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Ferenc Hammer: We already live on Mars, we just don’t know it yet

If the press is a watchdog, then higher education is a canary. The bird is currently dying in Hungary, meaning that it may be about time to run while we still can. Meanwhile, a creature never seen before is crawling out of a jungle lake – only certain body parts may seem familiar. We spoke with Ferenc Hammer, university lecturer and punk musician. Among others, Hammer told us that on Mars, the greatest crime is probably not matricide.

The square in front of the entrance is illuminated by the fire jugglers’ performance. Fire is crackling cheerfully in the few oil barrels set up as decoration; it feels nice to stand by them for a few minutes in the chilly night. After lingering for a short while, I head inside. It’s Saturday night, the winter carnival party of Radio Tilos.

I meet with Ferenc Hammer, associate professor at the Department of Media and Communication at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). When not lecturing at the podium, Ferenc Hammer is the frontman of punk band Lopunk (“We steal”). Or perhaps he is a punk vocalist first and foremost, acting as a social scientist when not on the stage? It hardly matters; he wears a suit for both roles, so there’s no confusion. When asked if his two personalities are ever at odds, he replies with a question:

– Do you sometimes ride a bike?

– Yes.

– And do you sometimes chew gum while doing so?

– Of course.

– Well, teaching at the university and being a punk musician are just like that, you can easily do both at the same time. I’d even say that as time goes by, the line between the two is getting ever thinner. Although that may be only in my own mind.

Terror and censorship

Ferenc Hammer has had his share of controversies both as a university lecturer and as a punk musician: from both the right and the left. In chronological order: in the autumn of 2018, the now defunct pro-government portal, known for its provocative and vitriolic style, accused him of applying “liberal-leftist opinion censorship terror” to intimidate his students at ELTE. Three years later, his band Lopunk was removed from the list of performers at an event titled the “Day of Workers’ Pride”. The root of the conflict was that when Hammer was asked to make a video in which he would praise the relationship between János Kádár – socialist Hungary’s head of government from 1956 to 1988 – and the country’s workers, he instead chose to discuss how Kádár had numerous working class people executed in the wake of the 1956 revolution.

Regarding the latter incident, Hammer finds it amusing that those supposedly fighting against the Orbán-regime’s oppression cannot tolerate fact-based criticism of the socialist leader, but

in connection with the 888 case, he asks me not to refer to the incident as “fuss for nothing”, as that would help normalise the dismantling of Hungary’s higher education system, of which this story was an integral part.

ADRIÁN ZOLTÁN / 24.HU Ferenc Hammer

“At that time, the government was launching a series of attacks against ELTE. It started with accusing colleagues working at the law faculty of being “mercenaries of George Soros and the Helsinki Foundation”. The assault then continued with the social sciences faculty in the scrapping of the gender studies master’s program, which was complete nonsense as a university course is subject to an accreditation procedure; it’s not like some item on a shopping list that you can just cross out and write up something else instead. This also happened just shortly after the expulsion of CEU.

We joined forces with some colleagues at the university and decided to hold a teachers’ demonstration to explain the events to our students and shed some light on how the government was trying to eliminate the freedom of universities and education.

As for my part, I allocated the last fifteen minutes of a double class – two times ninety minutes – for this. Naturally, it wasn’t mandatory for the students; whoever wanted to could leave. I went so far as to leave the hall through the lectern-side door for a few minutes so that I wouldn’t even see who was leaving through the other door. When I returned, I talked about what academic freedom is, how the government endangers this freedom of education and universities, and that to drive away the best university in the region with fire and sword is roughly equivalent to dousing the Opera House with gasoline and setting it on fire. Maybe I didn’t exactly word it like that.

One of the first-year students, who was working for, went on to write an article about this, which, as usual, set off a chain reaction; the story made rounds around Fidesz’s entire media empire, with each outlet filling it with malicious insinuations regarding how much money we make, how much we work, et cetera. This infuriated many of my colleagues, and in response the department issued a statement which was practically a point-by-point refutation of the allegations. Well, it was this statement that was declared to be censorship terror, as the poor first-year student had been merely exercising his right to freedom of speech by expressing his opinion, to which the department replied with intimidation. On another note, the “terror” was so severe that the student later successfully graduated from our university. With honours.”

Monster from the Lake

During the 2018 scandal, Hammer was also criticised for considering Hungarian TV channel RTL to be one of the last bastions of Hungarian press freedom. He maintains his position, as in his view RTL is the only nationwide TV channel free of propaganda; and freedom of speech isn’t just about everyone saying what they want, but also whether the things they say have a chance to reach people.

“In Hungary today, there are masses of people who, for various reasons, don’t really encounter any content that seriously and systematically deals with the country’s situation and world events, all while adhering to usually expected professional standards. Terrestrial broadcasting, that is available everywhere and for free, is still the most suitable tool for this.

