On January 21st, Hungarian WATCH sat down with Peter Molnar for a 3-hour interview. Molnar, a former law school roommate of Viktor Orbán and one of the founders of the Fidesz party (back when both Orbán and Fidesz were liberal) is a senior research fellow at the Center for Media and Communication Studies at the Central European University in Budapest. He was a member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990-1998 and was one of the principal drafters of the 1996 Hungarian media law.
NOTE: The transcription below has been slightly edited for the sake of clarity.
FIDESZ BEGINNINGS: FROM DORMITORIES TO PARLIAMENT
Hungarian WATCH: With whom did you start Fidesz?
Peter Molnar: There were 37 of us, including young intellectuals just out of law school and enrolled students. Viktor Orbán, the current Prime Minister of Hungary, was one of the co-founders of Fidesz. Orbán and I were classmates in law school and were together in the dormitory. It was a building which, in the mid-80’s, we turned into a university. At that time, there were still restrictions and heavy censorship at the university, so there were many people who could not teach there because of their oppositional views [to the Communist rule]. We were able to invite some of those people to lecture in the dorm.
HW: What made you want to start a political party? What was the context?
Molnar: In the ‘80s—earlier as well, but especially in the ‘80s—there were efforts to recreate a serious society. István Bibó, a political scientist, called civil society organizations “small circles of freedom.” In the ‘80s, in several university dormitories, special self-organizing student groups were created. The idea was that students could have a self-governing, democratic structure in the dorms. Also, we organized all sorts of lectures, workshops, and artistic activities. The whole community of the dormitory elected its leadership. We also had a newspaper, for which I wrote some articles and co-edited some special issues. One was about human rights and another about protection of the environment.
These student communities were among those “circles of freedom,” which were very early efforts to change the situation. And so, inside these student communities, we had a sort of democracy.
The underground press was called the “second layer” of publicity. There was the official level of press, and there was a second layer of publicity, an underground public discourse—if public discourse can be underground. And we said that these student communities were in between or “1.5.” Our dormitory was not “underground,” it was an official dorm of the university, but we could go further than the official papers and the university itself.
HW: You said that these “circles of freedom” were early efforts to change the political situation. Can you list out characteristics of what that “situation” was and why you felt so strongly the need to change it?
Molnar: Of course. Because it was a dictatorship, there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press. We just wanted human rights and democracy and a classic system of checks and balances. Towards the end of the ‘80s, we started to think about how could we step out from the inner circles of the student communities and work together with other groups in society who were also working towards the same goals.
So, the so-called “Democratic opposition”—which was a great, great group of people who were producing underground newspapers—printed and distributed literature in conspiracy, in secret. They learned how to do it in Poland because this kind of underground literature was highly developed there at that time. And environmental organizations were also starting to emerge.
In March ‘88, the student communities came together—at that time some of us had already graduated but we were still involved. So, recent graduates and enrolled students created an organization which grew out of this network of student communities.
We were the youth organization, but not in the sense that we had a parent organization; we were totally independent. We were the Federation of Young Democrats just because we were young.
HW: What was the original platform of Fidesz?
Molnar: Fidesz was really committed to human rights and democracy. It was very open culturally and it was certainly a liberal organization. We were radical in the sense that we were the youngest opposition group during the democratic change [after Communist rule]. Other organizations were created by middle-aged people or elder people, but our organization was created by a bunch of young people. We were pushing the change strong.
This is the area I have been working in for more than two decades now: freedom of speech and freedom of the press—which also includes artistic freedom.
Fidesz had elected leadership, of course, as all political organizations do, and I was a member of the leadership with Viktor Orbán and others. In this capacity, on behalf of Fidesz, I went to Bergen, Norway in ’89 to receive the Rafto Prize, a very prestigious, annual human rights prize.
We then ran as an independent party in 1990, and we made it to the Parliament. We had a 22 member group in Parliament in a house which had 384 members. So, it was a small group, but in 1-2 years, we were by far the most popular group in the country.
HW: What did that feel like?
Molnar: It was, of course, a very, very enthusiastic and busy time. A huge change. It was very moving and exciting in many ways, hard in many ways. Of course it was a huge amount of work, and a huge amount of stress and tension. For example, before a demonstration that I was a main coordinator of in ‘88, the police and the Communist party threatened that they would use violence against us if we proceeded. So then, you have to decide whether you say in such situations, “Okay, we’ll go anyway,” without knowing if the authorities will react with violence against our demonstrators. So it was a lot of stress and a lot of work and lot of great, great experiences.
HW: During that time, was Fidesz living up to its initial platform of working toward democracy, freedom of speech and human rights?
Molnar: Yes, yes. We wanted to change the culture as well, not only the political institutions, because we saw that political institutions depend on culture. While having many responsibilities in my leadership position, my speciality focused around our cultural activities. As a result, when we became a parliamentary party and had to decide who will work in each parliamentary committee, I became a member of the Culture and Media Committee. I became the Fidesz politician in the Parliament who was responsible for cultural policy and also media policy.
MEDIA WAR OF THE 1990s
In 1990, I began working on the first media laws. This was a 6 year process, from 1990-1995, and included the so-called “media war.” At the beginning of the “media war,” the then-conservative government first supported the idea that the public media must be independent. But when the public media criticized the conservative government, unfortunately, they became frustrated—which, I want to emphasize is a mistake any politician or any party can commit. I don’t mean to make fun of them, it is an easy mistake to make.
