Story by Pablo Gorondi for The Associated Press, March 4, 2011:
People spied on by Hungary’s communist-era secret police would gain the right to pull reports on the surveillance out of the state archives under an unprecedented government proposal that historians say would damage to the country’s ability to know about its past.
The communist regime’s network of informants once kept as many as 1.6 million people under watch in Hungary, with relatives and neighbors informing on each other and the secret services compiling over 12 miles worth of files on citizens.
The government says it is drafting legislation giving those spied upon by the dictatorship the right to decide whether to save the original documents where they like, keep them for their grandchildren or destroy them.
“A state ruled by law cannot keep personal information collected through unconstitutional means, as these are immoral documents of an immoral regime,” the justice ministry said.
Historians said the move would hinder their research of the regime that ruled the country between 1948 and 1990.
“Records that provide evidence of injustices hold accountable those responsible for abuses of trust and power,” the Association of Canadian Archivists said in a letter last week to Hungary’s ambassador in Ottawa . “Archival records provide evidence documenting the actions of public leaders and protecting the rights of all citizens.”
Allowing people to remove the files “would only weaken Hungarians’ ability to hold those officials accountable and would thus undermine a fundamental pillar of democracy,” wrote association president Loryl MacDonald.
Maria Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, a museum in Budapest dedicated to the history of Hungary’s extreme-right and communist regimes, said she hoped lawmakers would rethink the plan.
“If these files are handed over, facts and the connections will be no longer be able to be researched,” Schmidt said. “Without them, we cannot create a precise picture of the regime and we can’t show future generations the meaning of terror, the dictatorship’s manipulativeness and nature and the arising human depravity.”
The government says that scientific research will still be guaranteed by the legislation, which has to be drafted by November, but permission for historians to access personal files will have to be granted by those about whom the files were written instead of by the institution where the files are stored.
Historians, researchers and other professionals on the subject will be consulted in the legislative process, the justice ministry said.
One challenge which the government has not to addressed is that the pages in the files usually contain information about more than one person. So if an original page is removed from the files and given to one person, it would be impossible for the others to see what was written about them.
Janos Kenedi, a writer and researcher who until Jan. 3 headed an official committee in charge of evaluating thousands of pre-1990 secret files still in the hands of the current secret services, says laws already provide spied-upon individuals protection while still leaving files intact.
“All victims have the right to ask the state security archives to classify any files relating to them for 90 years,” Kenedi said. “But anyone who cuts out pages from the original files with a razor denies others the right to access their own history.”
Also, personal information in the files, such as someone’s religion or sexual orientation, is not available even to researchers.
The government’s plan has surprised some experts because the House of Terror’s inauguration was one of the highlights of the first Orban term from 1998 and many still remember his groundbreaking speech in 1989 — when Hungary’s transition to democracy was still uncertain — calling for the removal of Soviet troops stationed in Hungary.
For others, the plan for the archives fits in with several other steps taken by the government since Fidesz, Orban’s party, won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April 2010 elections.
The overwhelming popular support has emboldened the government to disregard most dissent, weaken basic democratic institutions and distort the system of check and balances.
It has curtailed the powers of the Constitutional Court, neutered the Fiscal Council, a budget watchdog, and created a media law which attracted heavy criticism from the European Union and is feared will allow the government to clamp down on the opposition press.
Many institutions, including the 1956 Institute which studies that year’s anti-Soviet revolution, have seen the government cut their budget and their fate is uncertain.
“The government thinks it can put an end to the past,” Kenedi said. “For Fidesz, history starts and end with them and what came before in Hungarian history does not exist. Their aim is collective amnesia.”
Politicians may also be hoping to do away with potentially damaging information, experts said.
“It is very difficult to see the destruction of Hungarian archives as anything other than a crude political move on the part of politicians who are concerned about potentially unpleasant and embarrassing documents on their relationship with the former regime that may one day be found by historians,” wrote Christopher Adam, a history lecturer at Canada’s Carleton University.
An online petition launched by Adam to ensure the archives’ integrity has attracted nearly 2,000 signatures.
Hungary lags behind other former members of the Soviet bloc in fully opening its archives and nearly 30 percent of the files are still classified and under the control of state security.
While some historians and journalists have published the names of informants and agents in books and the Internet, official lists have yet to be made public.
Nonetheless, the names of former communist secret agents — from actors and athletes to politicians, priests and intellectuals — continue to trickle out every few weeks and months.