There’s the internet, there are news portals, as well as social media, but that’s a different genre, regardless how there may already be more Facebook users than television viewers.


Reach is something RTL does have, and while it’s true that they don’t exactly have an abundance of serious investigative reporting, calling them to account for this is like going to a pastry shop to complain that there’s no bean soup. And, by the way, they have recently aired a serious piece about Endre K., who is trying to manipulate victims of the paedophile children’s home director even after the breakout of the scandal.” (Endre K. was the central figure of the clemency scandal that led to the resignation of Katalin Novák and Judit Varga in early February.)

When it comes to the freedom of press in Hungary, the discourse is generally about the government, the transformation of public media into Fidesz’s mouthpiece, laws and state advertisements disrupting the media market, the demise of newspaper Népszabadság, and the acquisition of online news portals such as Origo and Index. However, tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, pose just as much of a threat. They not only absorb a large part of the advertising revenue that would otherwise end up with the online market’s news sites, but also have significant influence on how many and what kind of readers a certain article can reach.

“That’s why I have said that online media is a different genre. The global structure of public discourse is evolving before our eyes, but we still have no idea where it’s going. We’re a bit like a biologist travelling to an unknown lake in the depths of the jungle, and seeing something crawl out of the water that resembles a crocodile, but has a fish’s head and a lion’s tail. It bears resemblance to a lot of things, but we have surely never seen anything like it before. At this point, the relationship between tech giants and news portals is like the left hind leg of this yet unknown creature.

A study of mine was published at the end of last year in media research journal Médiakutató. The study, titled When facts somehow just don’t bite, discusses what happens when investigative journalism and the uncovering of delicate facts have no consequences. The – massively – most significant factor of this consequence-free environment is the five major corporations, the GAFAT (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter/X), no longer acting like states within a state, but more like their very own planets still on the globe. These companies have radically changed everyone’s lives, be it ordinary mobile users in the middle of nowhere or the owner of The New York Times.

We’ve known for fifteen years that we should react and introduce some kind of clear, transparent, and, above all, enforceable system of regulations in the digital world, but for now, we only know that the old principles will no longer cut it. The old rules aren’t valid in the new world.


This is much more important than what Fidesz is doing and what the Hungarian Media Authority thinks thereof, since this is a global issue. Our only hope is that – based on experience – the world cannot tolerate such a regulatory vacuum in the long run, and something has to happen sooner or later.”

Life on Mars

Since September, Hammer has been spending little time in Hungary; he’s been researching in Hamburg, and he has only returned to Budapest for the concert. However, he still follows the news, so he is familiar with the influencer-demonstration organised in the wake of the scandal that led to the downfall of former President Katalin Novák and former Minister of Justice Judit Varga. Tens of thousands participated in the demonstration, with some estimates suggesting a larger crowd than the 2014 protests against the internet tax. Being a researcher of media science, Hammer is interested in the protest not only as a private individual but also professionally. However, he tells us that for now he and his colleagues are completely perplexed by the phenomenon.

Hammer's band, Lopunk performing at Dürer Kert in Budapest on February 24, 2024.

Hammer believes that in this era of transition, traditional mainstream media is losing significance while online content creators are gaining more and more influence. A digital regime change is underway, bringing about the collapse of the old hierarchy and a complete transformation in the structure of public discourse. In such cases, researches normally dust off and reheat an older theory, but this approach won’t work now.

As of yet, there is no theory to describe the processes that are going on. The protest by Hungarian influencers was an important manifestation of the new regime, but for now, all we see is the amount of interest it managed to spark. We have no idea of its real significance, so we can’t predict its consequences, either.

According to Hammer, this evidently annoys a large number of media researchers, political scientists, and all kinds of opinion makers: “Op-eds and grand solutions are rolling in, but they’re all more ridiculous than the next, none of them has any basis in reality, they’re just guesswork. Personally, I follow the developments with tense attention because I’m convinced that this new digital world is the most interesting thing that has happened and will happen in my lifetime.

We’ve already detached from the old world, but we don’t yet know the new one. Imagine we’re establishing a colony on Mars. Those moving there from Earth still have a personal attachment to the old world: they remember the taste of strawberry ice cream, or the experience of wandering through a museum. But for those born in the colony, these are just intangible tales, legends. From the second or third generation onwards, people on Mars will live in a system that differs completely from that on Earth. They will have to adapt to circumstances and conditions that humanity couldn’t have imagined before. What’s the greatest crime on Earth? Let’s say it’s matricide, but on Mars, accidentally puncturing the biodome’s outer wall with your scissors will perhaps be considered a much graver crime. Provided there will be scissors on Mars. Of course, this is all just speculation and fantasy, but it demonstrates how impossible it is to predict the future of a world built on a new set of rules. And the bad news is that concerning digital media and social discourse, we’ve been living on Mars for a long time; we just don’t know it yet.”

