It should be a well-known fact to those who are trying to catch up on the recent de-democratization of Hungary that the country has recently enacted a media law which instructs Hungarian journalists to remain “fair and balanced” in their reporting. Those in the US already know quite a lot about the idea of a “fair and balanced” media, thanks to the use of the same terms by Rupert Murdoch and Fox News (what an interesting inspiration for the politics of a small nation in Eastern Europe – I’ve been wondering ever since I first read about it whether the connection is intentional).
This next story, however, is special one even among those for which a “fair and balanced” approach practically amounts to the censorship of the journalist. It is a special story because in this case it is for ethical reasons that we cannot and should not remain impartial, disinterested, fair, or balanced in our appraisal of the Hungarian situation. In this case, it is our ethical obligation to stand up to the thugs roaming the streets of Hungarian small towns, to affirm the principles of the rule of law, to condemn the calculated attempts to intimidate, to point out the illegality of advocating that a group might be collectively responsible for actions committed by specific individuals and to display the racist sentiments behind these actions as the hate crimes that they are – both under international law and the law of the country in which they take place.
Civil guards – a paramilitary organization of private citizens closely connected with the far-right nationalist party Jobbik – have taken up residence in small Hungarian villages, and most famously in Gyöngyöspata. Though the situation has for almost two months served as the ongoing spectacle against what is otherwise an already worrisome political background – the events distract the average citizen from the passing of a new Hungarian constitution, recent efforts to raise penalties attached to the media law, etc. – hardly anyone, besides perhaps Amnesty International, is reporting about the English-speaking media about what’s taking place. One of the reasons behind this, it seems to me, is that the story is way too complex to relate to non-Hungarian speakers, or to those unfamiliar with how Hungarians live. As I will describe below, from the perspective of the conscientious journalist, there is an awful lot of background information to research and to communicate to the reader – including questions as elementary as who these Romas are, why they are hated so much, and just why the civil guards think they must monitor their every step in order to defend law and order on the streets of Hungary.
While I’m never one to advocate against engaging in the finest details and even the most imperceptible nuances of a story, what I would like to show here is that such supposed journalistic conscientiousness is in fact contrary to one’s ethical obligations when it comes to reporting this specific story. In other words, that in this case, less is certainly more; and one of the factors that causes the plight of the Romas at least as concerns the occupation of Gyöngyöspata is our standard treatment of news stories in which two parties in conflict have equal rights to represent their points of view.
Whether We Tell The Story Concisely or in Length Matters
We engage in the details of this news story at our own peril. This might sound unusual, considering the fact that it is the single most pressing political issue we are talking about in Hungarian politics. The story, however, could be summarized in exactly one paragraph – without missing much of the details, I would claim. Troops of civil guards comprised of volunteer white Hungarians and sympathizers of the far right-wing party Jobbik) have been a menacing the Roma population in a number of small towns in Eastern Hungary. Their supposed aim is to keep up order on the streets: to prevent crime through their watchdog activities. In a small town called Gyöngyöspata, they have set up a camp right next to the neighborhood populated by the Romas to practice using weapons. They march on the streets, they harass Romas, and they invite journalists to bear witness to their activities.
This is the story. After the First World War, both the National Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany (Hitler’s party, a.k.a. the Nazis) and the National Fascist Party of Italy (led by Mussolini) had unofficial, “volunteer” paramilitary arms. The idea behind these organizations was that, for both parties, the acquisition of power required a lengthier “breaking in” of the rest of the population. There were two ways one could achieve this, and a quasi-army under the command of the party leader worked perfectly for both. Some people could easily be intimidated into acquiescence by the paramilitary’s show of power. Demonstrations of physical power were especially efficient in keeping this segment of the population from resisting Hitler’s and Mussolini’s rise to power. And then there were people who had to be beaten into obedience. In either case, therefore, the successful capturing of state functions by these parties required having their own army.
Hitler made it the task of the SA to provoke minor confrontations with his political enemies, the Communists. They would clash in a street, leaving behind injured and casualties. Mussolini’s brown skirts, before Mussolini’s seizing of power, were also used against what were his strongest rivals: the far-left. Later on, as the SS, a more centralized paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party took over from the SA, the far-right paramilitary were also in charge of executing the “final solution” for the Jewish population. These “voluntary” military groups remained party organizations, until the end of the Second World War, accountable only to their party superiors, but not the laws of the country, or to the ethical mandates of humanity.
