On New Year’s Day the rotating EU presidency was handed over to Hungary, a country that has just suspended one of the mainstays of democracy, namely freedom of the press. Criticism from other governments, even from Austria, was receipted without comment in Budapest.

Prime minister Viktor Orbán can allow himself that because Brussels generally doesn’t reprimand or intervene in matters of the press. It does put its oar in when economic competition is threatened, but then only to safeguard a modicum of media plurality. But when media freedom is on the line, not a word from Brussels.

Austria and its media

And yet the Italian example has provided ample occasion over the years to work up a procedure. Silvio Berlusconi’s handling of the Italian state-owned broadcaster RAI bears a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin’s usual practices. But because Brussels gives Berlusconi carte blanche to do as he sees fit, Russian ways are now gaining currency in Western Europe as well, where the media are increasingly kept on a tight leash.

There have been repeated attempts in Austria, too, to control not only the coalition-run public broadcaster ORF, but even the print media. Planned media regulations not unlike those in Hungary (including outright persecution of journalists) were only recently shelved by Austria’s minister of justice.

It must be allowed, to the credit of the European Court of Human Rights, that its rulings on appeals usually serve as a corrective to the Austrian courts’ characteristic muzzling of the media.

Nicolas Sarkozy and friendly media moguls

Only, the common practice in the former Soviet republics of forcing the courts to toe the political line is now spreading to the EU as well. Time and again, Berlusconi has had laws passed to keep the courts from taking any action against corruption. So they have precious little latitude to broach the issues even in the press.

Over in France, president Nicolas Sarkozy has let friendly media moguls buy up a bunch of prominent newspapers. The public gets more of a kick anyway out of stories about Carla Bruni than complicated political scandals (such as the Hypo Alpe Adria bank scandal in Austria), which are beyond the scope of most laymen.

Suchlike vassalage is an age-old French phenomenon. It corresponds to the (privatised) Austrian system of proportional representation with by-products like Skylink [scandal involving the overpriced construction of a new airport terminal in Vienna, in which contracts may have been awarded on a political basis].

Waxing lyrical about Singapore

But the situation becomes highly dangerous when, as in Hungary, an elected political caste armed with an absolute majority begins levering out the separation of powers by formally unassailable means: e.g. appointments to the supreme courts to ensure government-friendly rulings.

In fireside chats, Austrian top managers tend to wax lyrical about the political resoluteness of Singapore’s (elected) rulers, though neglecting to mention that parliament and the courts are independent only on paper there – and that life is extremely regimented there.

Jörg Haider showed how to go about it years ago. He, too, wanted control over the highest courts: constitutional court justices who would do his bidding, for example. And that may happen again if the FPÖ [right-wing Freedom Party of Austria] garners a majority in the next elections.

Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz