József Szájer: What does the MEP sex scandal tell us about Viktor Orban's Hungary?Comments
The resignation of a scandal-embroiled politician is always going to make political waves and headline news.
But what sets the case of Hungarian MEP József Szájer apart is not just the nature of the scandal he finds himself at the centre of, but also the manner in which it is being reported on by the media is revealing in itself.
Szájer, the most senior figure of Hungary's governing Fidesz party in Brussels, was caught by police attending what has been reported as a gay sex party in an apartment above a café in the Belgian capital on Friday evening. As well as trying to escape via the guttering of a neighbouring apartment, police found drugs in his backpack, something he denied in a statement to the Hungarian media.
The matter would be enough to sink any political career but in Szájer's case, the potential damage to the credibility of a Hungarian government pursuing staunchly anti-LGBTQ policies is even greater given the hand he has had in shaping the country's domestic politics.
"Szájer is probably most well-known in Hungary as one of the persons who drafted the constitution and actually the constitution is one of the central pieces in this story because first of all, in 2011 when it was drafted, it banned same-sex marriage. Or at least it said it was unconstitutional," Aron Demeter, programme director at Amnesty International Hungary, told Euronews.
Legal recognition of gender changes was ended in May and more recently, the former MEP has been instrumental in drafting proposed new amendments to the civil code, driven by Viktor Orbán's right-wing government which seeks to enshrine "Christian values".
One amendment, which defines the relationship between a parent and child as "the mother is a woman and the father is a man," would amount to a constitutional ban on same-sex adoption.
"That this is something that Szájer affected and he is the most senior figure of the Fidesz government in Brussels, makes this story even more absurd," Demeter said.
Szájer's actions, and those of the Fidesz government, have been called hypocritical in Brussels.
"He is enjoying the freedom of LGBTI community here in Brussels and at the same time, his party is condemning the LGBTI community back in Hungary," French MEP Manon Aubry told Euronews.
"He was even one of the main writers of the constitution that criminalises that community in Hungary".
However, the full facts behind Szájer's fall from power have arguably been stifled in Hungary, thanks in no small part to strict government control of the media landscape which has been years in the making.
"The messages that have been communicated about the Szájer case in both pro-government media and state media have been clearly controlled daily about much of the sensitive details; every reference to this being a sex party where the MEP participated," Zsuzsanna Végh, an associate researcher on Hungary at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Euronews.
"If you listen to state radio or watch the state news, you wouldn’t even understand why he has to resign just because he participated in some party and broke the current COVID restrictions, because that is the story that they communicate and that’s where it ends".
Restrictions on press freedom
Along with Poland, Hungary has become a bête noire in EU circles because of its apparent erosion of core values of EU membership, namely the primacy of the rule of law and a free press.
Hungary is ranked 89th on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, falling two places behind where it was last year, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and dropping 33 places overall in the last eight years.
"One of the areas that have particularly suffered over the last decade under the Orbán government has been the freedom of media, starting really from 2010-2011," Végh said.
Orbán has asserted his party's control over Hungary's media, including influencing the output of public broadcasters.
According to independent research cited in a 2019 report by the European Federation of journalists, nearly 80 per cent of news is "financed by sources decided by the ruling party".
The latest assault on press freedom came with the establishment of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) in 2018. As well as concentrating nearly 467 media outlets under one monopoly with a board made-up of government appointees, KESMA has also acted as a tourniquet on media advertising revenues to all but pro-government outlets.
Nearly all regional media outlets have also fallen under the auspices of Orbán's media empire. Those outlets that retain their freedom face an uphill battle to accurately report the goings-on in the country.
"Free media, independent media, has very little access to official sources, which was even worse during the pandemic situation," she said. "They regularly are ignored when they are posing questions in press conferences and very often also attacked by politicians and pro-government outlets".
The disparity of reporting in the Szájer case between independent and state-controlled media has been stark. While outlets like news website Index.hu and have widely reported the full facts behind his resignations, including Szájer's involvement in a sex party, the story itself largely absent from pro-government outlets - including newspapers Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, which instead focused on familiar Fidesz target billionaire George Soros - or reported in brief that he had stood down because he broke local lockdown restrictions.
Changing the narrative
Given its dominance of the Hungarian media, will the government succeed in mitigating the fallout from the scandal?
"It’s quite early to tell but it’s clear that the state media and the pro-government media are in distress as I think they are still looking for the angle how to report on that story," Demeter said. "One quite recent angle from today is that these allegations that this has been done by an unknown foreign power, or more likely some kind of secret service. That Szájer is a victim in this case because he is such a strong advocate of traditional values in a liberal city and a liberal regime".
Demeter is not alone in suggesting that the likely tack of the government will be to sell the idea that Hungary, and Szájer in particular, had befallen a conspiracy to subvert its domestic agenda.
Végh, too, believes Orbán and pro-government media outlets will try their best to spin the story.
"Obviously here the issue, in my opinion, is not the sex party or in itself the sexual orientation of József Szájer," Végh said. "The issue is the hypocrisy of the Hungarian government and the Fidesz party, and I think this definitely impacts on the image of the government and that is why they are trying to hush the whole case and push it under the rug."
Orbán has already attempted to limit the damage of the scandal, confirming to Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet that Szájer not only apologised and resigned over the matter but has also left the Fidesz party, of which he was a founding member.
"What József Szájer did does not fit in the values of our political community. We will not forget nor deny the work he did in the past 30 years, but his act is unacceptable and can not be defended," he said. I
It's unclear whether Orbán's distancing from Szájer will be enough to quell the tempest.
"Potentially, if they cannot push it under the rug, then another track that the government media may try to take is to portray Hungary and the Hungarian government as the victim of attacks from Brussels because of the Hungarian veto about the MFF [multi-annual financial framework]," she contended. "That this is some sort of retaliation against Hungary because it tries to block the adoption of the MFF".
Stirring up anti-EU sentiment has been a successful tactic used by Orbán in the recent past. If anything, raising the spectre of foreign inference by the EU in domestic Hungarian affairs will only "further escalate" existing tensions with Brussels, Végh added.
Tempers are already beginning to fray in the European People's Party (EPP), of which Fidesz was a member but has been suspended. Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch this week made comparisons between the Gestapo and the EPP chief Manfred Weber amid an ongoing spat between Brussels and Hungary.
And what of the status of the Hungarian LGBTQ community in the wake of Szájer's resignation?
"Whether it [the scandal] will change the government’s narrative and the government’s intention to further violate human rights of LGBT persons, I would seriously doubt that," Demeter said. "My experience with this government is that they will most likely find an angle on the Szájer story and they will probably push through all these amendments and probably further amendments in the future. So I don’t think they will back down because of this".
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