Photographers Banned from Hungarian Parliament

László Kövér, president of the legislature, banned photographers working for the online news portals origo.hu and index.hu from the Hungarian parliament.

Kövér claims that the photographers violated a rule of the house which prohibits taking pictures on which the manuscript formats of speeches given in the Parliament are “discernible and legible.”

Last Monday, origo.hu published an article with the title “What did Viktor Orbán Strike Over in His Speech,” which described last-minute omissions from the country’s defense plan. Their primary evidence, a picture of the notes lying in front of the Prime Minister during his speech, also suggested that Mr. Orbán’s speech a patchwork of hasty composition:

"Sniper-photographers" - read: photo journalists operating outside of the influence of the government - recorded for posterity the text of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's speech in the Parliament, September 12, 2011.

The “Country’s Defense Plan” included, most famously, a program which will allow the repayment of forex loans at rates amounting to up 28% of loan forgiveness while deferring the losses directly to the banks. Mr. Orbán’s speech contained 6 points, which, thanks to high-resolution photography, we now know were merely the distillation of the output of a mind much more productive at the brainstorming stage. Deleted was for example the idea (to which the text refers to as “the government’s decision”) to give permission to the socially disadvantaged to shop in a state-sponsored “social network of stores,” which would sell “special goods with simpler packaging cheaply.”

Journalist Emília Krug, who was in the newly created press area during the delivery of the speech, recalled witnessing the Prime Minister’s temporary confusion between a subsequent printed page and an entire page’s worth of handwriting recorded on the back of another. Incidentally, Mr. Orbán was ensnared by his own manuscript right on the point he was intent to make crystal-clear: that the rate of the repayment would be fixed at 180HUF for Swiss franc.

Here is a magnified version of the notes Mr. Orbán used while giving this speech, as captured by Gáspár Riskó of index.hu:

The close-up of the text of the speech.

[For a jumbo-sized, super-legible version click here - use the "Nagyítás" option.]

The “snatching” of these pictures was facilitated by the fact that, starting this legislative season, the press is banned from the boxes located directly behind the delegates, and they are now relegated to the small area on the gallery immediately on top of the main speaker’s podium.

The view from the Hungarian Parliament's gallery. Journalists are now allowed only in the gallery spaces directly above and behind the presiding officers.

Notification of the banishment of the photographers reached the internet portals on the following day, the day after the incident, though the wider public did not find out about these measures until the beginning of this week. The denial of access to the building extends to any photojournalist accredited by these media outlets for a period of unspecified length.

Neither the photographers of origo.hu nor of index. hu were therefore able to record the moment at which the Hungarian parliament voted into law an economic proposal that not a single economist of the country was willing to endorse.

Merely a week after being introduced as a bill, the forex repayment plan – which I wrote about here – is now the law of the country, with the eminent exception of a clause that would preclude members of parliament to draw personal benefit from their legal creation (even though this modification was publicly endorsed by the leader of the ruling Fidesz party, János Lázár).

Kudos are due however to index.hu for trying. Their resilience and their creative streak (but most importantly László Szili) produced the following visual tools for envisioning the events in the country’s legislature today. These are also reports of what independent media looks like in Hungary today (here’s the link to more):

Fidesz MP/Christian Democrat Péter Harrach's speech would have put Jesus Christ to sleep. It certainly did the representatives. Of its "content," we are unable to report anything.

Gábor Vágó (of Green Party) LMP: "People-skinning!" "War on the Poor!" "Servant-tax!"

Lázár: "There's no need to fear for the banks" Visual reporting from the Hungarian Parliament by banned media outlet index.hu.

Mr. Kövér’s office wants to avoid any appearance that his new press rules have anything to do with the increasing desire of the country’s ruling party to control the visual representations of the nation’s sovereign body at work. His decision – as well as a series of measures restricting the media’s access to the legislature since his election as president – cite rationales such as preserving the dignity of the parliament, avoiding perturbance to the work of the delegates, and European practice.

One might recall, however previous attempts to visually reassure Hungarian citizens about the work taking place in the Hungarian parliament.

Perhaps the earliest of these was officially known as the sit-in order (bennülős rend), an unofficial rule of the ruling Fidesz party’s parliamentary caucus which specifies that at least 70 members of the parliamentary caucus – aside from the proponent of the bill under discussion, as well as the government officer responsible for the policy area – must be present at all times while the parliament is officially in session. 70, it seems, is the magic number to pass in order to avoid the conclusion that the parliament only rubber-stamps the decisions of the government.

The sit-in order took effect at the beginning of last October, but already by October 12, it was a complete failure, as a still from the report of the Hungarian State Television (Channel 1) testifies:

Less than 70 representatives of the ruling Fidesz party participate in a legislative session on October 12, 2010.

The situation only got worse when the opposition decided to abstain from the parliament’s deliberations of the country’s new constitution, on the principle that a nation’s founding document requires society-wide consensus-making:

Only delegates of the ruling party Fidesz are present for the parliament's deliberations over the country's new constitution in March of 2011.

The most heroic effort in defense of preserving appearances in the Hungarian parliament took place during the same period – during the discussion of the country’s constitution. Deliberations of the draft of the constitution were televised, but the fact that the rows of the legislature were stark empty did not bode well for publicity purposes.

Not until the earnest Pál Kontur – a Christian Democrat personally appointed by Viktor Orbán as the founder, the organizer and now president of the right-wing Fidesz’s Worker’s and Employees’s division – started wandering around in the hall. Wherever a speaker raised to deliver a speech, i.e. wherever the cameras were directed, that is where he decided to sit, and that is where he went on nodding approvingly. As the pictures show, several of his peers joined in the “mass amplification” effort.

Pál Kontur sitting in front of speaker László Salamon. Plenary session of the Hungarian parliament, March 23, 2011.

The speaker is the same, but the detail is rearranged. Pál Kontur (left) now sits in his own seat, several others joined in the group, while a few left.

Here, Pál Kontur sits next to Fidesz MP Lajos Szűcs in an effort to fill up the rows on which the television cameras are focused - note his fellow delegate in the row behind, who was also a part of the previous group arrangement.

"I would walk 500 miles": Pál Kontur had now made the track to appear behind another speaker. In front of him, Rósza Hoffman moved 8 seats and 2 rows to increase the appearance that delegates are present to hear these speeches.

“It is very hard to speak in front of the country and the world, and it feels good when one is encouraged by his peers,” said the remarkably mobile member of parliament, openly admitting that he sat next to the speakers intentionally. “If someone sits next to us, it gives us security” continued Mr. Kontur. “This is like being a family. If there is someone behind or next to us, then one works better.”

The visual effects of the “Kontur detail” were announced to the Hungarian public by the photojournalists of the tabloid newspaper Blikk. Eventually, Mr. Kövér’s policies may threaten precisely this genre of comic/investigate photojournalism.

What is to remain without documentation are the legislators, who feel secure in agreement with one another, who find encouragement in their conformity, and who are increasingly preoccupied with appearances, and appearances only.

Update: Starting Monday, Sept. 26, the photographers were allowed back to the Parliament again. But check out the protest art competition inspired in the meantime by this affair.

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This entry was posted in Fidesz, Forex loans, Hungarian parliament, Hungary, János Lázár, László Kövér, restrictions of media freedoms, Viktor Orbán and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Photographers Banned from Hungarian Parliament

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