By Elizabeth Harris


Flag of Hungary

I. Introduction

In the 2016 Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index,” Hungary was ranked 67 out of 180 countries, with 1 being the best and 180 being the worst. The country has been on a decline in freedom of speech since 2010 when Viktor Orban came into power as prime minister of Hungary and has since waged an underhanded war on private media outlets that publicly criticize the government. Hungary is a landlocked country located between Western Europe and the Balkan Peninsula and is bordered by Austria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.[1] Hungary’s current government uses the framework of a parliamentary representative democratic republic,  a form of government inspired by the United States and the major European countries. There are three branches of the government, the legislative (parliament), the executive (the government), and the judiciary (the courts). The government is primarily composed of the president and the prime minister, who is the head of the government. The two main jobs of the prime minister of Hungary are to guide government policies and to chair cabinet meetings to ensure the implementation of government decisions. There is a great deal of responsibility and controversy involved with the position since the prime minister and the President have a great deal of the power to determine how much freedom the press is granted as well as freedom of speech, even in a democratic state.


II. Historical Background

In the 19th century Hungary was invaded by Francis Joseph and taken under Austrian rule and Francis Joseph assumed the role of Emperor of Hungary. Coming under absolutist rule created conflict between Hungary’s many different nationalities and ethnicities which created and fueled bloody conflict throughout the 19th century. [2] The Compromise of 1876 created a Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in which “Hungary received its long-coveted autonomy; from now on it would share only foreign affairs, defense, and common customs and revenue policies with the Austrian half of the Habsburg state.”[3] However this autonomy was hindered with Hungary’s involvement in  World War I which proved devastating to Hungary both economically and in terms the lives of Hungarian citizens lost. However, no other event in history has affected Hungary directly to a greater extent than its involvement in World War II. In order to gain land Hungary had previously lost, Hungary’s leaders perceived creating friendships with Italy and Germany as their best chance at arbitrating and renegotiating the treaty that did so, the Treaty of Trianon. The treaty was revised in parts in 1938 and 1940. In return for further revisions to the treaty throughout time, Hitler demanded Hungary provide economic and military concessions to Nazi Germany.

While they tried to maintain a neutral stance in the war, Hungary’s involvement in Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Russia solidified their status in the Axis alliance.[4] World War II was even more devastating to Hungary than World War I, resulting in the death of over 350,000 Hungarian soldiers, hundreds of thousands of soldiers falling into Soviet captivity, full force destruction on Hungarian soil, and hundreds of thousands of casualties as the result of bombings from the Allied forces.[5] In 1941, with coercion from Nazi Germany, Hungary declared war on the USSR, although their military was promptly defeated by the Soviets which made Hungary turn to Hitler for military protection. In return, Hungary agreed to persecute Hungarian Jews, something they had fought against within their involvement in the war. With the increased pressure on Hitler by the Allied forces and further gradual occupation of Soviet troops in Hungary, Stalin and the Soviets moved in to invade Hungary as to expand the Soviet Union’s communist empire. Soviet troops liberated the bulk of Hungary from German rule in 1945. [6]

Joseph Stalin was a general secretary of the Communist Party of Russia and later of the Soviet Union. In 1945 Stalin and the “Soviet Red Army” had begun their communist takeover of Hungary in a series of three meetings that took place at the Soviet capital. One of the meetings included the gathering of exiled Hungarian communists who were known as “Muscovites,” members of the international communist movement, to define the role of communism in postwar Hungary and to assume important positions in Hungary’s new government. [7] Stalin established authority and intimidation by using “Stalinist show trials” which were trials that tried and executed tens of thousands of innocent people, those who outwardly supported democracy and communism alike.  Stalin’s reign of terror lasted until his death on March 1953, at which point totalitarian rule softened a bit.

The Hungarian Revolution occurred in 1956 which was unsuccessful and led to more constraints on free speech rights by the Stalinist government.  In 1980 the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, which held a bulk of political power after Stalin’s death, lost a majority of its support amidst the demand from the public for political change. In 1989, Hungary went through yet another transition and the political institutions of the new parliamentary democracy were created which was the result of negotiations between the state party and the democratic opposition. At this point, Hungary opened its western borders, transitioned to a market economy, and restored private property ownership.[8] A parliamentary democracy is a democratic form of government “in which the party (or a coalition of parties) with the greatest representation in the parliament (legislature) forms the government, its leader becoming the prime minister or chancellor. Executive functions are exercised by members of the parliament appointed by the prime minister to the cabinet.”[9]

The late 1990s was a period of multiple attempts to restore the economic and political balance in Hungary, resulting in membership in the Council of Europe, the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Hungary also applied to be in the European Union, which has played a major role in legislation. As stated by Coulby and Cowen: “The adaption to European norms, and more recently the gradual adoption of the acquis communautaire of the European Union, has been carried out by every government coalition since 1990, irrespective of the political orientation of the constituting parties.”[10] In 1998, Viktor Orban was elected prime minister of Hungary for the first time, which lasted until 2002, and this period marked a new era in Hungary’s history as the Fidesz party came into power under Orban.[11] Fidesz is short for Fiatal Demokratak Szovetsege, which means Alliance of Young Democrats,  and is a powerful national conservative political party that emerged in 1988 as an anticommunist group. The party lobbied for the development of a market economy and integration into the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004.[12] The Fidesz was ousted in 2008; however, in 2010, it regained support and Orban was re-elected to serve as prime minister yet again, and has since 2010 to the present.

III. Free Speech

As one would reasonably imagine by having general knowledge of the terrors brought on by Nazi Germany, in this time those of Jewish descent and other minority groups were the main target of oppression and violence in Europe at the time of World War II. In Hungary, this oppression was concentrated given that Hungary was one of Germany’s main allies in the Axis forces. In 1942, Germany exerted pressure on Hungary to deliver Jews who were Hungarian citizens to German custody, however Hungary’s prime minister Miklos Kallay refused to do so until Nazi Germany invaded and gained occupation of Hungary in 1944. [13] The majority of the oppression Hungarian Jews encountered came in 1944, in which 133 Jewish journalists were excluded from the Press Chamber (the official Hungarian association of journalists) and 280 Jewish lawyers were put on a list labeled as being “unreliable Jews” and had their law practice licenses revoked. [14] Revoking both the Jewish law professionals’ ability to speak out and the journalists’ ability to be published created an atmosphere in which the injustices the Jews were facing condemned them to absolute silence and oppression. Reprimanding Jews became a social norm and any citizen to speak out against this practice was shunned and faced the threat of police persecution. This labeling and revocation of the little amount of public voice the Jews preciously had was detrimental to the Jewish race’s survival in Hungary, and this lack of freedom of the press established by Nazi Germany aided in the termination of approximately 800,000 Hungarian Jews by taking away their voice.

Freedom of speech decreased even more with the introduction of the Stalin Era in 1949 in which any form of free speech was regarded to be dangerous. On the topic of one of the most oppressive periods in Hungarian history, the Stalin era (1949-1953), Sugar states: “it [fear] also affected the way acquaintances avoided each other, the way friends discussed only apolitical topics, the way parents feared to reveal their private beliefs to their own children. Precisely because it was impossible to find out why one’s relative, friend, or neighbor disappeared from one day to the next…”[15] The main idea was if citizens were not outwardly and publicly supportive of the regime, then they were against it and should be treated as an enemy. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the reign of terror softened a bit, though did not end. One of the main signs of political change was the recommitment of individual citizens to freedom of expression, both through speech and the press, as well as the right to speak out against an oppressive government. One of the most influential illustrations of this change took place in 1956 with the creation of the Petofi Club:

“The unity of the opposition and impotence of the regime was even more in evidence in the summer and fall of 1956…the intellectuals joined university students in forming the Petofi Club…which held irregular meetings for discussion and debate. The topics varied from the state of philosophy to the role of the judiciary, and more. The widow of Laszlo Rajk (a politician killed in the Stalinist show trials) spoke up at one of the sessions, calling for the purification of the ideals of socialism in Hungary and adding that it would not be achieved as long as the “murderers of my husband occupy ministerial seats.”” [16]

However, while public calls for freedom of expression surfaced throughout the country, not much action was taken while Hungary remained under socialist control.