When we recall these episodes of history (and the Hungarian paramilitary do sometimes float idea about a “final solution” for the Romas, so there is no reason to ignore the historical parallel), do we care to know the details of these activities? Do we need to know what exactly these thugs thought? Do we need to know what they would have said in front of the microphones of a TV reporter and what presentation they would have given about their ideologies? Since there entire purpose was to create intimidation on the streets, and to stifle a democratic discourse that would have prevented Hitler from his rise to power, do we need to know exactly how many people they injured, in what manner and who exactly provoked the skirmishes in which these injuries occurred? Do we need to know exactly what details they affirm of exactly which type of conspiracy theory that scapegoated the Jewish population, do we need to know the smallest details of their feverish and delusional beliefs?
Not only do we not need to know – we don’t know. I’m sure there are academics who can fill in the gaps, but such lack of knowledge has never prevented us from having a fairly thorough knowledge of the period, of the causal relationship between far-right ideology and war, and the generally despicable nature of the acts in which these paramilitaries were involved. What I’d like to suggest is to keep ourselves to the big picture in this case too.
Not only do we not need to know – we don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m sure there are academics who could fill in the gaps. But we can all rest assured that our lack of knowledge of these matters did not manage to prevent us from forming a fairly informed opinion about this period. We can connect the dots into a causal relationship between far-right ideology and war. We have no difficulties seeing the operations of these paramilitaries as despicable and spine-less acts. What I’d like to suggest is to keep ourselves to the big picture in this case too. This is why this is not a story of a conflict. This is why it’s not a story in which each party to the story should be sought out to weigh in with their perspective of their story. This is a case where plotting the two sides against each other, as if they were both gladiators pleasing the bread-and-circus-hungry evening news audience is thoroughly unjust and unfair.
Just like Jews did not see in the activities of the brown shirts the long-awaited extension of the state’s power to keep up a happy existence in Hitler’s Germany, and just like Mussolini’s political opposition did not welcome the black shirts for the same reason, the Romas, who are the primary target of these “civil guards” are also not mistaken about the real reason why these paramilitary keep roaming their streets. What these civil guards are doing is by no means close to being “noble,” as they frequently claim. It is illegal, and for this reason, the Minister of Interior, who is the relevant authority in the country when it comes to making decisions about policing the country, had already issued several ultimatums for the civil guards to leave their posts.
There goes your story. Thugs blinded by their racial hatred, capable of inflicting violence on citizens arbitrary and looking willing to do so are present in the neighborhoods populated by an ethnic minority. The Hungarian government is either incapable or not entirely willing to do something about it.
There is no doubt in my mind that the press must continue covering this story – especially since, as they seem to not be able to rely on protection by the police, the Romas are under siege and in potential life-threatening danger. In this respect, the presence of the press protects them, or at the very least documents the atrocities taking place in Gyöngyöspata.
What becomes the focus of the media’s reporting, however, is by no means indifferent – not for the purposes of remaining “independent” as a reporter, which, as far as I’m concerned, is much more important than being fair and balanced. It is important to keep in mind that, for the purposes of the civil guards, media attention is just as primary an aim of their occupation of Gyöngyöspata as the intimidation of the Romas. They need an outlet through which to spread their racist theories, they need a medium in which to lay the seeds for their intimations of the grave dangers of the “Roma terror” in Hungary – this #1 issue of Hungarian political life.
Along comes, however, the effort to remain fair and balanced, or, what it becomes in the case of this story: to relate “both” sides of the story. The civil guards consider that there is grave danger and lack of security to the public without their presence. They point at various crimes committed by individuals belonging in this ethnic minority. They make it sound like it was not even their idea to “serve” their country in such a selfless way – that they are indispensable to “keeping the peace” in these towns between Romas and non-Romas.
The American experience can relate many maddening examples of fake “two-sided” issues for those not yet familiar with what this “he-said-she-said” kind of journalism can contribute to their political treatment. My favorite one is the “dilemma” between evolution vs. creationism. The latter is the doctrine that, since God created the universe, human science should account for this version of how the universe has come about, and should definitely not make mention of “evolution” (or the Big Bang). There is an important difference between saying that there is an idiotic and uneducated theory that its proponent hope to elevate to the status of truth similar to that afforded to the theory of evolution, and between saying that, on each and every scientific dispute, a representative of creationism and of evolutionary theory will present their respective views on the matter at hand. The latter already does what the first only notes is a prerequisite missing in one of these viewpoints but not in the other: the treatment of an opinion as a theory of scientific value and significance.
Something similar holds true of the ongoing story of Gyöngyöspata. The reporting of the developments in this story is of course as much the responsibility of the media as the obligation to remain “fair and balanced.” Fair and balanced, however, is hardly the same as giving the status of equals to a reasonable argument that protests these paramilitary forces – and is backed by national and international law, as well as an ethical call for the equal treatment of mankind – and to the paranoid and hateful counter-arguments for perpetuating this social problem. What would be required is not the censorship of the civil guards, obviously, and journalism that exposes the true motivation of the thugs that are the shame of contemporary Hungarian society.