatively speaking, cares.
Probably I should have gone into politics to try to make a change. Even though I might be a good politician, now I think it’s too late. I couldn’t be a good martyr, some would say, since I stopped the hunger strike after 22 days. I am exaggerating of course but I heard opinions like this. I wanted to be involved and make changes back then, not in politics exactly. I was fighting, but I should have fought much more. I was a lonely fighter. I fought against injustice and people respected it, but I was still a lonely fighter. That’s why I was happy to be invited into the larger movement to make changes.
Where does the camp take place?
It’s in Obuda. That’s why not so many people show up. It’s an industrial area about 10 minutes from here where the studios are. There’s nothing else there, just industrial facilities.
Had you considered choosing a target that was more centrally located?
Yes. During the first weeks, we thought that we should go somewhere close to parliament. But actually I had doubts. People making this suggestion had not been in protest movements. I’d been involved in protests outside parliament, and they were totally ignored. Now you can’t do it there with all the construction going on around the parliament, which I think is designed to prevent protests.
In 2006, the protest movement had the numbers. Even after 20 days, they had hundreds of people. If you don’t have the numbers, if you have only four protestors, people will say that it’s totally insignificant. And after 500 days, even if you had numbers at the beginning, you don’t have them any more. So, the location is part of the problem, but it’s not the biggest.
Those intellectuals who are preaching about the media law, how many times have they gone out to Obuda? The area has 80 percent of the liberal, pro-left media in the region — Index, KlubRadio, Nepszabadsag, HVG, 168 Óra. But these journalists have visited only twice or three times. Now, when there is no news, people don’t go there. If the pro-left media came two times a month, it would be a great education for the people. The pro-right, pro-government media decided simply to ignore us. Even if they said how bad we are, they’d still have to explain the story in a few words, and then people would know something was going on.
But it’s a symbolic location because this is where the public media is located. The building has two front entrances. And they are very upset because the two entrances are still closed. We have the caravan and two or three supporters there every hour, and they still have to close the main entrances and use a different entrance. Even if it’s still a small presence, for them it’s still very disturbing.
What is your day like there?
There’s a caravan. There’s a tent. There’s a notice board with demands, and the number of days we’ve been there. There are hands — some destroyed by the security guards, with slogans on them. We have the EU flag and Hungarian flags with the hole in it, like 1956, so that they can’t put us in a Left-Right frame. These national symbols belong to everyone and not any particular party.
Security guards on the other side of the street are watching us 24 hours a day. Before, there were events. We’re planning to use the space for more public lectures, but the problem is whether people will come. Some people come from 200 kilometers away. If they don’t find me there, they are upset. So I try to be there as much as possible. Sometimes it’s very boring. Some people will tell me that they were scared to come there because they work for a public company or because their daughter works at a public company. It’s not a normal situation. We should be there as a sign that this is not a normal situation and we should not accept it.
With the Clean Hands movement, our plan is to create alternative media — like the samizdat of the 1970s. We made live broadcasts from student protests that attracted 5-10,000 viewers. If we had money, this is what we should do: go to places with small cameras and broadcast on the Internet. But people in the countryside just watch public TV and listen to radio.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Budapest, May 13, 2013