Mainstream media, meaning professional editorial offices, probably made a mistake in the 1990s that could now prove fatal. This mistake was to give away their news and articles for free on the internet. Of course, during the era of dial-up modems, when the most important notion was that all who mattered had a website, few could foresee that a few years into the future people would no longer be browsing their physical newspapers sold for money, but the screens of their smartphones with a constant influx of free-of-charge content. For a short time it seemed that free news services could be sustained with advertisements, but it quickly became clear that this model was doomed in the long run, which is why more and more editorial offices are putting at least some of their content behind a paywall. But won’t this lead to the exclusion of a significant portion of people, who are unable or unwilling to pay, from access to quality journalism? According to Ferenc Hammer, not necessarily.

“This is one of those things that sound completely logical, yet may not be the case. I believe that those who are not willing to pay a few hundred forints for an article put together with a lot of journalistic work wouldn’t read it even if it was free. It’s a waste of effort to write newspapers for people with an entitled mindset who refuse to pay for journalism as they take it for granted. On the other hand, if there’s an important topic that interests everyone, like this pardon scandal, and a new article with fresh information comes out, people will pay for it anyway because they don’t want to miss out.”


Dogs and Canaries

Hammer is currently based in Hamburg, researching academic freedom. Much like freedom of the press, academic freedom isn’t doing too well in Hungary, either. While GAFAT (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter/X) poses less of a threat to academic freedom, this can’t be said about the government: the Academic Freedom Index paints a grim picture of today’s conditions in Hungary. The ranking is led by Czech Republic, with North Korea at the bottom. Within the region (Eastern Europe and Central Asia), Slovenia is in the top ten per cent, with Austria, Slovakia, and Romania making it into the top third; but even Croatia, Poland, and Serbia place comfortably in the top half of the list. Hungary, however, lags behind even Ukraine, which has been at war for two years, residing in the bottom quarter of the list, with researchers expecting the situation to deteriorate further.

“Obviously, one could take issues with this ranking from a professional standpoint as nothing is without flaws, but the methodology is quite balanced, with four or five very thorough qualitative aspects.

It speaks volumes of Hungary’s situation that the country has fallen behind nations where lecturers may get physically assaulted for what they have to say.

There are two fundamental reasons we are at the bottom of the list: the expulsion of CEU and the introduction of the foundation system. In principle, there would be no problem with universities getting into the hands of foundations; in fact, it could even be beneficial. However, the experiences of the last fourteen years show that whenever Fidesz completely transforms the legal structure of something with the underlying intention not being crystal clear from the get-go, then it’s for one of the following reasons: the acquisition of wealth or to divert attention from the outrage caused by wealth acquisition.

The foundational boards of trustees were filled with party appointees who can intervene anytime in what and how it is allowed to teach. Obviously, this affects STEM faculties differently than humanities or social sciences, but it can be equally important for a physicist or IT specialist to be able to speak up outside the university. Or, for example, it also matters for a medical researcher or epidemiologist to be able to tell the truth, or if they should even dare express their opinion of the current epidemic situation or its management.”

For people who do not work in higher education, the concept of academic freedom is much harder to grasp than press freedom. Why should someone care about the absence of something as long as they don’t perceive it in their daily lives? In Hammer’s view, one should care because academic freedom is a canary in the coal mine.

“The press is often called a watchdog as its tasks include deterrence from the repetition of illegal abuse through public exposure.

Academic freedom, on the other hand, is the canary that miners take along into the mine. The death of the bird means that the concentration of carbon monoxide in the tunnel is too high, so fleeing in panic is advisable.


The canary is much more sensitive than humans; it dies from amounts of toxic gas the miners wouldn’t even notice. Academia and higher education play a similar role in society, signalling the corruption of the system and society.

It’s a good idea to flee in panic from a place where academic freedom dies. Anyone who understands why culture is important for humanity will surely understand why it is important to have people who professionally engage in culture and science.

In this new world undergoing fundamental transformation, where the hierarchy of knowledge has completely changed, anyone can stand up and start spreading that the Earth is flat, viruses don’t exist, and vaccines contain microchips. We are already on Mars, and what is happening is that the most fervent supporters of the wildest conspiracy theories can unite in the alt-right, and it’s becoming hip to be an aggressive bellend.

This is why culture and academic freedom are important. Doctors and scientists can develop new remedies, engineers can invent new equipment; but it’s not them who will explain the value and use of their creations to the people – culture will do that.”

Since the frontman is permanently based in Hamburg and the repertoire is mostly international, the question arises whether there will be a Lopunk show in the German city. Ferenc Hammer replies that it’s sadly unlikely.

“It would be too complicated, expensive, and I don’t have time for such things, either. When I show videos of our shows to people in Hamburg, everyone’s jaw drops, and it seems like they are getting it, but I can imagine few things less sexy in 2024’s Germany than a bunch of old geezers playing Sex Pistols covers. Although, the same goes for Budapest. Let’s just say we’ll play anywhere we’re invited.”

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