Fading Democracy in Hungary!

It is sexy to be in opposition

The EU is recently concerned about the state of press freedom in Hungary after the country’s main leftwing opposition paper, Népszabadság, halted publication. While the official declarations from the publisher cited commercial reasons, activists have been arguing against Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government as the main reason behind the closure. Even with few pre-knowledge on the political development in Hungary one must be aware that this falls into a series of repressive acts towards alternative movements. Yet, activist reactions against the government are not silent.


Printing its first edition in 1956, Népszabadság was under the control of the Communist regime until its collapse in 1989. After the political change, the paper continued to act in opposition to the newly established government.

Most recently, the paper disclosed corruption allegations against a minister in Orbán’s Fidesz party, followed by criticism of the referendum aimed against the dispersal of refugees in Hungary. These issues, coupled with Viktor Orbán’s desire to establish an ‘illiberal democracy’, have raised the attention of journalists and activists which argue for a political decision behind the suspension.

>Népszabadság was the largest group of quality journalists in Hungary trying to defend basic freedoms, democracy, freedom of speech, and tolerance.<< — The Guardian

About 2,000 demonstrators gathered on October the 8th outside the national parliament to protest against Népszabadság’s suspension and for the freedom of press. In 2001 a huge demonstration on the same issue of media freedom took place in cities. Back then the Hungarian government introduced a new media law. A new media control body was created that is able to impose fines for unaccepted content and obtained the power to order disclosure of journalists’ sources. In the current case of the suspension of Népszabadság the dimension of this media law is getting visible.

>If you want to live in democracy you have to pay a price and you need to hear differing, critical voices. At the moment, those voices are disappearing in Hungary and I think this is extremely dangerous.<< — Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

These disappearing and suppressed voices come from within the fields of press, art and education. After 2010 the Hungarian government chose to centralize the education, eliminated subjects such as philosophy and drama pedagogy and started to control the content of teaching by determining one single publishing house for schoolbooks. The changes made by the government forced these fields to become less educators, less writers, less artists — more activists.

In many European cities activist formats as demonstrations are not the most popular forms anymore. In their more democratic and liberal environment they are able and sometimes even supported to practically experiment and realize alternatives to the existing structures. Under the authoritarian government in Hungary there is need to fight for basic human rights.

>… When it comes to human rights, Hungary is moving in the wrong direction.<<Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch

Theatre as a means of protest, yet experience of a more democratic reality

Theatre maker Árpád Schilling from Hungary has been earlier this year guest speaker in De Balie in Amsterdam. In this talk het states that he felt the urge to shift his focus from an artistic towards an activist approach. Leaving behind successful times that his theater company Krétakör was celebrating, he entered the educative and activist area. He didn’t merely provoke empathy in the audience, but searched for integrating the spectator into his work; he transformed theater into a means of directly experiencing the importance of democracy.

Árpád Schilling at De Balie

>For the majority democracy is considered a hobby for the upper class, working people simply don’t have time for.<< — Árpád Schilling.

This image emerges due to the complexity of a democracy and the time this complexity is asking for. With the tools of the theater Schilling creates time and a space to give oneself over into this complexity. He arranged educational workshops, where students where exploring the democratic structures within their school. He tried to listen well to these young people, carefully co-creating and inserting topics related to human rights. Still he often faces the tension between acceptance in foreign countries and resistance within his own environment: he is being criticized for creating scandal. From a more distant point of view his human ambitions  become visible in his actions and to be sensed when he is talking. Schilling also uses his theater tools in order to support the most direct forms of activism: In March of 2016 he was supporting more than 2000 teachers in creating a dramaturgy and the performance of a demonstration against the mentioned sharp regulations and restrictions in the educational sector.

Hungary is turning into a country where freedom of press is in a difficult state, educational institutions are sharply controlled and social tension is growing. In which dimension activist  actions will be able to provoke change against the authoritarian government is still to be seen. But reading the protests the population is not backing down, continuing to fight for their case.

Take this as background information and be most welcome to engage at the program >Freedom First — Looking back upon the Hungarian Revolution of 1956< on October 17th at Pakhuis de Zwijger.

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