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Bell raises ‘serious’ concerns about Hungary, praises relations

Although U.S. Ambassador for Hungary Colleen Bell praised American-Hungarian relations and called the two countries “partners, allies, and friends”, she raised concerns over corruption, the Paks deal, the handling of civil society and media freedom, in a speech at Budapest Corvinus University yesterday evening.

Raising concerns

Nearing the first anniversary of her tenure in Hungary – she has been the ambassador for ten months – Bell said she has spoken with representatives from many demographics. “I listen to government officials across Hungary. I listen to politicians from across the spectrum. I listen to members of civil society. I listen to community leaders, to business people, to students and scholars, to law enforcement, to religious communities, to the military, and to other Hungarians. These concerns have been echoed by the European Union, the OSCE, international organizations, and groups who track levels of freedom and adherence to the rule of law in countries around the world,” the ambassador said.

“Corruption in Hungary is a serious concern – quite clearly a top concern of average Hungarians, as I have heard, and as public polls consistently show,” she said, adding that corruption can be combated by “reforming government procurement systems, by holding elected officials accountable, including requiring elected officials to disclose their assets. And by building trust with citizens by allowing open access to information that directly impacts them.”

She said that the data of officials who are found guilty of corruption should be made public, as should their prosecution and that “public knowledge would help build a bridge of trust with all citizens, across the political spectrum, from every walk of life.”

The ambassador also raised concerns about Hungary’s deal with Russia on the expansion of the country’s sole nuclear power plant in Paks, saying that public knowledge would also “change the game in the energy sector if members of the public could see the details of the Paks II nuclear deal.” Urging the government to provide more information, Bell said: “We look to the Hungarian government to increase transparency, starting with the details of this deal. A free, fair, and open energy market will make a difference. Extreme secrecy within your government goes against the spirit of transparency laws.”

Bell also expressed concerns over how the Hungarian government has been treating non-governmental organizations of late, stressing that an “independent civil society sector is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy.” She said that a “government crackdown on the freedom of several NGOs to operate in Hungary began in 2014, and it has continued this year as well – with persistent audits and investigations. Last year, government officials openly accused several human rights and watchdog NGOs of supporting the opposition and being foreign agents. At one point, there were more than 50 NGOs being audited by the government, including all of the most prominent human rights watchdog organizations and independent civil society advocates. Fortunately, the Hungarian justice system has provided some protection for the targeted NGOs. A Hungarian court in January ruled that a police raid on watchdog NGOs last year was illegal.”            

In connection with freedom of the press, the ambassador said that “Hungarian politicians, intellectuals, and members of civil society speak of a marked decline in press freedom. This decline limits discourse and discussion on matters of importance to the Hungarian people. Freedom House now categorizes Hungary as only partly free in the area of press freedom following a five-year decline. Let’s be clear – Hungary is not a place where journalists are jailed and tortured, and we are not suggesting this is the case.  But rather, the concerns we have take the form of concentrated media ownership and pronounced subsidies to state media. These subsidies have the potential to profoundly distort the media business landscape, raising the barrier for any new voices to enter the media market and driving smaller outlets to the brink of insolvency.” The ambassador also raised concerns over controlled media, saying there is “further control exerted over print and television outlets through choices to channel advertising to specific entities. Individuals have taken advantage of the very low legal thresholds for filing civil – and criminal – slander and libel lawsuits, which can further economically damage outlets that are perceived as critical of the Government. The Media Council, which should be an ombudsman standing up for an independent press, is filled with appointees from just one political party.”

Praising relations

In the beginning of her speech, Bell praised the bilateral relations of the two countries and expressed her gratitude for Hungary’s help in NATO and military actions. “We are grateful for the Hungarian military’s continuing presence in Afghanistan and the Balkans, its hosting of the Heavy Airlift Wing at Papa Air Base and the NATO Center of Excellence for Military Medicine here in Budapest, its active participation in air policing in the Baltics and over Slovenia, and its ongoing support in the fight against ISIL, among other contributions,” the ambassador said.

The ambassador also praised the economic cooperation and investment and trade. “On the economic front, the United States is one of the largest foreign investors in Hungary and the biggest consumer of Hungarian goods outside the European Union … Investment and trade between the United States and Hungary mean jobs and economic development in both our countries. As with any successful long-term commitment, both sides must find that they are better off. There must be mutual prosperity for there to be sustainability … These investments have shown that increasing our economic engagement provides clear benefits to both sides.”

She praised Hungary’s efforts in being “a great partner” in law enforcement and counterterrorism. “For 20 years, Hungary has generously hosted here in Budapest the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA); truly one of the best success stories of our bilateral cooperation. When terrorism and extremism around the world threatens the very foundations of our free and democratic societies, it is more important than ever that we work – sharing information, best practices, and know-how.”

In connection with Hungary’s regional policy, Bell said that “we recognize Hungary’s efforts on behalf of your neighbor, Ukraine. Hungary voted repeatedly for EU sanctions against Russia and has supported the EU consensus on the need for adherence to the Minsk process. We also welcome the Government of Hungary’s decision to restore reverse-flow natural gas to Ukraine, ensuring that the people of Ukraine, in the midst of all the challenges they face, are not threatened with having no heat through the cold winter.”

Building bridges

Bell entitled her speech “We Will Build a Stronger Bridge”, referring to strengthening and deepening relations between the two countries. She said America has already raised concerns and will continue to do so as “a friend of Hungary”, in order to strengthen relations. The bridge methodology follows the ambassador’s entire speech, which is concluded as “the bridge works both ways. We know this, and we more than accept this – we welcome it. Because we know that if we, as a people, stop striving to be good, we will stop being great.”

The full speech of Ambassador Colleen Bell can be read at the U.S. Embassy’s official website.