Hungarians Perceive Television as Open Channel to Quiz Authorities

The Washington Post

Cornered on national television, a Hungarian trade-union chief recently admitted that work stoppages had occurred in factories despite official intolerance of strikes.

Under similar pressure, the managing director of the national savings bank abandoned attempts to justify low interest rates on consumer accounts.

But the favorite revelation for Janos Ban, moderator of the popular program "66," came when a government labor official was bluntly advised that socialism's tenet of full employment ought to be abandoned.

"His answer began with something like, 'Do you know what you are saying?' " Ban fondly remembers.

Spontaneous Demands

What caused these outbursts on Hungary's state television was not the provocative questioning of professionals, but the spontaneous pressure of average Hungarians.

Under Ban's guidance, 66 citizens are regularly invited on the air to grill top officials about domestic issues--and to vote on whether their answers are acceptable.

The result is one of the more remarkable examples of how Hungarian television has been changed by the slow political liberalization of this most reformist of Soviet Bloc countries.

Under the watchful eye of Communist Party authorities, society's most powerful news medium is airing popular concerns and divergent views to an extent unthinkable in most East European countries.

Solutions Outlined

"It's simple: I don't believe there are questions that can't be answered on television," Ban said of his four-year-old program, which was inspired by American audience-participation shows. "On my program, the top officials are forced to discuss with the public. And if changes are needed, then they are forced to outline solutions."

Once considered daring, Ban's show is now only one of several Hungarian programs designed to call government to account. A recent entry, "Windows," invites consumer complaints about products and government services and then investigates them.

Another program, "Background to the News," also features aggressive questioning of government officials. When the national postmaster refused to appear, a host journalist responded by excoriating the mail service in front of an empty chair.

Television officials say the new programs, although ultimately faithful to the socialist system, are providing a rare channel for Hungarians to pressure and influence government.

Opinions Voiced

"These programs are a kind of forum where people can voice their own opinions," said Denes Damjan, vice president of programming for the two government-run channels. "At the same time, they are a kind of test tube for the government, a way of finding out what people's problems are and what measures ought to be taken."

This approach fits into a more general effort by Hungary's leadership to expand the bounds of participation and expression without giving up ultimate control of public life.

"The authorities no longer care about dictating expression in culture, but about defining its limits," said Miklos Haraszti, a dissident writer. "And there's a widespread belief that those limits have to be slowly expanded, even as you exclude the development of real alternatives."

The twin goals of this policy have most recently emerged in the government's preparation of a law regulating journalism, expected to be approved this month.

Law's Provision Praised

Journalists have praised the law's provision that requires all government officials to answer requests for information, opening the way for more coverage of sensitive subjects in newspapers and on television.

At the same time, officials point out that the law will provide a firm legal basis for cracking down on Hungary's samizdat industry, which now includes half a dozen clandestine political journals and an equal number of book publishers.

In what dissidents have interpreted as a signal of a harder line, police have sought to halt work by two samizdat activists, Jeno Nagy and Gyorgy Gado, by repeatedly conducting all-day "searches" of their homes in the last month.

Although few observers here expect that the government will eliminate independent cultural activity in the near future, authorities have succeeded in keeping most of Hungary's artists and intellectuals active within the official limits--an accomplishment that Eastern European governments no longer can take for granted.

Emaciated Culture

In contrast, underground publishing and other independent arts are far more widespread in Poland, while Warsaw's emaciated officially sponsored culture, despite frequent claims of liberalism, has in many areas been quietly surpassed in tolerance by Hungary.

Television offers one of the clearest measures of that evolution because it is the medium most jealously protected by Soviet Bloc governments. Even in the 1970s, when Hungary was well embarked on its widely watched program of relaxing central control of the economy, television was still dominated by a dull fare of "educational" programming and communique-controlled news.

In the last several years, many of the old programs have been canceled and replaced by popular entertainment, while programming on domestic affairs has been radically upgraded.

In the most recent step, the nightly television news has undergone its first reorganization in two decades. Young producers have replaced bulletin-reading with a more Westernized format of fast-paced, film-oriented coverage.

Familiar Gripes

Television critics who complained of boring didacticism in the past now have more familiar gripes about what they see as television's materialism and superficiality.

"Television now wants to please and entertain the public at all costs," said Gabriella Locsei, a critic for the official newspaper Magyar Nemzet. "It's simply adjusting to the general changes that have gone on in society."

Ban's program seems to combine the trend toward pleasing audiences with the expansion of expression on public affairs.

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