Full Reflection Post


Teaching Ethical Engagement: Media, Corruption, and Waning Accountability in Hungary

Rachel A. Epstein

Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

The challenge:

How to help students formulate possible policy responses to undermine Fidesz’s authoritarian  grip on power in Hungary (with lessons for other authoritarian contexts).

Background and policy setting:

In offering the course to 24 graduate students at Korbel, I had two main partners: József Péter Martin, executive director of Transparency International, Hungary, and Dóra Piroska, professor at Central European University in Vienna (CEU, formerly located in Budapest). In addition, Dr. Martin brought in two other colleagues from TIH to provide lectures (via zoom) on various aspects of corruption in which Fidesz and the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had engaged. Professor Piroska also brought in Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative financial journalist in Hungary, who specializes in uncovering the role of foreign firms (especially from Germany and China) in helping the authoritarian regime in Hungary sustain and expand its power. The array of topics the team covered was extraordinary: we had dedicated sessions concerning the government takeover of most media; the government’s co-optation and politicization of large swaths of the system of higher education; corruption in public procurement, including projects funded by the European Union; domestic and foreign business participation in autocratization; and the role of foreign actors, including different arms of the EU, in trying but failing to restore individual rights, transparency, and democratic accountability.

The broader policy context was that Fidesz and Orbán had been elected to power in Hungary in 2010 (Fidesz had also held power in the early 2000s, so this was their second victory). Since coming to power for the second time, however, the governing coalition quickly initiated a concerted campaign of democratic erosion. They used state advertising revenue and political pressure to restrict media freedom, politicized the court system through purges and reappointments, amended the constitution to allow gerrymandering in ways that favored their electoral prospects going forward, and built out their domestic and international bases of support by awarding business opportunities, public contracts, and restricted competition to loyalists of the regime, economically marginalizing critics and opponents. A number of democratic indices downgraded Hungary’s democracy such that by 2018 some of them, including Freedom House, no longer categorized Hungary as a democracy at all. This was the first time that the EU had had a member largely perceived to be wholly undemocratic. Although the country does hold elections that are “free,” those elections cannot be construed as “fair” since the opposition faces so many constitutional, financial, and informational disadvantages.

The objective of the course was to learn about the various pathways of democratic erosion and to try to devise remedies. The focus of the final group projects was variously to 1) increase external leverage in favor of democratic accountability, particularly by the EU; 2) discourage foreign firms from complying with political pressure of the regime (to undermine independent media, for example); 3) counter the politicization of universities and restore their intellectual and research independence; 4) support the proliferation of independent media to improve the informational environment; and 5) facilitate the development of an opposition political movement that could ultimately prevail in elections. These student projects would be categorized as arms-length interventions that were basically thought experiments, provided to THI and CEU. But in some sense, the ideas in the student projects had been tried before. Since, for example, the information about corruption in Hungary is readily available but most members of the public choose not to consider it as they vote, the student projects were probably of little utility to TIH. For me, however, and for the students, as well, the course was enlightening for showing how effective authoritarian regimes can be at staying in power through the multiple, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing tools they have to consolidate their power.

What Happened?

I was motivated to offer the course even before engaging on this issue with TIH and CEU. Although I knew about the various ways in which democratic governance in Hungary (and elsewhere) had suffered, I didn’t really understand the mechanics of how a government went about autocratization. The material on the media takeover was especially illuminating. In Hungary, it wasn’t just a matter of nationalization or overt politicization. Rather, the government used quasi-market methods to undermine the commercial viability of critical or even independent media—through the channeling of advertising revenue, for example. Fidesz also employed foreign surrogates (a media mogul from Austria, for example) to use their overwhelming market power to buy up critical outlets and re-sell them to loyalists or to close them down altogether, ostensibly for business purposes. I and the students were also surprised to learn the scope of democratic states’ complicity—most notably Germany’s—in diplomatic efforts to support German auto companies’ business ambitions at basically all costs. German firms, including Mercedes and Volkswagen, were counseled by the Hungarian government to shun advertising in rival media outlets, lest they lose their Hungarian government subsidies. When Hungarian non-governmental agencies and activists approached the German embassy in Budapest to express their concern, German diplomats said there was nothing they could do. And it turns out that foreign firms (including German ones) are much larger recipients on a per unit produced basis than Hungarian firms of government subsidies. In sum, understanding the precise trajectory of autocratization and the overlapping and mutually reinforcing tools autocrats have at their disposal was informative.

