Funding for Radio Free Europe to Return to Hungary Will Send a Strong Message
Rep. Kaptur (D-OH) serves as Co-Chair of the Congressional Hungarian Caucus and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.
In its 2019 report, Freedom House downgraded Hungary to “partly free,” a concerning development for our NATO ally that mirrors a dramatic rise in authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe. The shrinking space for a free and civil society in Hungary has been spurred on by pro-Kremlin mouthpieces, such as RT and Sputnik, along with increased corruption, economic state capture, and opaque financial flows – all contributed to by the Russians. As a result, the Hungarian people and their democratic institutions have become increasingly vulnerable to Vladimir Putin’s malign influence and his campaign to undermine the NATO alliance.
The Hungarian people have seen well established independent newspapers snuffed out, while social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are widely used by Moscow to spread disinformation, propagate hate speech, and sow public division. Advocates for democracy, the rule of law, and free media are on the frontlines addressing these challenges, but they need the support of the United States and our European allies. That’s why I support the re-establishment of Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Hungary.
The re-establishment of Radio Free Europe (RFE) with a physical bureau in Hungary, similar to that in Bulgaria and Romania, sends a strong message about America’s unceasing commitment to independent media, freedom of speech, and a strong civil society. As I have heard from my own constituents from the region, for decades RFE was a harbinger of hope, bringing light to millions in Eastern Europe suffering in the darkness of Communism during the Cold War. I have heard stories of thousands of families on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain gathered together around the radio, risking their safety for a taste of liberty and a window to the outside world.
During the Cold War, RFE was an important instrument to cut through government-sponsored propaganda and censorship. Communist regimes used propaganda and monopolized information as a weapon to control historical narratives and thus the social and political realities of their citizens. Rather than fabricate counter-propaganda, RFE merely reported facts. This effort eventually undermined the matrix of lies holding up the authoritarian regimes, for as they say, “knowledge is power.” Indeed, senior members of the government have historically praised the critical work of RFE, including the prime minister himself. If the Hungarian government seeks to maintain its democracy, it will certainly have no criticism against the relaunching of RFE and will most probably welcome it.
When RFE withdrew from Central and Eastern Europe, many believed that our work in the region was done. We assumed that the roots of democracy in places like Hungary were firmly entrenched. NATO and EU membership was viewed as the anchor leading to democratic transformation. Yet, as we know from our own experience in the United States, democracy is hard work. Liberty is fragile and its preservation requires constant care and attention from an informed citizenry. It must be nourished by free and fair access to information and free speech.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. Congress, on behalf of the American people, extended a hand of friendship to the people of Central and Eastern Europe. This included the Open World Leadership exchanges, Enterprise Funds, and pushing for integration into NATO and the EU. Such efforts helped to secure democratic reforms, economic opportunity, and cultural openness. That is why I have been disappointed to see troubling anti-democratic developments spurred by Russian influence in the region, such as in Hungary and Poland. Nations have once again revived outmoded ethno-nationalist narratives that led to centuries of conflict on the continent. Democratic civil society activists, organizations, and initiatives have been targeted and their funding cut off. Much of these strategies to choke off civil society come from Moscow.
In a time of rising authoritarianism, the United States must now exert its global leadership as a force for liberty, democracy, and free media against tyrannical regimes. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.