Dismantling Culture, Education, Science and the Media in Hungary 2010–2019
This report has been prepared by independent Hungarian intellectuals who wish to inform the Hungarian and international public as well as European institutions about the severe harm that the Orbán regime governing Hungary since 2010 has caused in the fields of education, science, culture, and the media.
The reason for preparing the present report is that the acts of the successive Orbán governments consistently run counter to and consciously violate the fundamental principles, values, and norms of the European Union, not only as regards the rule of law and political and social rights, but also in the case of the cultural areas discussed here. In Hungary, important European values are being jeopardised, including cultural diversity, scientific and artistic autonomy, the respect for human dignity, access to education and culture, conditions for social mobility, the integration of disadvantaged social groups, the protection of cultural heritage, and the right to balanced information, as well as democratic norms like ensuring social dialogue, transparency and subsidiarity.
By presenting the activities of the Orbán regime in the fields of culture, education, research, and the media, we provide information about areas little known to the international public. With our report, we wish to draw attention to the fact that an autocratic system has been constructed and consolidated in Hungary with the money of EU taxpayers and with the financial and political support of EU institutions. This system creates a worrying democratic deficit and severe social problems, while it also causes irreparable harm in the fields of education, science, and culture.
The authors of the report are leading researchers, lecturers, and acknowledged experts, including several academicians, professors, heads of departments, and a former Minister of Culture. The undertaking was initiated and coordinated by the Hungarian Network of Academics.
The report claims that the Orbán regime considers culture important only as a means that helps achieve its political goals. The government’s approach to culture is well illustrated by the fact that education, research, the arts, cultural heritage as well as healthcare and social care all belong under the same ministry.
The processes observed in different areas of culture (understood in a broad sense) show several similarities. Strong centralisation has taken place in every area over the past ten years, even if in slightly different ways.
The central political will is ensured by a radical reorganisation of ownership: in certain cases the short‐term political goals of the government are best served by renationalisation (e.g., the nationalisation of schools previously run by local governments), in others, the government interferes with the private market through complex transactions conducted with the help of its oligarchs (e.g., buying up opposition media), or it may even privatise former state‐run institutions or manage them through foundations (e.g., in higher education). Another typical method besides nationalisation is outsourcing certain public cultural functions (e.g., established churches now play a key role in education).
In addition to the transformation of ownership relations, the management of cultural areas is also characterised by extreme centralisation and manual control. Decision‐making, even in minor questions, has been pushed up to the higher levels of public administration, which has irrational consequences and often results in an inability to function properly. Extreme centralisation is accompanied by dilettantism, which leads to chaotic situations. The Orbán regime has no experts on cultural policy with a clear vision of the state’s role in preserving and developing culture and of the significance and limits of this role, or who could understand the importance of maintaining the autonomies inherent in this sector.
The Orbán regime politicises all aspects of culture, thus abolishing the autonomy achieved by certain cultural areas. The cultural policy of the Orbán regime does not rely on the specific characteristics and criteria of the various cultural fields, it only takes into consideration whether those engaged in cultural activities are loyal to the regime. As in all other areas, social and professional consultations have been eliminated from the decision‐making process regarding culture; and this has led to a series of ill‐considered decisions that only serve the interests of persons and groups close to the prime minister and lead to chaotic situations.
Instead of aiming to be conservative, preserving or conserving, the Orbán regime approaches culture with a transforming, re‐interpretative and radical attitude. The regime’s voluntarism is evident from the fact that if it cannot achieve its goals through the already existing, embedded, and relatively autonomous institutions, then it establishes new parallel institutions with a reallocation of public resources to these.
Symbolic politics has a key role in sustaining the Orbán regime. Symbolic politics focuses on national cohesion, nationbuilding, the ethnically based unification of the nation across the borders, and the symbolic strengthening of the role of Hungary as a middle power in the Carpathian Basin. Official national policy considers Hungarians living outside the borders part of the “nation’s body”, while the Hungarian citizenship given to these minorities and the significant support provided to their institutions by the Hungarian state serves the internal and external political goals of Fidesz.
The regime is characterised by the unscrupulous appropriation of national symbols and the sacralisation of power. Government discourse defines national cohesion on the basis of race and ethnicity, built on the symbols of Hungarian prehistory and legends. In the meantime, the opposition is excluded from the nation and is portrayed as an enemy serving foreign interests.