The main change in freedom of speech came in 1989 when Hungary went through the process of adopting a democratic form of government. In a country report on democracy in Hungary, historian Gabriel states, “The most significant increase in Hungarian democracy is from 1989-1990…This represents the introduction of electoral competition and civil society engagement, increased freedom of expression, and limited executive power.”[17] At this time speech in Hungary was the highest in terms of freedom it had been in decades. An article written by Andras Bozoki, a Hungarian sociologist and politician who also served as the Minister of Culture in Hungary in 2005, states that in the two decades after 1989 unpopular governments lost the elections, the media freely criticized politicians, and democracy continued to be consolidated and encouraged by the entrance of Hungary into the European Union in 2004. [18]

When the New Fundamental Law of Hungary was published in 2011 there were three statements regarding speech included in Article IX:

  • (1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of speech
  • (4) The right to freedom of speech may not be exercised with the aim of violating the human dignity of others
  • (5) The right to freedom of speech may not be exercised with the aim of violating the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community. Persons belonging to such communities shall be entitled to enforce their claims in court against the expression of an opinion which violates the community, invoking the violation of their human dignity, as provided for by an Act.

While freedom of the press has been facing threats by the Fidesz party, speech is upheld in Hungary as one of the most important fundamental rights in a democracy. Pure speech that does not incite violence or harm to others is protected under the New Fundamental Law of Hungary, as it is in the United States. Forms of expression that are published and subject to press regulations in Hungary are a different story.


IV. Free Press

In 1944 while Hungary was reconsidering its role in World War II and considering negotiating with the Allied forces and to sever ties with Nazi Germany, Germany invaded Hungary in March. However, in an attempt to keep the peace Germany did not change much as to maintain appearances that Hungary’s involvement in the war continued to be out of free choice. In October 1944, Horthy, the head of state in Hungary, announced on the radio that Hungary was quitting the war, inspiring the Nazis to formally invade Hungary.

The 1945 radio speech made by Miklos Horthy, Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary during both World Wars, was as follows:

“Today it is obvious to any sober-minded person that the German Reich has lost the war. All governments responsible for the destiny of their countries must draw pertinent conclusions from this fact, for, as a great German statesman, Bismarck, once said: ‘No nation ought to sacrifice itself on the altar of an alliance.’ Conscious of my historic responsibility, I have the obligation to undertake every step directed to avoiding further unnecessary bloodshed. A nation that would allow the soil inherited from its forefathers to be turned into a theater of rearguard actions in an already lost war, defending alien interests out of a serflike spirit, would lose the esteem of public opinion throughout the world.

With grief I am forced to state that the German Reich on its part broke the loyalty of an ally toward our country a long time ago. For a considerable time it has launched ever-new formations of Hungarian armed forces into the fight outside the frontiers of the country against my wish and will.

In March of this year, however, the Fuehrer of the German Reich invited me to negotiation in consequence of my urgent demand for the repatriation of Hungary’s armed forces. There he informed me that Hungary would be occupied by German forces and he ordered this to be carried out in spite of my protests, even while I was retained abroad. Simultaneously German political police invaded the country and arrested numerous Hungarian citizens, among them several members of the legislative assembly as well as the minister of the interior of my government then in office.”[19]

One of the most effective strategies in planning to divide and conquer a country is to plan the shutdown of the public exchange of ideas, opinions, and news. This is why from the time of Germany’s invasion of Hungary in 1944, Hitler’s accomplices made it as difficult as possible to spread the truth about the horrors of the events that were taking place under Hitler’s command. While keeping a firm grip on the press, Horthy’s radio speech was one of the few early indicators of German betrayal and invasion.

