The use of public money in the political decision-making process has always been a controversial issue. The intervention of the state may easily distort the political competition among the different parties and candidates, and is also capable of undermining the open public debate. A special form of the state’s intervention is when the government itself launches its own propaganda-campaign, dubbing it ‘public information campaign’. In the following blogpost I shortly analyze the nature of the publicly founded state propaganda carried out by the Hungarian government between 2015 and the general elections of 2018.
To begin with, it is worth noting that the state propaganda carried out by the Hungarian government signals the end of liberal neutrality in Hungary. By liberal neutrality I mean the requirement that the state-outlets – especially those, who have the possibility to exercise public power – must take a neutral view, which is most probably acceptable for all members of the political community. In the recent years, we can witness the dawn of this understanding of the state’s role.
I also would like to underline that I use the term ‘propaganda’ intentionally, since what is happening cannot be described as mere information campaign; the communication carried out by the government aims to initiate a sort of emotionalism in the political community. The messages are incredibly simple, the information communicated is neither balanced, nor objective (in some cases even distorted), the communicative acts do not discuss arguments and counter-arguments, and their primary aim is to manipulate the emotions and the instincts (such as envy and fear) of the citizens. This kind of emotionalism makes the “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” public debate impossible, hence undermines the very foundations of democracy. But inducing emotionalism and eroding an open and reason-based public debate is not the sole purpose of the governmental propaganda.
The secondary aim is to channel public money to those media outlets which are loyal to the government. These media are kept alive by the fee paid after publishing the government’s ads. Even the genuinely independent media has been corrupted by this easy money. This process distorts the media market, provides unacceptable advantage for some media outlets, weakens critical journalism. Thus, in the end, it undermines the freedom of press and the open and reason-based public debate.
After outlining the nature of the government’s propaganda, I turn to examine the nature of three different forms of governmental campaign: (1) the state-propaganda during the so-called “peacetime”, when there is no political campaign going on; (2) during a referendum which has been initiated by the government itself; (3) and finally, the features of governmental campaigns during general elections. For this purpose I will use the decision of the concerned Hungarian authorities, such as the National Election Committee and the Supreme Court of Hungary (hereinafter: Curia). I also intend to propose possible solutions for the problems discussed. The basis of these proposals are rooted in the shared traditions and understanding of constitutional democracies.
1. State propaganda during “peacetime”
As I mentioned above, by “peacetime” I mean those periods, when there is no campaign – be it the campaign of general or municipal elections or a public referendum – going on, thus by “peacetime” I mean the supposedly calm everydays.
Considering the conceptual basis of freedom of expression, we can surely say that governments do not have a right to free speech. However, the public has right to information. Hence, the government’s information campaigns can be justified by claiming that these can provide additional information to the members of the political community, enrich the “marketplace of ideas” and fuel the free and open public discourse. Government dispersing any kind of opinion and ideas would pose the risk that the state’s propaganda – since the state outlets have a kind of authority in the public’s eye, and in addition they have access to a literally endless amount of public money – could distort and dominate the public discourse. But, since we cannot talk about the government’s individual claim for free speech, and the sole purpose is to inform the public, a restriction which limits the government-communication for sole factual information-service and excludes anything which aims to manipulate emotions, should be acceptable. The public has a right to information, but not to be manipulated.
2. Government-initiated referendum campaign
While thinking about a campaign preluding a voting, the first thing which should cross our mind is the requirement of a fair competition. In the case of a referendum, instead of parties, different ideas are competing in the political arena. Thus, fairness in this case means that all the important arguments and counterarguments should have the opportunity to reach the public’s ear. But it becomes impossible, if one of the participants has an endless amount of money to monopolize the “marketplace of ideas”. And since the campaign-period is limited in time and by the end of it a binding decision is made, there is not enough time for those, who try to spread their counter-arguments in a less robust way to successfully communicate their ideas. It is also worth mentioning that the limited public forums are more accessible for those with strong financial means. All in all, the government using public money to spread its message isbe capable of oppressing and silencing the counterarguments, thereby effectively undermining the fairness of the campaign before a referendum.
This problem has been addressed by the Hungarian National Election Committee and the Curia as well, in connection with the so-called Hungarian “migrant quota referendum” in 2016. According to the Committee’s opinion, since the government initiated the referendum, all those rights, which are granted to the initiator by the relevant act should be granted to the government during the campaign. The Curia reviewed this decision and concluded that it cannot be changed lawfully, however it made a remark about the government’s unique position, namely that it exercises public power. However, both of these arguments are faulty, considering the nature of representative democracies and the role of a referendum.
In a representative democracy, the responsibility for all the difficult policy-decisions falls into the competency of the government. Based on the outcome of the last elections, the government is entrusted to govern and make the hard choices. An exception is if a decision shall influence the life of the political community long after the mandate of the current government has expired. Consequently, such a situation may sufficiently justify the need for a referendum. But in this case the need for a well-informed decision is even more pressing, hence there is an even more fundamental need for objective, factual, real information and the government has to be made responsible for providing arguments and well-balanced counterarguments during the referendum campaign.
Thus, based on the logic of representative democracy, excluding governmental campaigns which aims to manipulate emotions and does not provide real information is the only correct solution. Such a limitation would support the effective realization of human rights and the ideals of representative democracy
3. During election campaigns
If we believe that during election-periods there should be a fair competition among the different parties and candidates, then this problem is a very easy one: no governmental propaganda is acceptable which helps and strengthens the campaign of the governing parties. However, the related recent decision of the National Election Committee proves that it is complicated to decide in these cases.
During the examination of a particular poster of the government, the Committee stressed that the government has an obligation to inform the general public about its policy. One glance at the discussed ads makes it clear that the government propaganda in this case did not communicate any kind of information but intended to raise fear.
The government’s ‘public information’ ad
The decision of the Committee has been overturned by the Curia, which claimed that the government or any state outlet which may exercise public power has no right to free speech. The Curia also underlined that the state outlets should ensure the fairness of the political competition, hence their acts during campaign periods should be neutral. If the advertisement-campaign of the government strengthens the messages of the governing parties, it interferes with the fairness of the election-process. It has to be underlined that the Curia invented a new test, which may help to examine the lawfulness of the governmental propaganda. According to the new test, the advertisements of the government (1) has to provide real information; (2) in a timely manner.
In summary, emotional propaganda, which operates on the level of instincts and has the potential to override rational arguments, has become a favorite tool in the hands of the illiberal government of Hungary. Still, fair regulation could be enacted – at least in those countries which still have time to adopt to the rise of illiberal strongmen in Western democracies – and independent courts and judiciary may serve as the safeguards of clean and fair elections.
The paper has been presented at the 5th International Workshop on Law and Ideology: Central and Eastern European Constitutional Liberal Democracy in Crisis in Vilnius on May 24, 2018. The research partially to this article was sponsored by Central European University Foundation, Budapest (CEUBPF). The theses explained herein are representing the own ideas of the author, but not necessarily reflect the opinion of CEUBPF.
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the HAS Centre for Social Sciences.