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Hungary bristles at U.S. diplomatʼs criticism of press freedom

U.S.-Hungarian relations suddenly took an unfriendly turn after the U.S. chargé d’affaires made critical remarks regarding freedom of the press in Hungary. The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade labelled the remarks as "unsolicited interference in Hungarian domestic affairs."

David Kostelancik (pictured above), Chargé dʼAffaires of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, participated on Tuesday at a meeting with Hungarian journalists and foreign diplomats accredited to Budapest. In his speech, Kostelancik noted his countryʼs continuing concerns about press freedom in Hungary.

"In recent years, the United States has spoken on multiple occasions about negative trends in the sphere of press freedom in Hungary. Unfortunately, these negative trends are continuing," said Kostelancik.

Among concerns he listed, Kostelancik said that "government allies have steadily acquired control and influence over the media market, without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies." He added that "journalists who work for these outlets [...] tell us that they must follow pro-government editorial guidelines dictated by the outlets’ new owners," and that, in addition, the government "directs substantial publicly-funded advertising contracts to the outlets of friendly owners, and almost none to independent outlets."

"In a recent alarming development," he went on, "some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary.  This is dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media."

"The United States unequivocally condemns any attempt to intimidate or silence journalists," Kostelancik said in conclusion to the above-expressed concerns. "Protecting freedom of the press is a shared and sacred commitment, and a vital, ongoing imperative that must be practiced and valued in my country, in Hungary, and in every country that lays claim to democracy and freedom."

Criticism ‘unacceptable’ to government

Responding to the criticism the next day, Levente Magyar, minister of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, referred to the "alleged shortcomings" in freedom of the press in Hungary cited by Kostelancik by saying that "nobody asked him to make statements."

"Hungary as a sovereign state rebuffs any attempt by any country to interfere with the parliamentary elections due in a few months," Magyar added. "It is unacceptable for anyone to make remarks about Hungarian democracy, as Hungary would not express its point of view on other statesʼ domestic affairs. The Hungarian government is not expressing its positions on American domestic affairs nor about freedom or human rights, although it has some."

Magyar warned that should statements such as those made by the U.S. chargé d’affaires be made in future, it would "make the work between the two countries significantly difficult."

"Hungary expects the United States to make absolutely no comment on Hungarian developments," Magyar added, according to a statement sent to national news agency MTI, but as yet unavailable on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This is not the first recent occasion that comments from a foreign diplomat have triggered a brusque reaction from the government. In August, Hungaryʼs ambassador to the Netherlands was summoned home for consultations after outgoing Dutch Ambassador Gajus Scheltema voiced strong criticisms of the Hungarian government in a newspaper interview. The step signified a severing of diplomatic ties with the Netherlands at ambassadorial level, which were only resumed at the beginning of October.