While under German rule Soviet forces had begun quietly occupying Hungary which led to the emergence of the Stalin Era. In 1956 while Hungary was coming under Soviet rule, the country experienced an uprising of rebels who demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary which escalated to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. [20] For a short period, there was an increase in freedom of the press, an example of this transition being the public criticism of Stalinist practices that were carried on after his death. Sugar states “the cultural weekly Muvelt Nep (Educated People), a young journalist, publicly expressing for the first time the frustration of university students, asked for a revision of regulations that required every student to study the Russian language.”[21] This was one of the first instances in which Hungarian citizens outwardly defied Communist Russia and communist practices. On October 23, 1956 this trend continued when students and workers led a protest in the streets of Budapest and issued sixteen political changes Hungarian citizens wanted to see made in their country, five of which directly addressed freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

However, in December 1956, the Battle of Budapest occurred in which Soviet forces took over Hungary completely by putting down the Hungarian revolt and revoking virtually all speech and press freedoms. Hungarian journalist George Paloczi-Horvath filed this report with the London Daily Herald:

“The situation was the same everywhere. Soviet tanks rolled in and started to shoot at every centre of resistance which had defied them during our first battle for freedom.

This time, the Russians shot the buildings to smithereens. Freedom fighters were trapped in the various barracks, public buildings and blocks of flats. The Russians were going to kill them off to the last man. And they knew it. They fought on till death claimed them.

This senseless Russian massacre provoked the second phase of armed resistance. The installation of Kadar’s puppet government was only oil on the fire. After our fighting days, after our brief span of liberty and democracy, Kadar’s hideous slogans and stupid lies, couched in the hated Stalinite terminology, made everyone’s blood boil. Although ten million witnesses knew the contrary, the puppet government brought forward the ludicrous lie that our war of liberty was a counter-revolutionary uprising inspired by a handful of Fascists.

The answer was bitter fighting and a general strike throughout the country. In the old revolutionary centers – the industrial suburbs of Csepel, Ujpest and the rest – the workers struck and fought desperately against the Russian tanks. . .

Armed resistance stopped first. The Russians bombarded to rubble every house from which a single shot was fired. The fighting groups realized that further battles would mean the annihilation of the capital. So they stopped fighting.

But the strike went on.

The Workers’ Councils, the Writers’ Association and the Revolutionary Council of the Students decided at last that the general strike must be suspended if Hungary were not to commit national suicide. . .”[22]

In 1989, there was a major transition in which Hungary adopted a parliamentary democracy form of government. While communism was not dead in Hungary there was a new system of power sharing that, if not encouraged, at least tolerated the free exchange of political ideas. As written by Rudolph Tokes in an essay about the political transformation in Hungary, “With the Yalta regime, Soviet Hegemony, and the ensuing Cold War as historical givens, the Hungarian people and their neighbors had only two available options: accommodation and survival, or resistance and inevitable repression…it can thus be argued that there was an intrinsic causality between the intolerable oppression and the revolution of 1956, on the one hand, and between that singular and regionally unique event and the rest of the hypothesized attributes that characterized people-regime interactions in Hungary in the next three decades, on the other.”[23] For the next few decades Hungary fostered a deep distrust of the communist and socialist parties that continued to be active in Hungary’s political sphere.

In 2010, Victor Orban was elected Prime Minister of Hungary and since press freedom in Hungary has been on a decline, as noticed by Hungarian citizens and by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). The Freedom House “2015 Freedom of the Press Report” focuses the gradual increase of state regulation regarding all media including television, radio, and internet. A majority of the new regulations that have been suggested and imposed by the Fidesz target private outlets that have publicly shown political opposition. Under Article IX of The New Fundamental Law of Hungary states “Hungary shall recognise and protect the freedom and diversity of the press, and shall ensure the conditions for free dissemination of information necessary for the formation of democratic public opinion.” [24] However, this is rather vague and does not protect of publication of materials that contradict dominant political ideas. The highest criticism of Hungary’s press regulations by Freedom House is presented as such:

“The Hungarian penal code places a number of restrictions on freedom of speech through provisions that prohibit incitement to hatred, incitement to violence, incitement against a community, and denial of crimes “committed by national socialist or communist systems.” …anyone who knowingly creates or distributes false or defamatory video or audio recordings can face a prison sentence of one to three years.”[25]

Since this makes defamation a crime, many journalists are exposed to criminal sanctions for harming the reputation of others in any way, even when truth is the tool with which this is accomplished. One of the main shifts in freedom of the press and news came from the creation of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) whose leader is also in charge of a Media Council, both of which were created for the sole purpose of gaining governmental control of regulating media content in 2012.

