Radio Free Europe Is Poised to Return to a Less Free Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary — During the Cold War, the United States beamed its own radio service to Eastern Europeans starved for any information that did not slavishly adhere to the line of their authoritarian leaders.

In Hungary, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it rolled up that service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in 1993, considering the collapse of Communism to be mission accomplished.

So it is likely to be taken as something of an affront to the current government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban that the United States may relaunch the pro-democracy news agency.

The move by the United States Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency, reflects Hungary’s drift away from a free and open government, and is a blow to President Trump’s outreach to the country’s far-right prime minister.

The service’s relaunch in Hungary still awaits a greenlight from Congress, but that may come this month.

“We’ve done our homework, and we know this has broad backing, and we’re preparing to move forward,” said the agency’s chief, John Lansing.

He said that the service’s initial budget could run up to $750,000, and that a bureau would be established in Hungary. He expects a soft launch of the service in May 2020, with a hard launch one year from now.

Radio Free Europe’s mission is to bring independent news, albeit with its own pro-Western tinge, to places “where a free press is banned or not fully established.”

Its return to Hungary could be perceived as a rebuke of Trump administration policy toward Mr. Orban.

Since returning to power in 2010, Mr. Orban has meticulously crafted what he calls an “illiberal” state, using his power to unilaterally overhaul Hungary’s Constitution, change the country’s election laws to favor his party and undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Today, Mr. Orban’s allies control the public media and most of the country’s private news media, creating a centralized pro-government echo chamber for hate speech, ethnic identity politics and conspiracy theories, harping on anti-Semitic tropes and extremist rhetoric to bolster his party’s base.

At the same time, Mr. Trump has cultivated Mr. Orban as an ally. The two leaders met in May, when the Hungarian prime minister was invited to meet with the president in the Oval Office.

“Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Orban, whose government has come under intense criticism in recent years for its authoritarian turn and increasingly close relations with the Kremlin and China.

David Cornstein, the American ambassador to Budapest, sought to blunt the effect of Radio Free Europe’s return to Hungary.

Mr. Cornstein, a retired jewelry merchant from New York and personal friend of Mr. Trump, sought assurances from the agency that its service would not focus on negative stories about the Hungarian government, or investigative journalism, and that it would not undermine his efforts as ambassador, according to United States officials.

The officials who described the meeting asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.


CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

“It’s literally illegal for the U.S. government to interfere in our editorial independence,” Mr. Lansing said.

Asked for comment, Mr. Cornstein said: “In general we do not comment on private discussions. That said, I remain as committed today as I was when I made clear during my Senate confirmation hearing, that as ambassador I am committed to promoting American and democratic values, including the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.”

Since Mr. Orban’s return to power, Hungary has plummeted in the World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking of countries’ press freedom by the group Reporters Without Borders. Allies of the government have control of most newspapers, television stations and radio stations, and are increasing their online presence.

At the same time, Mr. Orban has steadily undermined the workings of many of the country’s other democratic institutions.

Elections are held on a playing field tilted in the government’s favor. Civil society organizations are labeled public enemies and find their work stifled by legal obstacles. And courts are stacked with longtime associates of the prime minister who are careful not to act against his interests.

Yet Hungary is not alone in a troubled neighborhood that includes Bulgaria and Romania, despite all three being members of the European Union and NATO.

The three rank among the most corrupt countries in the European Union, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. And even before the decision to return to Hungary, Radio Free Europe reopened its services in Bulgaria and Romania this year, having closed them in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

Hungary, unlike Romania and Bulgaria, remains the only European Union member to be downgraded to “partly-free” by Freedom House, an American democracy watchdog organization.

Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank and consultancy, said Mr. Orban had modeled Hungary’s centralized media structure on the example set by a much larger neighbor to the east, Russia.

Hungary’s pro-government media is adopting many of the Kremlin narratives found on Sputnik News and RT. They offer a steady doomsday narrative of the decline of the West as a result of mass migration, multiculturalism and ultraliberalism.

‘‘Orban has already mentioned Russia several times as a model state,’’ Mr. Kreko said. ‘‘Orban’s policies in education, media and toward the NGOs are obviously inspired by Putin.”

And as the Kremlin has done, allies of Mr. Orban are taking the model abroad, investing in the media in countries such as Britain, Romania, Slovenia and North Macedonia.

This year, the House Appropriations Committee encouraged the restart of Radio Free Europe’s service in Central and Eastern Europe to counter the Kremlin narrative and combat corruption.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House in May called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to bolster efforts in Hungary against corruption and Russian influence, and to strengthen the independent news media and civic groups.

“There is a growing understanding on both sides of the aisle now that there are challenges to democracy and the rule of law in countries like Hungary and Poland,” said Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

For some, the moves have not come too soon. In 2012, Charles Gati, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University, co-wrote an opinion piece calling for the return of Radio Free Europe to Hungary.

Mr. Gati — who was 22 when he left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviets crushed a rebellion against their occupation — welcomed the return of Radio Free Europe to Bulgaria and Romania this year.

As for Hungary, he said, “It is high time for us to do this.”