Because Common Cause International will be involved in a civil society strengthening project in Hungary this year I’ve been tuning into Hungarian politics and movements.  Just by coincidence I had the opportunity over the last week to talk to a group of parliamentarians about the controversial new media law that is creating so may waves in Hungary and throughout European capitals.  I am also in touch with some activists in Hungary and it is interesting to get both points of view.

My interest is primarily in the organizing effort but I will do my best to explain the debate about the law below.  The law was passed just before Christmas and already the Facebook effort has led to 73,141 “friends,” a public demonstration of 10,000 plus in Budapest, and other demonstrations in Germany, Austria and Slovakia.    In addition, the organizing principles of the group have been translated by Facebook volunteers into 16 different languages.  

I wondered how this effort compares to other similar groups and movements.  I poked around to see how many friends some of the major US groups have and was a bit surprised at how many more the Hungarian organizers have attracted in such a short time.  Sure, the NRA one of the largest US based non governmental organizations has 260,197 members, but they have been around forever.  Groups similar in size to Common Cause, like the League of Women Voters, and Free Press, and SEIU have between 6,000 and 15,000 “friends.” 

Movements differ from organizations (although organizations are often part of movements) so maybe we should compare the Hungarian media movement to say…the Iranian movement?  The primary Iranian movement Facebook page has 91, 754.  But again they have been around since the controversial elections in spring of 2009.  And Iran has a population of 72 million; the population in Hungary is around 10 million, 13 million if you add Hungarian speakers in neighboring countries. 

What about the Egyptian activist using new media?  A major Facebook page for former Director of the IAEA and Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei for president has a total of 245, 519 friends in a country of about 83 million people, and that has been up and running since February 2010. 

If you check out the website socialbakers  you can learn all kinds of interesting stats on leading movements on Facebook, unfortunately most of them are really silly and have no social impact like “we won’t pay to use Facebook,”  and “join this group and your name with appear in the Guinness Book of Records.”

I think it’s safe to say the Hungarians are doing well, really well, in identifying their audience, getting the word out, and moving people to action.  Gratulálok!

But what is all the fuss about?  Tough to say exactly because lawyers are still mulling over the implications of the law and I couldn’t find the actual text in English to decide for myself.  The details will surely be out sometime soon as the issue is receiving so much attention.   With the Hungarians assuming the presidency of the EU it is not likely to go away any time soon.

This is what I have learned:  The Parliamentarians I met with who are members of the newly elected center right Fidesz party say the law has been completely mischaracterized.  They undertook the changes at this time because the law was badly in need of modernization and it was the first opportunity to do so because political majorities didn't exist before now to make the necessary changes.  They also said that much of the law was adopted from other European laws and rejected the criticism from European capitals and other opponents as inconsistent with the substance of the law.  You can read their statement here.

The activists are angry that there was no public input or comment period regarding the law and have serious problems with what they perceive as an effort the stifle freedom of speech and intimidate media makers.  Their proclamation to the Hungarian is pasted below.


To the Hungarian Parliament, Constitutional Court and Administration

We who signed this proclamation: the Hungarian media workers and civilians disagree with the media law approved in 2010. This law trespass press freedom’s and free speech’s rights. We want the following actions in the interest of our constitutional rights and human rights:

1. review of constitutionality of the media act, and its amendment;

2. representation of media workers during modification of media act;

3. to guarantee the political independence of media authorities;

4. to erase the possibility of undue and arbitrary penalties;

5. to respect the secrecy - protected by law - and respect the confidential sources of journalists;

6. to make the independence of public media editorial offices into rights;

7. to call in and consult the human, political and free speech protection organizations to the preparation of the Public Service Code.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out.  The Fidesz party has to feel squeezed with all the descent coming from organized Hungarians and major allies across Europe.  Stay tuned.