V. Critical Comparison

a. Press:

From an outsider’s perspective, the New Fundamental Law of Hungary seems  to embody the ideals of democracy: fairness, liberty, and equality. It explicitly states that men and women shall have equal rights, that every human being shall have legal capacity, and that Hungary shall, upon request, grant asylum to any non-Hungarian citizens who are being wrongly persecuted if they do not receive protection from their own or any other country. Although this is only a six-year-old document, drafted in 2011, the document still leaves quite a bit of protection for the press to be desired. As stated before, Reporters Without Borders rates Hungary as number 67 out of 180 countries on the basis of press freedom, whereas the United States stands its ground at number 41[26]. Furthermore, in the Freedom House “Freedom of the Press Report 2015” Hungary is classified as being “Partly Free,” losing its “Free” status in 2012 with the justification being the new advertising taxes and continual government pressure that is being imposed on media owners. On the other hand, the United States holds “Free” status, with the biggest issue regarding the United States press mentioned in the report is tension between press freedom and national security and counterterrorism efforts. [27]

Hungarian citizens have been facing new government regulations on media sources on a daily basis. Hungary’s government stands on the edge of trying to unite the country under a strong, central government, however after communist rule, Hungarian citizens are very aware that a stronger central government creates the opportunity for the rule of a tyrannical majority. With interference from the European Union being Viktor Orban’s only obstacle in the Fidesz party’s gradual imposition of further media regulations, this awareness has developed into justified suspicion and alarm. In the 2015 report Freedom House identified a multitude of examples in which state regulation on media has increased. This is internally addressed in the Report on Hungary’s New Media Regulation done by the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary:

Under the section “A Possible Interpretation of Freedom of the Press” the report states “European public view trusts in the state and believes that a certain level of legal regulation-of course, with appropriate safeguards protecting freedom-is necessary. It follows that in the media (especially, in the area of electronic media) in the case of negative programming standards (such as hateful expressions and protection of morality), the standard of protection- in the name of social responsibility- may be lower in the “basic case” of the freedom of opinion.[28] It is important to emphasize that the content of the new regulation is negative regarding the press (i.e. prescribing constraint), and it defines concrete content requirements enforceable against the individual press products (human dignity and human rights, prohibition of the violation of constitutional order and privacy, prohibition of hate speech…)”[29]

While the first assertion sounds rather reasonable, after all the United States has a few press regulations as well, the second demonstrates how different the media environment is in both countries. While the United States currently encourages and protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press to create the free exchange of ideas and opinions, the report on Hungary by their own media regulation board suggests the contrary.


b. Speech

However, while there are similar historical similarities, the road the United States is currently on may potentially start to resemble that of Hungary. President Trump has outwardly praised Prime Minister Orban’s ideologies, and likewise Mr. Orban was a vocal supporter of President Trump’s campaign. It was an “historic event, in which Western civilization appears to successfully break free from the confines of an ideology,” Mr Orbán told the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development conference. On the topic of the judiciary restricting free speech, the current system in Hungary does not provide as many safeguards as the United States has imposed. Whereas the United States Supreme Court has made three different tests to be used when determining the constitutionality of an act or law (rational, intermediate, and strict scrutiny tests), Hungary’s standards in determining constitutionality aren’t quite as concrete.  In a Hungarian death penalty case, Decision 23/1990 (X.31) AB, the court created a precedent that in order to restrict a fundamental right, such as the right to freedom of speech, four conditions must be satisfied: “(1) have a compelling cause (like the protection of another fundamental right or another constitutional aim), (2) have an aim proportionate to the restriction applied, (3) be suitable for attaining the aim, and (4) be the most lenient means possible.” [30] While this was a death penalty case rather than a restriction on freedom of speech case, it clearly illustrates the process in which the Constitutional Court in Hungary prioritizes civil liberties when fundamental rights violations are in question. However, the Fidesz-imposed state regulation has not been confined to press freedom. Under an amendment to the penal code in 2013, it is a criminal offense to knowingly distribute false or defamatory video and audio media. While this would be reasonably difficult to consistently enforce since rise of social media has also increased the use of video media in popularity, it is the principle of prioritizing reputation over the news that is troubling. This act was enforced with the goal of attempting to protect politicians and other public officials from any kind of defamatory publicity, regardless of truth or intent, which is one of the main issues the United States Supreme Court has faced in numerous historical court cases. Arguably one of the most critical cases in the United States was New York Times Co. v. Sullivan which established that press cannot face libel charges unless actual malice, knowing information is false or publishing with reckless regard to falsity, can be proven.

