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The False, the Rude and the Ugly: an episode in US – Hungarian relations

August 2nd, 2011

A moderately conservative opinion page carries an unusually angry commentary on US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia’s criticism of the direction public affairs are taking in Hungary.

“American congressmen have been misinformed by Mr Melia on the new Hungarian media rules,” – Szathmáry, a young conservative author who signs his blogs with his second name only, contends in Mandiner.

The US Assistant Secretary of State read out a report in front of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the state of human rights in Eastern Europe. The main focus was on Belarus and Ukraine, but the left wing Hungarian press, as is quite natural, published extensive excerpts of his assessment of the situation in Hungary, with particular emphasis on the new constitution, the media act and the law on churches. Mr Melia reiterated the concerns expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Budapest, and left wing outlets interpret these remarks to support their view that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is building an authoritarian regime.

Szathmáry reproaches the Assistant Secretary for mistakenly asserting that the newly established Hungarian Media Board “has been given the power to … impose heavy fines – up to $950,000 – for news coverage it considers ‘unbalanced’ or offensive to ‘human dignity.”

In actual fact, no fines are envisaged for ‘unbalanced news coverage.’ The sanction may merely amount to publishing a brief statement specifying which side of the story was ignored in the given report. In addition, the rule only concerns radio and television newscasts, for whom the same rule has applied for the past 14 years.

Szathmáry recalls that the same mistake was made in the Freedom House Press Freedom Report earlier this year, which may be relevant because prior to taking his present job in the State Department, Mr Melia used to be Acting Executive Director of Freedom House. “Falsehood will not be transformed into truth by simple repetition,” Mandiner’s commentator remarks.

The author misses another misunderstanding, in connection with the Church Law. When asked by Rep Dan Burton (R) whether the denominations which are not automatically recognised as churches will be prevented from freely exercising their faith, Mr Melia reportedly answered that the actual practice of the authorities is a matter to be seen in the future. But, as BudaPost reported earlier, what is really at stake is how many denominations will have access to special public subsidies for their charitable institutions and schools. Religious freedom as such is not in question.

Government officials have criticised Mr Melia’s report in general terms, without specifying which points they found unfair.

But even that was too much for Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz MEP. In what he termed a private remark on Twitter, he argued that no answers or reactions were actually necessary, for “Who the f… is Thomas Melia?” He was immediately reminded by the left-wing press that Mr Melia, apart from being a high ranking official in Washington, is also known by many Hungarians. He once gave courses for the new Hungarian political class, including those from Fidesz, after the regime change twenty years ago.

More importantly, in Népszabadság, Ervin Tamás suggests conspiratorially that Deutsch’s rude remark – by far not the first of its kind – may be part of a premeditated scheme. “This is the political mission he was assigned to accomplish from Brussels, for a domestic audience.” Tamás believes Deutsch might lose some face as a politician by using such language, but “there are plenty of red-necks out there who mistake rudeness for sincerity.” According to the left wing analyst, that is the public that Deutsch is targeting.

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