Sunday, 10 August 2014

THROUGH GLASS, VERY DARKLY

Watching Hungary, through its media

People concerned for the future of Conductive Education around the world will still, for a while anyway, have need to know what the would-be 'world-famous' is up to, and what is happening to it. And for that we may have to be reliant to no small part upon the Hungarian media.

And on the whole what a poor old thing the Hungarian media have shown themselves to be on this matter over this particular saga and political crisis of the last year or two. Characteristically, the Hungarian Government issues a statement, then almost all the media repeat it verbatim (applying no more than their their own headlines and stock photographs). There have been exceptions, for example the liberal-left newspaper Népsazva with its amazing leaks of internal documents, but otherwise there has been no investigative reporting, no apparent attempt to elicit an independent picture, no insights of what the rest of Hungarian special education and rehabilitation thinks of all this, not even an attempt to offer a view of what conductive pedagogy and upbringing actually lies behind the myths – and most certainly no investigation of what happens outside Hungary...

Hungarian politicians have proved no major source for news on this matter. The only parliamentarian to have taken more that a passing interest appears to be Timea Szabó, and perhaps it is unfair to enquire too deeply what she thinks she is saving in this expect, and for whom.

One is left with the Government – which is what the Hungarian Government would appear to wish anyway. What the Hungarian Government knows and believes on this matter, what it is aiming for – well, it is hardly likely to say that is it?

The Hungarian media do still remain a little freer and varied than they were in the old days. Then, for lack of published news with any chance of being independent people were dependent to no small degree on pletyka – rumours, gossip, Chinese whispers, in which perhaps an echo of truth in the background but arriving (and passed on) spiced up with a little paranoia and cynicism, and perhaps sugared with a touch of wish-fulfilment.

I could of course be wrong on all of the above. Finding out and exercising the wisdom of hindsight will be half the fun.

No joke

As mentioned before on Conductive World, Viktor Orbán, the current Head Magyar is steering Hungary firmly away from the direction of being a liberal society – and this essentially includes its media. Remember too that, buried soon within the state's apparatus, will be the successor to the Pető Institute, a product and instrument of Government policies, at home an abroad.

Yes, I know, who really knows what is going on, anywhere? Given this obvious caveat, there are still quantitative difference, and a degree of difference in kind from society to society.

In the 'old days', under the Communist regime, with good information very hard to come by, one sort knew where one stood. Nowadays, well Hungary is in Europe, isn't it, a vastly popular holiday destination, and foreign visitors will see all the amenities of home? What could there be not to like? As for knowing what is going on in the about to be reconstituted Pető Institute (from 1 September the Pető College) unless the new institution embarks upon a remarkably different course with respect to open communication than in the past, with the wholehearted and explicit support of its new masters, then we shall have to rely upon the Hungarian media – and pletyka. Just like in the old days.

Mária Hári used to joke 'The Sutton has spies everywhere'.*  That was not really true, though I do admit that in the eighties and nineties of the last century I enjoyed the confidences of quite a few people both in the Pető Institute and in the wider society. The world has now of course moved on, and so have they. Some have died, others are no longer in relevant positions. So I am reduced to Kremlin-watching mainly through sifting through online editions of the again generally useless Hungarian media – and the odd tip off.

Yes it can be fun, for me, because I am now outside the struggle. But worthwhile information is no joke to people active in the field, and misunderstanding and misinformation can be exceedingly damaging when they influence actions and policies. The biggest, most damaging error in official intelligence about Conductive Education came at the end of the eighties when the then Hungarian Government totally misread the nature of Western interest in the Pető Institute and decided that it was sitting on a fortune. It will be very interesting to see whether the present Hungarian regime has been receiving better professional and diplomatic advice, and acts any cannier.

History repeating itself? First time around this miscalculation brought grand tragedy, a second time could bring rotten farce. Just perhaps there may be the seeds of a self-rectifying mechanism within this old-stated contradiction, but much damage could be done too.

Game on

In the meantime, enthusiasts might like to read a recent item by Canadian intern-journalist Diane Schnier, showing how a national press can be reduced to a bland porridge through the precess of 'soft censorship' (not wholly of course, but work is still in progress). The Media Act of 2010 created for example  a Media Council that could fine media outlets for a number of offences, including failure to 'provide balanced coverage'
The Media Council, entirely composed of members appointed directly by the Fidesz party for nine-year terms, is solely responsible for interpreting these vague restrictions. Moreover, the restrictions are not limited to mass media outlets but include personal websites and blogs. Nor are the restrictions limited to media outlets within Hungary: the Media Council has the power to obstruct domestic access to international news sources, so long as the content concerns Hungary. Offenders against the Media Act can be fined up to $928,000. 
http://cjfe.org/resources/features/slow-and-steady-hungary%E2%80%99s-media-clampdown 
Read Ms Schnier's article to see the potential scope of the Media Act, and some further things that have happened since then to discipline the media even more.
When a government attacks free expression directly – when a journalist is arrested, or killed, or a media outlet is shut down – the world takes notice. Instances of 'softer', indirect censorship often fly under the radar, but are no less insidious. Press freedom in Hungary has markedly deteriorated under the rule of Fidesz and Orbán, and it is vital that the world keep a close eye on the country as they begin their second term in power. 
(ibid.) 
Conductive World will continue to bring such news on the Pető College as from time to time appears in the Hungarian media. If it is frustrating to read, then do please be mindful of the pressures under which Hungarian journalists have to work. Thursday's item on Conductive World depended upon a report from the Hungarian independent online news service www.origo.hu. This news item on the Pető Institute stood out from the general herd by not just parroting official statements. Only three months ago Gergő Sálingthe then Editor-in-Chief of www.origo.hu, was sacked after publishing an article detailing the inappropriate business expenses of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán's chief of cabinet. Thirty journalists resigned from www.origo.hu in protest. 

Good on those who soldier on, pushing the envelope as far as they can.

References

Schnier, D. (2014) Slow and steady: Hungary’s media clampdown, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, 28 July

Sutton. A. (2014) Hungary's Orban: 'Our time will come', Conductive World, 29 July

Sutton. A. (2014) Summertime: and its hot, Conductive World, 7 August
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* She used to find this very funny. I was sure that she deliberately trailed red herrings across my informants' paths, and that she also laid down very true scents for them to pick up and pass on. She enjoyed aspects of the Great Game, till it all went so horribly wrong for her and the Institute.

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