Things Were Supposed to Be Different in Hungary

Four years ago, I thought technology would help bring freedom to Hungary. It didn’t happen.

The letters CEU, for Central European University, appear on a building, next to a traffic sign with arrows pointing straight ahead and to the right.
The logo of the Central European University is pictured in Budapest on Dec. 3, 2018.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/Getty Images

Hungary is back in the news, and the news isn’t good.

The Hungary-based, U.S.-accredited, thoroughly cosmopolitan Central European University announced it is closing up shop and moving its campus to Vienna. This may not attract broad attention, but I heard the news with a pang of frustration.

Things were supposed to be different.

It was in the fall of 2014 that democratically elected Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban announced a law that would tax the internet. This infuriated everyone—liberal and conservative, old and young, rich and poor—and everyone turned out onto the street. I was there, too—both as a social movement scholar and as a resident of a country that seemed to have come suddenly alive.

I was a professor at CEU, thrilled to work for a university whose mandate was building knowledge and experience that promoted free and open societies. My students came from all over the world, studied with leading scholars, and proceeded to go back out and work for the greater good.

So when the protests broke, I hit the street together with my graduate students and citizen journalists. We used a newly acquired drone to film the protests—effectively democratizing surveillance. In the prior year, I had participated in poorly attended protests alongside handfuls of people, but this was different. From the surging crowd, you could feel the enthusiasm, solidarity, and hope for a better future. From the air, we could see that the crowds were huge, stretching as far as the eye could see.

We later estimated tens of thousands of people turned out. The government said the numbers were lower, but our drone footage suggested otherwise and quickly went viral.

The government eventually dropped the internet tax law. The people celebrated. I wrote about the experience for Slate, gave talks about our experience, and decided to write a book about how drones democratize surveillance.

Fast-forward to yesterday: Perhaps that should be Hungary’s motto, as the country has passed more and more policies against the freedoms we all celebrated after the end of the Cold War. The freedom of assembly with like-minded citizens to advocate change is a hallmark of democracy, and exactly the kind of thing targeted by the likes of Trump, Putin, and Orban.

Central European University includes academics who are critical of the Orban regime, and the university’s primary sponsor is the philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of Orban’s wrath and right-wing consternation. After years of bullying and haranguing by a presidential administration intent on passing new laws that violate international law and push the University into noncompliance, Central European University has announced it is leaving Budapest. The challenge to the internet in 2014, the harassment of civil society groups (including Soros’ Open Society Foundation’s operations in Budapest, which recently decamped to Berlin) since 2014, and the eviction of CEU this week are all in keeping with the oligarchic playbook that lately seems to be passed freely between Russia, the United States, and the Philippines.

The public’s defeat of the internet tax was tactical, but the government’s authoritarian trajectory was strategic. In 2016 the European Court of Human Rights determined that the country’s digital surveillance practices violate European Human Rights rules. But the forces that ultimately drove CEU from Hungary have more to do with the deliberate erosion of trust in civil society groups and outsiders, whether they are undocumented migrants or world-class scholars.

When in 2015 the government invited my collaborators and me to a conference in order to announce new legislation that would prohibit gathering the kind of drone footage that helped fuel the movement, we should have seen the writing on the wall. When efforts to democratize surveillance are curbed by a powerful government, you can bet it won’t stop there.

Many are calling for a sustained show of support for both CEU as it decamps for Vienna. They are right. But we should also mobilize a show of solidarity with the amazing civil society groups that remain in Budapest, taking a stand against the oligarchy.

The watchdog group Átlátszó (a word that means transparent in English), for example, partnered with my team to make those videos of the protest I mentioned earlier. They were viewed tens of thousands of times and the internet tax was dropped. Sustained support for groups like Átlátszó will hold the Orban administration to account despite the gap left by outbound CEU and the the audible silence from the White House.

Now, Orban will find a new somebody to scapegoat. He knows he won’t be punished for it: Foreign investment has only increased since those protests of 2014. Illiberal democracy and global capital make efficient bedfellows. The question is how long either can survive without open and vibrant civil societies.

Hungary knows that answer, after all it endured Russia’s Cold War vigil against free speech, free association, and free thought. It’s a shame it has chosen to repeat history.