Hungarian science and press put in jeopardy

The Hungarian minister for innovation and technology, announces the state’s call to supervise the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest and to suspend some of its funding

Written by Diogo Baptista

Hundreds of scientists and their supporters form a human chain around the HAS building in Budapest to express their outrage towards another governmental call. The disposition which plans to take control of the Hungarian scientist’s budget and erode the academy’s independence, marks the latest conflict in a months-long battle between the academy and the nation’s populist government. 

According to the Hungarian government, the decree is needed to promote innovation and increase the country’s competitiveness. However, scientists complain about not being appropriately consulted and worry about the impact of such changes. Researchers fear this move would result in a loss of autonomy over their institutes and their work. 

Insufficient or improper news coverage has been an issue since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010. Since then, the PM has significantly centralized power and increased the state’s role in different departments, from economy and the arts to sports and the media. Hungary dropped by 50 places on the Press Freedom Index and ranks 73rdout of 180. 

The second most-read news website in Hungary, Origo, is a good example of how the media scenery has changed during Orbán’s occupation. The site regularly features negative stories on immigration and critical features about opposition politicians. In the past 30 years, professor Kim Lane Scheppele has been studying Hungary’s transformation of a constitutional-democratic state to one that breaches the constitutional principles of the European Union. She says that the now openly pro-government news site “wasn’t always like this.” 

Frequent conflicts with the European Union over the rule of law and democratic values have won the PM many populist admirers inside and outside the country.  

In 2018, the European Union recommended disciplinary action against Hungary, expressing concerns about freedom of expression, academic freedom, judicial independence and the treatment of asylum-seekers. Scheppele is a professor of sociology and international affairs and former director of the program in law and public affairs at Princeton University. She says, “Independent media outlets often find themselves struggling to find funding and advertising money.” Scheppele explains how pro-government media outlets survive through financial funds while other independent sites have no option but to close their business through lack of funding. Hungarians who speak multiple languages and travel “aren’t really getting their news from Hungarian media”, she says. Independent news outlets face both a decreasing audience and lack of monetary funds while the government is blanketing the country with its own version of the news. 

Kim Lane Scheppele compares the country to a surveillance entity where everything one does and says is being observed by authorities. “If you start giving money to government-critical news media, the next thing you know, they might come after you”, she says. Orbán managed to meticulously spread his image as a beacon for national populists across the continent. 

People have been protesting on the streets for weeks in freezing temperatures in the hope he would suffer some consequences. So far there have been none.