While I do not believe there was disagreement among those participating in the course about the nature of the problem, there might have been a disconnect between the nature of the problem and the possible solutions under consideration. In my own culture and mind, there is a connection between information and decision making. This was generally assumed to be the case among the Korbel and CEU participants and faculty, as well as the personnel at TIH. Szabolcs Panyi has also dedicated his career to exposing corporate malfeasance in the service of generating public support for curbing corruption and rights infringements. But we were all at a loss as to what action to take when publics are not motivated to vote or act differently in the face of overwhelming evidence that the regime in power abuses that power on a consistent basis, to the detriment of normal citizens. Clearly much of the Hungarian public does not see it that way. The course did offer an explanation—which was that the information environment was heavily tilted in the government’s favor. And yet in my many conversations with partners in offering the course, there was also a sense that information provided by the government was intended to affirm many citizens’ political priors rather than actually inform.

While there was attention to complexity, uncertainty, and positionality in the discussions we had with one another and with our partners, the course could have benefited from a specialist in political behavior and/or social psychology. As a researcher, I pay attention to identity, scripts, and other social forces that shape outcomes, independent of or in connection with material drivers. But even with that background, and cognizant also of the distributional policies Fidesz has pursued to cement its electoral support, I found the willingness of voters to repeatedly choose a corrupt regime surprising. My own knowledge of the region’s authoritarian past, hegemonic rule from Moscow during the Cold War, democratic opposition under communism, the nature of the political and economic transition since the 1990s, and Viktor Orbán’s own mercurial politics only helped to amplify the puzzle, not to address it.

In sum, this form of engagement was a great educational experience for the Korbel and CEU students who participated, as well as for me personally. The content of the course provided the foundation for an academic article (with Professor Alvin Camba) comparing pathways to autocratization in Hungary and the Philippines, with particular attention to the ways in which aspiring autocrats can hedge and play foreign powers off one another in order to consolidate power, or in Orbán’s case (without term limits) stay in power indefinitely. I do not believe, however, that any of the possible remedies or policy interventions developed by the students will have a direct policy impact. While improving the information environment in a country like Hungary, providing financial support to the opposition, or publicizing the questionable conduct of German firms in Hungary in Germany itself (to put pressure on those firms to stop supporting an autocratic regime) might help at the margins, regime change in a country like Hungary probably depends more on other factors. Cataclysmic developments in the economy, for example, could dislodge the regime. And in fact, the European Commission, as the course was being taught, developed new mechanisms for withholding funds from member states that did not uphold democratic governance. That, together with other forms of economic pain for the Hungarian public, could ultimately lead to political party turnover.

Since the course ended in March 2022, Fidesz won the national elections again (in overwhelming fashion) in April 2022. More promisingly, the European Commission initiated an “Integrity Authority” in Hungary to collect data on the use of EU funds, and TIH was among the participants. But most of CEU remained in Vienna after having been expelled from Hungary by Fidesz and Orbán, with no plans for a return.

Implications of engagement:

While it would appear to me to be ethical to offer an in-depth case study course on democratic erosion that analyzes the pathways to autocratization, I do have questions about formulating “remedies” for a population that (speaking of the majority) is pretty clearly satisfied with the status quo. And although deterioration of economic conditions seems the surest path to regime change, that is definitely not a “remedy” I could in good conscience try to instrumentalize or even hope for.

A second ethical concern emerged for me in comparing the Hungarian and US cases. Both countries have sizable populations and many leaders who do not subscribe to the rule of law, do not support equal protection under the law, and who prioritize issues other than free and fair elections, media independence, or voter enfranchisement. At the same time, such comparisons ring hollow to my Hungarian interlocutors. It is not that they don’t see problems in American democratic governance. It is that the comparison does not do justice to the indignities that they (Hungarian democrats) currently experience. I found that in an effort to be reflexive and self-critical about the quality of democracy in my own country, I was more likely to demonstrate naivete about the profound alienation and exclusion that many people in the opposition in a country like Hungary suffer.

In sum, I concluded the course as I conclude this memo—with some ambivalence about policy engagement. I have a difficult time reconciling the two points enumerated above. On the one hand, I am not in a position to instruct people that they should want higher quality democratic governance. On the other, democratically minded colleagues and friends in increasingly undemocratic countries are not free, are separated from their families by political divisions, and are denied personal and professional opportunities that I take for granted. Trying to empower democratic allies in whatever ways they advise seems like the best path forward, however slow and uneven that assistance appears to be.

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