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Nagymező utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared Sept. 7, 2012, on The Mantle.]


BUDAPEST, Hungary –
I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I’m not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don’t compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I’ve flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

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[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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[The following post was published Feb. 16, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – My Hungarian in-laws didn’t take the news well.

Hello, Basotho herders! Are you in need of journalism training? Perhaps help with your blogs? (Photo: mjj)

It was late summer when my wife informed her parents that we’d be moving far away, to the southern tip of Africa – and hauling three beloved grandchildren with us. I thought I was safe from blame: three years in Lesotho wouldn’t be due to my career, but for my wife’s job in international development.

How naive I was. They pointed an accusatory finger, regardless.

You should have been the one to dissuade her,” bemoaned my mother-in-law.

Another counter-argument emerged: But what will Michael do? I excitedly explained all the journalism teaching and training needs that would surely exist in a country afflicted with so many calamities, like the world’s third-highest HIV infection rate, or that 40 percent of the population live below the international poverty line – yet no full-fledged program to teach watchdog journalism.

In Lesotho, I envisioned an opportunity to make a difference.

“You sound like a missionary!” my father-in-law sneered.

What’s so wrong about that, I wondered.

I’m not talking about the real Christian missionaries I count among my new friends in sub-Saharan Africa (see here and here), or the “media missionaries” who purvey God’s word via various media tools.

I plan to evangelize, alright, but preaching the sort of serious, responsible journalism detailed by American journalist and media analyst Ellen Hume in her 2004 monograph, The Media Missionaries: American Support for Journalism Excellence and Press Freedom Around the Globe.

Three months into our stint in Lesotho, here I am: The Media Missionary of Maseru. And the media landscape here is even bleaker than I imagined.

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[The following Feature appeared Jan. 17, 2012, in Foreign Policy magazine. It was republished on Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN |JANUARY 17, 2012

A humiliation for many Hungarians. (Photo: Reuters)

BUDAPEST/PRAGUE — With the European Union’s threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what’s happening in today’s fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban’s muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds “supermajority” in the April 2010 parliamentary elections — seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici — a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister — to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban’s party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz’s society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU’s newest members — reminiscent of the “salami tactics” of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once “the best pupil in the class” of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions — a model of economic dynamism and political reform — wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

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[The following post appeared Nov. 29, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start. So how about with a Sesotho-language greeting: Dumela!

I moved to Lesotho just one week ago; it’s too early to explore themes and spout theories. (There’ll be plenty of time for both.) I’ll stay humble, knowing I have a hell of a lot to learn about these people, this country, this region, this continent.

On the Lesotho side of the South African border, a poster warns of human trafficking. (Photo: mjj)

Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the experiential and the sensory, about the look of the place, the look of the people – and our dramatically different lifestyle amid both.

Lesotho is a deeply troubled place, plagued by poverty and HIV, violence against women and human trafficking, alcoholism and obesity, among many other afflictions. Nothing is more telling than the fact life expectancy for both men and women is a measly 42 to 43 years … my age exactly.

Lesotho is ravaged by the world’s third-highest HIV rate. A country of 2 million is home to an astounding 100,000 AIDS orphans. Five percent of the population? Or much higher? The scale of tragedy is unfathomable.

Funeral homes are certainly ubiquitous around Maseru. Today I asked a wiry-looking guy for directions; up close I realized he was downright skeletal. On the first day I met our housekeeper-babysitter, I asked if she had any children: “I have one son … but I had three children.” I froze, afraid to probe any further.

So, let’s turn for a minute to the positive.

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