Government communication makes serious efforts to continually sustain the psychosis of fear and menace. Similarly to the practice of totalitarian dictatorships, simplified posters and fliers reiterating messages of a few words play an important part in the political communication of Fidesz. The propagandists of Fidesz use a wide range of means of linguistic occupation of the public sphere from coining new words through militarising public usage, to pathetic and kitschy metaphors, scapegoating, and the dehumanisation of their political opponents. These means were also put to use in the hate campaigns against the refugees, George Soros, and Brussels. Orbán’s speeches and government communication repeatedly designate enemies and exaggerate the significance of their actions by accusing them of participating in a global conspiracy. The war on critical intellectuals is fought not only through voluntarist and administrative interventions into the field of culture, but also by means of symbolic politics and propaganda. Certain groups of intellectuals and independent civil organisations are regularly targeted by the media empire financed by the government.
Symbolic politics and all‐pervasive propaganda are primarily meant to ensure the loyalty of groups at the lowest levels of social hierarchy, whereas in reality, social inequalities are becoming increasingly conspicuous, and the economic and social policies that focus on the interests of the national middle‐class, eliminate the elementary forms of solidarity from the system of public redistribution, neglect and even despise the poor and the disadvantaged.
The Orbán government has involved the churches in its culture war, putting them into the service of ideological retraining. The regime exploits religious sentiment for its own legitimation, the sacralisation of power, and the justification of its timelessness and unquestionability.
The Orbán government’s radically centralising, arbitrary and half‐baked interventions have caused severe damage in public education, aggravating the effect of the significant reduction of resources. Public education is no longer capable of training youth to become interested, open‐minded, and future‐oriented members of a modern, knowledge‐based society with diverse and adequate competences. After 2010, schools owned by local governments were renationalised and subjected to an institution centralised to the extreme. The dictatorial management of education since 2010 has led to severe violations of the rights of pupils, teachers and parents alike, while professional consultation bodies and coordination forums have ceased to exist. The central measures made obligatory the framework curricula which restricted the autonomy of the teaching staff, abolished the textbook market, and significantly overburdened teachers by increasing their teaching and administrative workload, thus schools no longer have the opportunity to implement pedagogical strategies adjusted to the abilities of their pupils. The government has put public education into the service of its own ideological goals: central interventions into the curriculum do not aim to update the material and the pedagogical methods, on the contrary: they serve the indoctrination of outdated and extremely conservative contents.
Although the professed aim was to increase equal opportunities, PISA surveys reveal a widening gap between the performance of students coming from different social backgrounds and settlements. Reducing the age limit for compulsory education from 18 to 16 years of age, the termination of desegregation programmes, and the preferential treatment of religious educational institutions, which only increases segregation, further enhance the disadvantages of those left behind. The material and the daily time spent at school significantly increased, creating a work overload for students and teachers. Vocational education was drastically oversimplified, and the proportion of general subjects was reduced to a minimum. Students and teachers demonstrated against their increased workload, as time spent in school, compulsory teaching hours and administration have extremely increased.
The current regime distrusts universities and intellectuals and underrates the social significance of knowledge as well as the European values of freedom of learning, education, and research. Universities are kept in financial dependency, turned into obedient executors of the government’s intentions. The government directs and controls the institutions’ operation by appointing financial chancellors besides rectors, thus seriously restricting the universities’ autonomy. Distrust of intellectuals is also manifest in the government’s measures taken deliberately to narrow opportunities of entering higher education. Thus, in Hungary – in contrast to international and European trends – the number of students in higher education is decreasing. This primarily means that youth of a less advantaged social and cultural background are excluded from higher education.
The government is trying to limit or hinder the activities of educational institutions deemed dangerous – especially in the field of social sciences – by compelling students to pay tuition fees for certain majors, by establishing parallel institutions, and by administrative means (e.g., expelling Central European University (CEU) from Budapest). In order to train civil servants to obediently serve the government’s policy, the National University of Public Service (Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem ‐ NKE) was established and is excessively financed while lecturers at other universities need to work for humiliating salaries in run‐down buildings with outdated infrastructure and equipment.
The internationalisation of higher education is given a significant weight among explicit governmental goals, this, however, is not directed at the integration into the European Higher Education Area but at the strengthening of the government’s African and Asian foreign policy relations and economic network.
The government strives to strengthen political control and to restrict professional and institutional autonomies in its science policies, as well. In 2015, OTKA, the Hungarian Research Fund for Science and the Humanities, responsible for financing basic research, was relocated in a government agency.
