Under international pressure over an anti-gay law, Hungary’s hard-right prime minister Viktor Orban made a bid to pitch his ideas directly to European citizens through newspaper advertisements in multiple languages published in the last week.
It came as Orban found himself increasingly isolated among fellow European leaders over the law, which banned the depiction of gay people or education about homosexuality in content for under-18s.
The legislation linked homosexuality with paedophilia, as it was nominally about combatting child abuse, and caused uproar across the continent that overshadowed everything from a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels to the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, coinciding with the month in which Pride is marked.
Presumably publicly funded, the advertisement was headed with the insignia of the Hungarian government and signed at the end by Orban himself. It laid out seven charges against the EU.
“In Brussels they are building a superstate,” the English-language version of the ad began. “We say no to a European empire.”
It continued with objections against NGOs, migration and the European Parliament, and appealed for the goal of “ever-closer union” to be deleted from EU treaties and for the admission of Serbia as a member state.
The advertisement was published in Danish by broadsheet Jyllands-Posten, in French by Le Figaro, in Czech by newspaper Mladá fronta DNES, and in Spanish daily ABC.
At least two Belgian newspapers refused to publish it. La Libre Belgique ran a story about how it had declined the ad, describing it as an attempt by the Hungarian government to “get its message across abroad without a journalistic filter”.
De Standaard went a step further. It published its own full-page advertisement featuring a rainbow flag. “Dear Viktor Orbán,” it read. “No government should dictate how to speak about love.”
In an accompanying piece, editor-in-chief Karel Verhoeven explained that the newspaper could not take money from a government that had worked to shut down Hungary’s independent media.
“It is too cynical to sell media space to a government leader who has restricted the free press in his country,” Verhoeven wrote, calling the law a “blatant violation of human rights”.
“If in a European country the law is to once again dictate again what love is legitimate and how we can talk about love, we have to counter it with all the freedoms we have. The freedom of the press, which we as editors and you as readers hold dear, lends itself perfectly to this.”
The Irish Times is among the newspapers to have declined to run the ad. It was an attempt to influence discussion over an issue that was the subject of reporting – something fairly normal for governments – but done in a way that used cash to bypass the usual editorial process to get space directly on the page.
Orban was not the only one going out of his way to make a statement this week.
The rainbow flags that peppered advertisements by sponsors at the Euro 2020 matches were impossible to miss at the sidelines of the pitch.
Several brands changed their advertising to signal their support for diversity in the wake of a decision by governing body Uefa to refuse a request from the Munich local council to light up its stadium in the rainbow colours for a Germany-Hungary match last week, because of the political context that it was in response to Orban’s law.
The Uefa decision triggered a backlash. Rainbow flags bloomed across Europe on sports stadiums, town squares and the European Parliament.
Among the city halls to fly the flag was none other than the Hungarian capital Budapest.
A liberal who took City Hall in 2019 in an upset for the ruling party Fidesz, Karacsony is a man who knows how to make a statement. After the Hungarian government agreed to install a Chinese-backed university in the city, he renamed four streets in the district “Free Hong Kong Street”, “Uighur Martyrs’ Street”, “Dalai Lama Uighur”, and “Bishop Xie Shiguang Uighur” after a persecuted Catholic priest.
He also initiated the “Pact of Free Cities” – a commitment to democracy, rule of law, tolerance and diversity – with fellow mayors of the Visegrad capitals of Prague, Bratislava and Warsaw.
“The rainbow flag has come to the Budapest City Hall in honour of the time of Pride month,” Karacsony said of the decision to display the banner. “It is a stand here and now against all forms of hatred and in favour of a cohesive society, human dignity, freedom and love.”