Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said yesterday (11 January) that the European Commission would not make any compromise and would make sure EU law is implemented fully in the case of the controversial Hungarian media law.
Speaking in the European Parliament on the occasion of a hearing organised by the liberal ALDE group entitled 'Freedom of the press in Hungary', Kroes made clear that if proven necessary, Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding would also be involved in taking the Hungarian government to task.
Both Kroes and Reding are European Commission vice-presidents.
The hearing, chaired by the leader of the ALDE group in the Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, attracted huge interest and took place in a packed meeting room with some of the people attending sitting on the ground.
Kroes said that she was under growing pressure from various circles and people saw the law as a danger to democracy. Summarising the mood of the questions she had received, she said people were asking the Commission "Where are your bloody limits? Are you shy?"
Kroes explained that her services would analyse the Hungarian media law's compatibility with the relevant EU legislation. By adopting the law, Hungary says it has aligned itself with 2007's Audiovisual Services Directive, as it was obliged to do so by the end of 2010.
But Kroes made clear that the directive was "an instrument to find the issues to tackle" and that if problems were identified, Reding would be called into play, in respect of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Article 7 reads that after a reasoned proposal by one third of EU member states, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a member state of the EU values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
Kroes also appeared to indicate that her services did not trust a 194-page English translation of the Hungarian law, provided by the Hungarian authorities. She said her services had requested a copy of the original law in Hungarian, which will be translated by the Commission.
Among the most controversial elements of the Hungarian media law, Kroes cited a registration regime applying to bloggers and to Internet media, which is without precedent in Europe except in Belarus and also applies to media writing in Hungarian that publish in other countries. She also mentioned the "quite wide" scope of the term "balanced information".
According to the law, in the event hurting ‘human dignity’ or other infringements of the law, with the exception of ‘unbalanced reporting’, television and radio stations can be fined as much as 200 million forints (about €700,000).twoparrh two ToTw
Other maximum fines can reach 25 million forints (€90,000) for national newspapers andT websites and 10 million forints (€36,000) for weeklies. Private persons can be fined up to two million forints (€7,250), which is equivalent to approximately one-and-a-half years' net average wage in Hungary.
Professor Miklós Haraszti, a former OSCE representative on media freedom, who was a panelist invited by the ALDE group, said the media law was only the "tip of the iceberg" regarding the direction taken by Hungary under the Fidesz government.
"We are in the end part of the process of the government dismantling all the country's checks and balances," he claimed. He also warned that by the middle of its EU presidency, Hungary may adopt a shiny new constitution "made by one party".
"This anxiety makes people concentrate on the media law," he said.
European People's Party MEP György Schöpflin (Fidesz) made a statement in which he criticised some of the strong statements by previous speakers. One of them, György Konrád, a novelist and human rights advocate who addressed the meeting by video message, called the regime in Budapest "Demokratura" and also used the term "coup d'Etat", referring to the political developments after the elections held in April 2010.
Schöpflin also dismissed as "ridiculous" accusations of 'Putinisation' in Hungary, voiced in some circles.
He said the media law was in fact a "power issue" in which the power of politicians was confronted with the power of media.
In this context, he said that so far, the Hungarian media had been quite irresponsible in their reporting, ideas which he also developed in an exclusive interview which he gave the previous day for EurActiv.
He also said the "onslaught" which the media law had triggered as a response from the West would strengthen Eurosceptics and the far-right in his country, which he said was "bad news for democracy".
Liberal MEP Renate Weber (Romania; ALDE), who moderated the meeting, reacted by saying that in fact, criticism of the media law had been even harsher in Eastern Europe, in countries which until recently lived under toatalitarian regimes.
Socialists & Democrats MEP Victor Boştinaru (Romania) congratulated ALDE for organising the hearing. He warned that the bad example of Hungary could be taken up by other countries where democracy doesn't have strong roots yet, hinting that his own country could be one of them.
The European People's Party group issued a press release rejecting "all politically motivated accusations against the Hungarian government".
"The Commission is, rightfully, analysing the conformity of this law to the European legislation. The EPP group is confident that, should some elements of the media law have to be changed, Hungary would do so, as Prime Minister Orbán has already declared," said French MEP Joseph Daul, EPP group chairman.