So, the conservative government started to attack the independent presidents of the public media. [See below for more info about the presidents.] They reacted in a frustrated way and started to assume that media is against them. Then they began trying assert control over the media.
HW: How were they trying to do that?
Molnar: They were trying to do it in two ways. In the early 90s, after Communism, there was only one national TV—the state TV—and one national radio—the state radio. That was it. So, it was still that same largely (not exclusively, but largely) monopolistic structure of media that existed under Communism. It’s like, imagine a situation where was no FCC in the US. We were working on a media law to legislate the rules to set up an organization that can call for applications for the airwaves. Before we passed the law, there was no independent organization to arrange which radio and TV companies received the airwaves.
HW: Just to focus on Viktor Orbán for a second, do you remember any of his feelings about this? Was his ideology, or philosophy, in line with yours at this point?
Molnar: Yes, yes it was. The political setting in the Parliament at the time was that:
- there was a conservative majority in the house, a coalition of 3 conservative parties;
- there were two liberal parties: one was our liberal youth party with a small parliamentary group, the other was a big liberal party created by the underground opposition, which did the underground press in the 80s;
- and the third opposition party was the so-called Socialist party, which was the former Communist party.
It was clear that our party, the liberal youth party, was pushing for a media law that provided, actually, the total opposite of what the current governing party of Hungary recently legislated. And everyone, Orbán included, agreed with this.
I was the media politician of the party, so I represented the party at all the negotiations and publically as well. Of course we regularly discussed this matter of media policy and there was agreement: we had to push for and wanted regulation that provided independence of the media boards. We thought that the radio and television office, which supervised the whole radio and television market, had to be independent from the government. We also wanted the public media to be independent from the government. So that was a very, very clear goal.
And then, the “media war” really began. This was soon after Communism fell in 1990, after the first free election, after missing freedom of speech and freedom of the press for long decades. At first, everyone agreed and accepted that the public media has to be independent from the government. And the government agreed to appoint two social scientists to be the heads of the public radio and TV.
But then, the government started to feel frustrated in the face of media criticism and that the media was biased against them. So, they attacked the two independent social scientists, who were the presidents of the public radio and TV, and tried to remove them. And that was media war.
There were many heated public debates, and many institutional clashes between the prime minister, the president, and the Constitutional Court. There were public hearings in the Cultural Committee. So it was a big story. And at the same time, we were also negotiating the media laws in the Cultural Committee!
And you can imagine that when the government started to try to remove the two media presidents…when they were moving toward regulation which gave the government more control, this was too much for those of us in the opposition of the Parliament.
So, as a result, at the end of the first three years of negotiations, the draft of the media law was destroyed during the final vote. It didn’t go through because the government added some provisions that would have given control to the government. So the opposition voted against it.
And here’s an important thing: under our constitution, basic laws (laws about basic rights, including the media law) have to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the house. This is a very important concept.
HW: Can you say that again?
Molnar: A two-thirds majority of the votes are/were needed to pass the media law. A simple majority is not enough. This is why the conservative government could not pass the law without us, without the opposition, because they didn’t have the two-thirds majority.
Then came the second free election in 1994. I became a member of Parliament in the other liberal party, the Federation of Free Democrats, which was created by the underground opposition of the ‘80s and produced the underground press.
HW: Why did you switch parties from Fidesz?
Molnar: Unfortunately, from as early as the beginning of the ‘90s, there were signs that Fidesz was changing. Then, from around the end of 1992, it started to move to the right-wing side of the political spectrum. For those of us whose ideas were clearly liberal, it was not acceptable. We didn’t want to do politics in such a party, so we tried to stop this change.
In 1993, I became one of the eight Vice Presidents of the Fidesz party, because I ran for this position in order to stop this change. But unfortunately it was too late and Viktor Orbán and others sort of organized this change so far.
I think we were naïve. We were very young, but I certainly couldn’t imagine that we created an organization together and they, looking back it is clear, that they systematically organized taking over the key positions in order to make sure they can move the party over towards where they wanted. So we tried to stop it.
But at end of 1993 and early 1994, there was not really more of a chance, so we left the party. And then the other liberal party, which remained liberal, asked some of us to continue there.
So, then I became the media politician of that party. In this way I worked on the media law and related matters for two terms, altogether for eight years, from 1990-1998. And the difference in that role (setting aside the party element) was that, in first 4 years, I was in an opposition party—even if that was an influential position in the negotiation because, as I said, the constitution requires two-thirds majority, so the government couldn’t just dismiss what we said. But in second term, I represented one of the governing parties. So I had more chance to suggest what way the legislation should go.
Upon my suggestion, we asked an expert committee to draft the media law, based on negotiations with all professional organizations and the parliamentary parties. The whole idea was to create a good draft that explicitly provides that neither the government nor any other political group can have decisive influence over media institutions. So, this is what we were pushing for.
It is important to mention that we had two governing parties. I represented the liberal party, Federation of Free Democrats. The two parties had 70-something% of the seats in the Parliament. So, similarly to current situation, the two governing parties had two-thirds majority and we could have passed any law we wanted. But we didn’t do that. We practiced self-restraint because we thought that this was something to legislate in collaboration with the opposition.
Click here to read Part 2 of the interview, in which Peter Molnar goes deep into the differences between the old vs. new media law!