In June 2018, ideological attacks on academic researchers and institutions appeared in the government‐affiliated media. Shortly afterwards, the government – violating the effective legislation – withheld from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences two‐thirds of the budgetary support it was entitled to by law, the sum destined to finance its 15 research institutes. One year later, despite the resistance of the Academy and protests of the Hungarian and international scientific community, the government separated the research network from MTA by the force of a new law. A new institutional framework was created for the research institutions, which placed them under the supervision of a body whose composition guarantees that the government’s intentions will be carried out; its president is the personal scientific advisor of Viktor Orbán. With this reorganization the freedom of research can be severely restricted. This contradicts the principles laid down in the Fundamental Law of Hungary. The minister’s statements reveal an intention to restrict basic research and to support especially applied research in technology and natural sciences. Besides the strict control of academic institutions, the Fidesz regime also uses another method in the field of history and social sciences: it has founded an alternative network of government dependent research institutes in order to strengthen its own politics of remembrance, while closing existing ones which opposed this remembrance policy. The aim of these measures is to ensure the hegemony of the official interpretation of history and to confer the appearance of scholarly legitimacy to the government’s rewritten narratives on Hungarian history.
The distribution of public money in the field of arts is highly centralised and is also based on political criteria. It is characterised by a lack of transparency that makes it often impossible to trace; as a result, the distribution of resources among the participants in the sector is highly uneven.
The government has ensured its two‐thirds majority in every board that makes decisions about the financing of culture by subjecting the previously independent National Cultural Fund (Nemzeti Kulturális Alap ‒ NKA) to the Ministry of Human Resources (Emberi Erőforrások Minisztériuma ‒ EMMI) and by giving the Hungarian Academy of Arts (Magyar Művészeti Akadémia ‒ MMA), loyal to the government, one‐third of votes in every decision‐making body. Thus, MMA has a considerable influence on culture and the arts without actually having gained a real cultural significance, despite its excessive state funding. It is a reason for concern that the National Cultural Fund falls under a so‐called ministerial budget, with no professional control over its utilisation.
Since 2010, a government majority rules over boards that appoint theatre directors, regularly evoking outrage with their decisions. The corporate tax system (TAO), introduced in 2009, which, despite its disadvantages, had meant a steady source of income for theatre companies, was abolished in January 2019 and replaced by central funding based on political preferences. This change damaged independent companies the most, while its main beneficiary was the National Theatre, which has had a right‐wing management since 2013, but has only been moderately successful in ticket sales.
In the field of music, informal relationships have an increasingly great importance in the allocation of resources, the members of professional boards are not appointed by consensus, and the composition of these boards rarely guarantees professional control. The costs of maintaining classical music institutions are high, productions are expensive, and private sponsorship is undeveloped, therefore the dependency on the state is more substantial in this field than in the case of literature or fine arts. Strong financial dependency, the lack of transparency in the system of applications, and highly personal decision‐making procedures force the participants to develop political loyalty and to lobby. The government is not reluctant to sponsor music, there are significant amounts spent on the support of classical music, but their distribution is ad‐hoc and arbitrary, and there are also leaders appointed on political grounds whose professional activities are often controversial. At the same time, however, the destruction and takeover experienced elsewhere has not become typical in music life, which might be explained by the fact that most classical music genres are not suitable for direct political instrumentalization.
In the field of literature, billions have been allocated to two institutions led by openly pro‐government literary managers. Most projects of the Talent Development in the Carpathian Basin Ltd. have been failures so far, and the Petőfi Museum of Literature is meant to become a “literary power centre”. There are also plans to create the Petőfi Literary Agency within the latter, the purpose of which is still unclear at present. Meanwhile, the funding of literary associations established after the regime change and committed to democratic culture has been drastically reduced.
In the field of contemporary fine arts, political selection works in a covert but all the more efficient manner: there are not enough resources, institutional partners, exhibition spaces and publicity, thus the conditions of artistic creative work are not secured, and the institutional guarantees of artistic freedom are missing.
The Orbán government has also centralised the allocation of public funds for film production: the former public foundation which operated as a social and professional organisation was replaced by the Film Fund managed by government commissioner for film Andy Vajna. In spite of this, the financing of films was far less influenced by government policy than anticipated, while the evaluation criteria introduced by Vajna have proved efficient and led to a boost in the production of Hungarian feature films. Nevertheless, it may be suspected that Vajna’s person and influence further strengthened the hegemony of American films in Hungary, and the practices he introduced often seem to explicitly contradict the recommendations of the Council of Europe on national film policy. Furthermore, it does not bode well for the future that after Vajna’s death the experts who had professional standing, left the National Film Fund and were replaced by professionally insignificant members.
