BUDAPEST — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed concern Thursday that Hungary is backsliding on democracy by enacting laws that curb freedom of the press and extend executive power.
During a news conference with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Mrs. Clinton said the two had a “candid conversation.”
“As friends of Hungary, we expressed our concerns and particularly call for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and governmental transparency,” she said.
“We also talked very openly about preserving the democratic institutions of Hungary and making sure that they continue to grow and strengthen, including providing essential checks and balances.”
Mrs. Clinton was referring to a spate of laws that Mr. Orban’s conservative government muscled through parliament after it won a two-thirds supermajority in the April 2010 elections.
Perhaps the most controversial is a law that gives an oversight body the power to fine media outlets for what it deems politically unbalanced coverage.
Mr. Orban’s supermajority also has enabled him to appoint political allies to key independent posts and to extend the length of their terms.
Mrs. Clinton also noted that Hungary’s new constitution, which recognizes the country’s Christian roots, states that life begins at conception, defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and restricts voting rights for citizens with “limited mental ability.”
“We have encouraged our Hungarian friends to ensure a broad, inclusive constitution that is consistent with its own democratic values and the European values as well,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton leavened her criticism with praise for Hungary’s troop commitment in Afghanistan, its free-market economic reforms and its advocacy of rights for ethnic Gypsies, or Roma, during the country’s European Union presidency — a six-month stint that ended Thursday.
She also said it is important for a young democracy like Hungary to set a positive example for those struggling for freedom across the Middle East and North Africa.
But her remarks were seen by many of Mr. Orban’s supporters and allies as part of a larger campaign of unfair criticism.
Jozsef Szajer, the prime author of the constitution and now a member of the European Parliament, told The Washington Times that he thought many critics of the document had not read or understood it.
“It’s very dangerous if someone from outside who doesn’t have the experience of a genuine constitutional system starts to speak about things on which they have very superficial knowledge,” Mr. Szajer said, arguing that many Western countries are demanding of Hungary what their own constitutions lack.
In an interview Wednesday, Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi defended the media law, noting that Hungary has made the four amendments that the European Union requested.
“We consider this closed,” he said, arguing that this and other sweeping laws reflect the will of the Hungarian people.
“We have a left that is very vocal,” Mr. Martonyi said. “And one problem with the left is that they keep losing elections at a national level.”