I’m really delighted to be here to have an opportunity to hear from you. There are two main reasons I wanted to meet with this group. The first is to hear about your experiences in dealing with issues of media freedom and the press in Hungary on a day-to-day basis and the challenges you face in doing so. But also, and equally importantly, through my presence here to send a signal of support for you and your work.
It’s very important for the United States to demonstrate that we stand by free expression and free media, and I hope that the very fact of this event helps us to do so. We share with Hungarians immense pride in the progress that Hungary has made in the past twenty years. Through courageous efforts, Hungary has transformed itself into a mature democracy, and taken its place in Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the EU, and you have much to be proud of. This success is obviously mainly due to efforts of Hungarians, but in the United States, we like to think that we had some part in helping to bring about this historic transformation as well.
From people who have accomplished so much, much is expected. With Hungary’s hard-won political maturity also comes responsibility, which is exemplified in part by Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union. As the leader of a community of democratic countries like the EU, Hungary needs to set an example for the others who are in the process of accomplishing similar transitions.
This is a difficult process for any country, because words like “transition” imply that there is an end state. But, we know that the process of democratization in some sense never really ends, and sustaining liberty and democracy requires constant vigilance, and an on-going conversation among different elements in any society. This conversation can be uncomfortable for political leaders, but it is our strongly held view that contestation and opposition are the essence of a mature democracy. Every democratic society needs to regulate vitriol. We certainly know that, and are having a debate about it in the United States. And those expressing their opinions should do so responsibly, but if efforts to regulate that vitriol end up stifling the conversation, then they endanger democracy itself. And in Hungary’s case, that would endanger the hard-won successes of the last twenty years.
So as leaders of media and civil society, you all play an indispensable role in promoting that conversation. And for that reason, not just here, but everywhere else we go, we seek to engage civil society leaders and representatives of the free media beyond the government to demonstrate our support for the open conversation that every democratic society needs. In this particular case, I’d be very interested in hearing from you, not just your views on the broad principles, but the specifics of how the new media law affects you and what we should know about it.
Because of our close relationship with Hungary, we take a special interest in Hungary’s continuing effort to define its democracy. I know you’re all in regular touch with the Ambassador who keeps us in Washington apprised, obviously not just on the media law, but more broadly on developments in Hungary. But it’s great for me to have the opportunity to hear from you directly, and I look forward to your thoughts on the situation.