Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Our unmasked realities - life in pandemia cultures

Media Freedom Hungary
© Sandra Kastl

Face masks have emerged as key symbols of the pandemia world. It is intriguing to recall Oscar Wilde’s dictum on mask wearing for the present situation: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth”. 

By Ferenc Hammer

In the present situation it is very much the case too, because the actual or imagined mode of contagion becomes the most closely watched channel of communication among aquaintances, friends, and even more so among strangers. These communication channels include a handshake, an embrace, and the numerous time/speces where strangers meet, such as streets, shops, offices, trams or pavements. 

Face masks have emerged as key symbols of the pandemia world. It is intriguing to recall Oscar Wilde’s dictum on mask wearing for the present situation: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth”.  He tells us that the very mask is, in fact, what may enable the wearer’s persona and intentions to become transparent, open to public scrutiny. 
The pandemic has served as a litmus test to a number of norms, relationships, processes of the polity, all relevant from the viewpoint of the study of the public sphere. The social fabric is in fact, a material variable in the etiology of the medical condition, that is, theories and practices regarding the nature of the contagion and ideas about fighting the disease, as Francois Delaporte put it succintly in his classic Disease and Civilization: The Cholera in Paris, 1832.[1]
„I assert, to begin with, that „disease” does not exist. It is therefore illusory to think that one can „develop beliefs” about it or „respond” to it. What does exist is not disease but practices.”
The pandemic has resulted a range of different practices at all corners of the society, let them be national legislators or corner grocery stores, very often representing remarkably different patterns of involvement, interests, values and agency. The set of nderstandable restrictions and perhaps not always understandable choices in power exercise behave as simple litmus tests. They unmask power exercise. The true face of power appears as they happen to be commit towards breaching the rule of law under the veil of special condictions of pandemia governence, or the opposite, when governments tend to choose self-restrictive modes of interpretations of the laws and rules.
Hungary’s political leadership, concretely PM Viktor Orbán has been singled out as one of the leading notorious political advantage seekers who use the pandemic to strenghten their monopolistic power center together with silencing their opponents, as suggested by VOA’s report in June.[2] S. Erlanger claims in the New York Times:[3]
„Authoritarian-minded leaders around the world have used the coronavirus emergency to consolidate power. In Europe, the governments of Poland and Hungary have done that and more.” 
This consolidation includes depriving municipalities with government of opposition parties of their regular income sources by a central decree, smear campaigns against opposition public figures by state-controlled media, or placing contested regulations into the constitution. With particular attention to the media, the indefinite period of crisis governance of suspending the parliament and governing by decree in Spring included a special provision against panic mongering that has been used to prosecute individuals for their Facebook comments on local or national political decisions over 100 cases, as Euronews reported about it[4].
In pandemia governance the medical overlaps with the sphere of communication. The claim that pandemia needs to be seen as a shared public problem implies that the country in question needs to have a public sphere with all its regular institutions, such as vigorously competing broadsheet newspapers, all with different political leaning, a reliable news agency, respected evening news programs at TV channels with seasoned anchors and commentators, a robust public service TV and radio system, if the country is in Western Europe, and so on. This sphere suffers from serious flaws in Hungary, such features are well known as government control over key media outlets, or the lack of high reach media outlets that perform a systematic control over the exercise of power. Just intuitively, any commentator can estimate chances for any shared public problem in a country where the prime minister did not have to face any critical question from a reporter aired live at a media outlet with national reach for a decade. Hungary is such a country. Personally, I have to admit that as a media scholar I have lost my sense regarding what apperars to be at the center of the public sphere, becuase the center, that is, the balanced, systematic, professional coverage and debate is missing, resulting a donut-shaped public sphere with a hole in its center.
Despite the present bleak outlooks there are journalists at the remaining independent, mainly online media outlets who cover the pandemic on high level including serious treatment of misinformation and hoax regarding the disease and the medical situation. Another journalists, on the payroll of of the govenrment-friendly oligarch circles usurping chunky bits from pandemic-related public spendings do smear campaigns against those critical to the government. As a pro-govenrment radio editor told me once at a media panel at a conference: „Editorial independence is an outdated dogma. My job is to supply good news and to entertain my audience, the rest is myth.” The remains of free media affected by the government’s regulatory or redistributive role try to survive, following Plans D, E, if plans A, B,and C are no longer possible. According to this camouflage and imitation doctrine, the most effective and editorially somewhat independent TV channel is operated by a born-again Evangelical church, the most important systematic analysis of the government’s work is done by a research foundation (and not an opposition party), and the public figure who criticize the prime minister with the highest reach is not a politician but a standup comedian.
In sum, the state of affairs at the operation of the critical public sphere is determined by a continuosly depriving tendency that is marked by a Partly Free classification by Freedom House’s country report in 2019 [5]. Pandemia experiences suggest in Hungary that politically and culturally deeply divided societies have become even more polarized and fragmented as a result of the crisis that tested severely their social fabric, particularly if governments abus their extra powers endowed by emergency rules.

[1] Francois Delaporte: Disease and Civilization: The Cholera in Paris, 1832. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press. p. 6.
[2] https://www.voanews.com/press-freedom/covid-pandemic-adds-pressure-hungarian-media
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/world/europe/poland-hungary-coronavirus.html
[4] https://www.euronews.com/2020/05/14/hungary-critics-silenced-in-social-media-arrests-as-eu-debates-orban-s-powers
[5] https://freedomhouse.org/country/hungary/freedom-world/2020