News & Analysis

US Democrats claim diplomat tried to block relaunch of RFE/RL Hungary

The US ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, “may have inappropriately interfered” with the establishment of the Hungarian edition of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-government funded new organisation, 11 Democratic members of the US House and Senate have warned.

In an open letter co-signed by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker and Dick Durbin, a member of the US Senate’s subcommittee on defence, and US senator Dianne Feinstein, among others, the Democratic lawmakers sought to find out if Mr Cornstein approached the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the country’s operator of state-funded media outlets, to influence the future editorial policy of RFE/RL’s coverage of Hungary’s government.

Earlier this month, unnamed US administration officials told the New York Times that the US ambassador to Budapest contacted the USAGM, asking it to restrict negative contents on the misdealings of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán (pictured above).

“We are so deeply troubled (…) that you sought to gain assurances from the agency that it would avoid negative stories or investigative journalism regarding Hungary,” the US lawmakers wrote to Mr Cornstein.

The Democratic lawmakers also expressed their concern over Mr Cornstein’s handling of the International Investment Bank (IIB), a Russia-funded financial institution which recently moved to Budapest from Moscow and is considered an arm of Russia’s secret services.

“Regarding the IIB, you reportedly said you were given guarantees that its personnel would not automatically be granted diplomatic immunity and that they would be thoroughly screened before provided with immunity. And yet, prime minister Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás reportedly denied that any such assurances were made,” they added.

“Several of us have written to you before about upholding American democratic values and security interests when dealing with the autocratic host government of Viktor Orbán, whose embrace of Russia and antidemocratic actions are cause for considerable concern,” the Democratic lawmakers stressed, raising doubts if Mr Cornstein appropriately represents US interests.

David Cornstein was appointed US ambassador to Budapest by president Donald Trump in June, 2018. Amid democratic backsliding in Hungary under prime minister Orbán, Mr Cornstein has repeatedly defended the Hungarian government.