NYT report: U.S. Ambassador to Hungary asked Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to circumvent critical reporting of Hungarian government

September 26, 2019

David Cornstein, who served as United States Ambassador to Hungary from 2018 to 2020, reportedly contacted the federally-funded U.S. Agency for Global Media in 2019 asking that its media services avoid negative reporting about Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, according to a New York Times report.

“The United States International Broadcasting Act prohibits American government officials, including Mr. Cornstein, from interfering in Radio Free Europe’s reporting,” the Times reported on Sept. 6. 2019.

Following the report, eight U.S. senators addressed an open letter to Cornstein seeking to confirm the Times account. No response from Cornstein has been made public, and Sen. Dick Durbin’s office, which posted the letter on the senator’s website, did not respond to a request from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker for information.

Cornstein’s reported request came as the USAGM, an independent federal agency that oversees five state-run broadcasting networks, was preparing for a May 2020 relaunch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Hungary. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is funded by the U.S. government, with a mandate to promote democratic values in countries where a free press is banned or not fully established.

According to the Times report, unnamed U.S. officials told the paper that while Cornstein was still serving as ambassador, he “sought assurances from the agency that its service would not focus on negative stories about the Hungarian government, or investigative journalism, and that it would not undermine his efforts as ambassador.”

USAGM’s CEO and Director John Lansing told the Times, “It’s literally illegal for the U.S. government to interfere in our editorial independence.”

The United States International Broadcasting Act 1994, enacted to streamline the U.S. international media, prohibits U.S. government officials from interfering in Radio Free Europe’s reporting.

In a reply on the matter, Cornstein told the Times, “In general we do not comment on private discussions. That said, I remain as committed today as I was when I made clear during my Senate confirmation hearing, that as ambassador I am committed to promoting American and democratic values, including the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.”

Cornstein, who was appointed to the post in Budapest by President Donald Trump in June 2018, enjoyed a close relationship with Orban, who has been heavily criticized by pro-democracy and human rights groups for cracking down on freedoms.

According to a 2019 report by leading international press freedom groups following their joint mission to Hungary, Orban’s government has dismantled media freedoms, using techniques such as systematic government takeovers of independent media. Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy watchdog organization, downgraded Hungary from “free” to “partly free” in 2019 in its annual Freedom of the World report, citing Orban’s increasing control on the country’s independent institutions.

Despite the concerns of Freedom House and others, Cornstein lobbied to help Orban get a White House meeting in 2019, where President Trump praised him, saying, “Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways.”

The Hungarian service of RFE/RL relaunched on Sep. 8, 2020. “We are very excited to return to Hungary with state-of-the art programming and RFE/RL’s signature commitment to serving the public interest by reporting the issues that our audiences say matter most,” said RFE/RL acting President Daisy Sindelar.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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