For a country known for the majestic Danube River, rhapsodies by Liszt, ancient castles, the world’s best paprika and, of course, the Gabor sisters, Hungary still has an image problem.
The conservative ruling party is fighting critics who want to link it to a right-wing party whose members regularly rail against Jews.
Fidesz, the major party in the governing coalition, also has been accused of suppressing human rights by championing a new constitution that placed some restrictions on TV and radio broadcasts and on disreputable churches run by scam artists.
The task to tell Hungary’s story has fallen to a 37-year-old economist and political scientist named Ferenc Kumin with the impressive title of deputy state secretary for international communications.
“We have a quite serious image problem,” he told reporters over lunch on a visit to Washington last week. “It is a challenge to deal with this.”
Mr. Kumin described a political headache common to American conservatives.
“Day to day we struggle with a very critical media,” he said.
Mr. Kumin complained that Hungarian reporters, liberals like most U.S. journalists, write one-sided stories about Fidesz and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and foreign correspondents pick up the articles and spread the misinformation.
“We have a handicap in telling our story,” he said.
Hungarian Ambassador Gyorgy Szapary, who hosted the luncheon at the Hungarian Embassy, added: “The narrative was taken over by people opposed to the government.”
Human Rights Watch and other civil liberties groups have accused Fidesz of repressing religious freedom with the constitution, which took effect Jan. 1.
However, the State Department’s latest religious freedom report said Hungary “generally respected” the right to worship.
Mr. Kumin and Mr. Szapary insisted that the international human rights groups misunderstand Hungary’s new religious law. The Hungarian government subsidizes legitimate religious institutions, and the new law requires churches and synagogues to meet certain legal requirements to receive the funds.
The law was designed to deny subsidies to groups that falsely claim religious status, they said.
The government’s biggest image problem is being linked to the far right-wing Jobbik party, which won 44 seats in the country’s 386-seat parliament in the 2010 election. It held no seats in the legislature before that election.
Jobbik also won three seats in the European Parliament.
Before Mr. Kumin even arrived in Washington, a Jobbik politician was stirring up anti-Jewish sentiments in Budapest.
Marton Gyongyosi, speaking in parliament on Nov. 26, called on the government to screen Jews for security threats.
He said the time has come “to assess how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk.”
Mr. Gyongyosi later apologized but warned that Hungary still needs to be on guard against “Zionist Israel and those serving it from here.”
About 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and the Jewish population today is about 100,000.
On Sunday, more than 10,000 people rallied in Budapest to protest Mr. Gyongyosi’s remarks.
The prime minister this week denounced Mr. Gyongyosi as a “radical nationalist.”
“As long as I am in this post, no one in Hungary will be harmed because of their faith, convictions or origin,” Mr. Orban said. “I would like to make it clear that we Hungarians will protect our Jewish compatriots.”
At the luncheon at the embassy, the ambassador also complained about unfair press coverage of the new media law. Mr. Szapary said the law carries no fines, applies only to the electronic media and only requires balanced reporting.
Mr. Kumin said the weight of the criticism about the new constitution and efforts to link the conservative Fidesz party with the extremist Jobbick movement makes his job even more difficult.
But, he added, “this is the political landscape.”
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