A hazardous game of words

Gergely Prőhle
Last updated:
03:42 23-04-2014
15:23 01-03-2011

There are probably hardly any European newspaper readers who have not come across reports in the press about the media law in Hungary.

Heti Válasz has extensively dealt with the details of the media law and, according even to liberal journalists, it has impartially shown the abundant scope of the law raising the issue of the questionable nature of its timing and calling attention to the possible negative effects of its interpretations. Based on this a sensible discussion could have developed; however, it took only a glance at the headlines of the foreign press to shatter our illusions.

Enough has been written about the strangeness of domestic reactions, but the unusual vehemence of foreign, and mainly German, journalists has been repeatedly offensive - to, I believe, not only myself. The magic word used was ‘Führerstaat'. Resourceful editors were quickly able to plant this phrase on the front page of an ostensibly conservative daily paper, which is an unambiguous reference to Adolf Hitler and his 12-year reign of terror. Not leaving this interpretation to chance, I took the relevant volume of the Brockhaus Encyclopaedia down from the shelf, in which a detailed explanation of the Führerprincip - if not of the Führerstaat - can be found.  According to this, the essence of the expression is that political decisions are not made by the parliamentary majority but instead on the basis of  decisions made by the Führung, or leadership.  The editors' choice of words was definitely not preceded by an exhaustive study of the Brockhaus, and even knowledge of the facts about the Hungarian media law coupled with traditional German fastidiousness would not have been enough to devise such a ‘witty' title.     

The abundance of attacks and the increasing absurdity of the sophisticated language - predominantly used by Germans but also some Hungarians - are reminiscent of Heinrich Böll's The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, in which the authors sees no other way out for his female heroine, a housekeeper baselessly accused in the press, than to murder the reporter of the tabloid with the highest circulation. Böll wrote his own frustration into this work as he felt that he could not properly defend himself in relation to accusations levied against him at an earlier date, according to which his sympathies lay with extreme left terrorists. Böll's short story was initially published in serial form in Der Spiegel, which had also previously  published one of the author's reprobatory articles on the unrestricted freedom of the press. The Noble Prize-winning left-wing writer did not escape without the slur of fascism himself since in the press he was compared to Goebbels.

There is no doubt that it is difficult to find the boundary beyond which historical analogies, figurative expressions, and concise attention-grabbing wording already means something completely different than what it should really be saying. Unleashing a series of slander calling people traitors, fascists and antisemites is not possible without eventually depriving such statements of their weight. In an interview conducted in 1974 Böll said: "Verbal violence is sometimes worse than slaps or the violence of weapons".

Of course the human rights of Katharina Blum and Böll, and the honour of a country each fall under different legal judgements. However, instead of ‘witty' headlines it would be more appropriate to operate with notions that, although perhaps not so colourful, are nevertheless more accurate. Sticking to the former approach results in only two types of reaction: an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, or the Katharina Blum type of radicalisation. One is worse than the other.

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