VI. Conclusion

While the level of freedom of speech in Hungary has stayed fairly stable since the 2000s, freedom of the press has been on a steady decline since the Fidesz party has continued to gain political power since 2001. Since coming to power the Fidesz has been successful in imposing higher levels of government regulation on the press and media. This has been achieved through increasing media taxes on private news outlets with the goal of eliminating non-governmental news outlets by making their survival almost wholly dependent on the government. Many Americans are worried that the election of President Trump will lead to a decrease in press freedom given his recent attempts to publicly discredit news outlets that criticize him and this worry is deepened by his praise of Hungary and their media regulations. While no one has the power to predict the future with complete accuracy, if President Trump does choose to form a strong alliance with Prime Minister Orban and the Fidesz party in Hungary, the press in the United States might be faced with similar results of the political changes Hungary faced in 2011 when Mr. Orban came into power.


[1] US Central Intelligence Agency

[2] Nandor Dreisziger, Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora (Toronto Press, 2016), 21

[3] Nandor Dreisziger, Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora (Toronto Press, 2016), 22

[4] Nandor Dreisziger, Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora (Toronto Press, 2016), 25

[5] Nandor Dreisziger, Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora (Toronto Press, 2016), 26

[6] Dec. 31st 1944 Hungary Declares War on Germany

[7] Peter Sugar, A History of Hungary (Indiana University Press, 1990), 369

[8] David Coulby and Robert Cowen, Education in Times of Transition (World Yearbook of Education, 2000), 76

[9] Encyclopaedia Britannica on Parliamentary Democracy

[10] David Coulby and Robert Cowen, Education in Times of Transition (World Yearbook of Education, 2000), 78

[11] Daily News Hungary, Fidesz- Hungarian Civic Union.

[12] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fidesz party

[13] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hungary Before German Occupation

[14] Randolph Braham, The Politics of Genocide (Wayne State University Press, 2000), 124

[15] Peter Sugar, A History of Hungary (Indiana University Press, 1990), 374

[16] Peter Sugar, A History of Hungary (Indiana University Press, 1990), 378

[17] Julia Gabriel, Hungary: A Country Report Based on Data 1918-2012 (V-Dem Country Report Series, No. 12)

[18] Andras Bozoki, The Crisis of Democracy in Hungary, Web.

[19] Rita Palfi, Euronews How World War II Shaped Modern Hungary

[20] BBC News, Hungary Timeline

[21] Peter Sugar, A History of Hungary (Indiana University Press, 1990), 378

[22] London Daily Herald, Nov. 4, 1956; Sebestyen, Victor, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (1996)

[23] Rudolph Tokes, Political Transition and Social Transformation in Hungary

[24] The New Fundamental Law of Hungary of 2011

[25] Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2015: Hungary

[26] Reporters without Borders, 2016 World Press Freedom Index

[27] Reporters without Borders, Freedom of the Press 2015: United States

[28] National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary, Report on Hungary’s New Media Regulation, pg. 125

[29] National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary, Report on Hungary’s New Media Regulation, pg. 130

[30] Halmai and Paczolay, “Az Alkotmanybirosag,” p. 34


This essay was last updated on April 30, 2017.

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