Article by Hunor Király, Foundation for Development of Democratic Rights (DemNet), Budapest
After mass protests against the internet tax in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spoke about the issue on national radio. International media interpreted his statements as a retreat; a victory for the protesters – and democracy. They were wrong, and their headlines worked in Orbán’s favour. A retreat after demonstrations is an easy story to tell. However, his following steps, after his smoke and mirrors act, will not be that easy to interpret, but the expected outcomes are even worse than the original law: overall regulation of internet and the dampening down of a vociferous protest movement. First, let’s review what happened over the last few weeks.
The tax and the protests
On October 26, four days after the internet tax was announced more than 10,000 protesters marched to the governing FIDESZ party’s headquarters, some of them throwing old computer parts at the building. The protest was a bottom-up initiative: people had had enough. Or at least some of them. The last five years were all about overnight-laws, largely in the form of regulations that were enacted without the required preparation or due consideration: neither experts nor stakeholders were consulted. Why now? Why the internet? Protesters are trying to find answers to these questions themselves. They argue on blogs, the Facebook page of the protest, and produce many self-reflective memes.
If I had to summarise all the jokes and memes, it would go something like this: ‘We know this tax is all about control, and we should be shouting for the freedom of information, and what not. And we just shout for our torrents. But hey, at least we are shouting.’
And yet, that Sunday night was a new hope for a many us both inside and outside the borders. Maybe there is a tipping point. As political opposition has disintegrated, the only way anything can be changed is through a bottom-up, self-organised approach: the people. But do people know what’s actually happening in a country where more than 90% percent of the media reach is in the hands of the government and their friends?
It’s probable that most Hungarians react as they did in the ’80s. They know the official news is a ‘different reality’, but they don’t know or care about other sources of information. They simply close their doors, as they did for 50 years, and take no notice until the problem comes knocking. Alternatively, they leave the country before it happens, before it affects their lives directly. The official version is 300, 000 expats, the unofficial estimate is over a million.
So a mass protest like this comes as a surprise.
A lot of the participants consider this hope fragile. ‘Yet we have to be here.’ they say. ‘There are so many ways to fail, but we have to do this. We have to try.’ The main risks they talk about are:
• The remains of the opposition, discredited politicians trying to hijack the protests and sour the mass. The organizers, and many bloggers and commentators called upon them and warned them not to come.
• Government-organized ultras, football hooligans mingling with the crowd, starting riots. On October 26, there were ultras in the crowd, and they tried to start vandalising. Luckily there were not many of them, as the protest was very spontaneous. Their organizers didn’t have time to get more people. Still, national television and FIDESZ’s Hír TV covered the protest as riots, a brutal attack on FIDESZ headquarters, showing ultras.
The government started to back down on the internet tax initiative, introducing a new capped version, while depicting the protesters as a ‘minor crowd’ of hooligans. In two days, another protest was organised.
On October 28, the protest continued. Reuters cited about 100,000 participants (probably inspired by the name of the Facebook-group 100,000 Against Internet Tax) while the pro-government media a more conservative 8-10,000. Another example of parallel realities in Hungary. The raw reality is about 15-20,000. On October 28 it became clear, this is not only about torrenting the latest episodes of Game of Thrones. EU flags, and the most popular slogans, ‘We want Europe’, ‘Russians get lost’, ‘Victator’ reveal this is about the values behind the protests.
And then Orbán speaks on the radio.
What did Orbán actually say?
Orbán spoke about the issue during an interview on a national radio morning show. International media interprets his words as a retreat. And that is a big mistake. There is a good wrap up of what he actually said in Éva S. Balogh’s article. I will highlight only the most important sentences, and misunderstandings.
• ‘The tax will be adopted, but not in it’s present form.’
• ‘People are baffled and influenced on this issue. We have to discuss issues relating to the internet,’ (not the tax, the internet!) ‘and the need, because the internet has to be regulated.’
• ‘We will start a National Consultation about internet in January.’
Now this is the primary misunderstanding. International media reported ‘a national consultation’. But this is incorrect; note the capitalisation. You imagined a consultation with experts and stakeholders, and the public? You are mistaken. It is important to understand what is meant by National Consultation.
An advanced populist tool
National Consultation is an advanced populist tool, introduced in 2010. It is used in cases when the government faces controversial political issues, but needs to appear as if it has vast public support. It comes in the form of an expensive direct mail campaign: a questionnaire containing very loaded questions sent to every Hungarian household. The questions and the options are formulated in a way that;
• they are direct propaganda material for FIDESZ supporters,
• they are literally impossible to answer if someone disagrees with the government’s suggestions.
There is no transparent analysis, details have never been published, but all five National Consultations were announced as a great victory: the vast majority of the population agrees with the government.
So what to expect?
An internet tax in one year. And heavy handed regulation of the internet ‘supported by a majority, according to the consultation’.
Publicist Péter Új wrote: ‘Orbán is not a good strategist but an excellent tactician.’ I agree. He managed to perplex protesters (should we continue or not?), and bluff western media. Good move.
The next protests are scheduled on November 17. With less protesters or more? Nobody knows.