Since there is no ministry responsible for culture, museum professionals do not even have the opportunity to acquaint decision‐makers with their opinion on the orientation taken by the development of individual institutions and the network of institutions as a whole. The 2013 Act on Museums no longer requires a field‐specific degree from museum directors. Museum directors are thus people loyal to dominant national or local political or economic circles. Aspects of power and representation as well as touristic and business aims replace the professional points of view in the management of museums. The law of 2013 abolished county museum organisations (in which the smaller museums of a county were affiliated with a central museum), and these museums are now managed by towns. The state seized the ownership of collections and of properties, except for the museums in larger towns. Local authorities have closed parts of collections citing property development reasons (e.g. the section representing the houses and everyday life of Finno‐Ugric people in the outdoor museum of Zalaegerszeg). The government establishes new museums without consulting those involved and makes decisions about relocating national collections in order to further its own political goals and to cater for the financial interests of influential party members and entrepreneurs. Museums in the countryside barely subsist, and research has been put on the back burner. Museums are underfinanced, the initial salary of professionals with a university degree is at subsistence level, while the workload is irrationally high.
The core activity of the National Széchényi Library is collecting and preserving the documents of written Hungarian cultural heritage. Being underfinanced, the library cannot perform this task. Its official acquisition budget has been 0 (zero) HUF since 2006. Even the nominal value of its annual budget has been decreasing for about 6 years, while its utility debt has reached 700 million HUF. As a result, the library cannot even pay its employees the legally guaranteed salaries. Moving the National Széchényi Library from Buda Castle is part of the government’s symbolic politics: cultural and scientific institutions are forced to move out of the Buda Castle district so they can be replaced by government offices. Having said that, building a new edifice to host the national library would be a justified move. The National Széchényi Library can no longer perform its tasks at its present location, and its storage facilities are completely full. However, instead of erecting an up‐to‐date 21 ‐century library building, the government has chosen a cheaper solution, i.e., moving the library to another location. This is not a feasible solution, as the buildings mentioned in the press from time to time (e.g., former military barracks) are unsuitable to house the national library.
2012 saw the abolition of the only central institution of protection of Hungarian historic monuments, which had existed since 1872. As a result of mostly ad hoc, irresponsible, and often chaotic decisions and reorganisations that lack any coherent strategy, the professional organisation of the protection of historic monuments has been completely eroded since 2010, and professional decisions cannot go against the political will. There are only few individual projects – backed by massive propaganda – on a national level, mostly entirely pointless reconstructions of long‐destroyed buildings, which cannot be conceived as real conservation work on historic monuments, but which are very expensive and contribute to creating false national consciousness. The institutionalised national protection of historic monuments has practically ceased to exist in Hungary.
Since 2010, Fidesz has raised from public money its own media empire, which today covers around 75 percent of the political‐public media market. State advertisements cost hundreds of billions a year, most of which land at the media close to the government, while multinational companies and Hungarian firms give in to the political pressure and tend to spend the majority of their money assigned for advertising at pro‐government media. The few remaining independent media try to survive without advertising revenues.
The media funded from public money has become an instrument of overt government propaganda. It does not meet any requirement of public service, its information sharing activity is unilateral, biased, and partial, important news are often concealed, while the distortion of news and the deception of the audience are regular.
The deliberate ambition of the governing party, which directly or indirectly influences the majority of the media market, is to oust trust‐worthy, reliable, value‐based media from the public space and to fill their space with low‐quality, superficial tabloids that offer oversimplified, ready‐made news that take advantage of fears, and are based on lies, and half‐truths.
The report shows that in the ten years since 2010, the activities of the Hungarian government in the areas of generating and transmitting knowledge, creating culture, and preserving the cultural heritage have set the country back by decades. Autonomous cultural institutions and the professionals they employ have suffered huge losses, have exhausted themselves in upholding resistance, and have little energy left.
The Orbán regime, although it wears the mask of Christianity and surrounds itself with the props of democracy, has turned its back on Europe, on progress, on the values of universal culture and civilisation, through its ethnic‐national exclusivism, its anti‐Enlightenment stance, its radical anti‐humanism, and its denial of elementary human solidarity with those in need, whether Hungarians or refugees. The present overview of the developments in Hungary may have a significance larger than itself: it may serve as a cautionary tale of the long‐term consequences that can be expected when populism becomes the governing force in a country, dismantling the system of checks and balances, and using cultural institutions to serve its own political goals.