EU speechless over Hungary’s contentious media law


The European Commission took a cautious stance Wednesday (22 December) over a controversial "media constitution" in Hungary that has been heavily criticised for restricting press freedom in the country taking up the EU's rotating six-month presidency. contributed reporting from Budapest.

The Commission's "wait and see" attitude came in sharp contrast to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which issued a strong statement on the controversial media law.

The Hungarian ruling centre-right party Fidesz, using its parliamentary supermajority, has enacted two bills and a constitutional amendment on Tuesday (21 December) that will tighten the government's grip on the media.

The ruling party calls the changes the country's "new media constitution".

The new laws impose a strict supervisory regime on all print, broadcasted and online media, including "online media abroad that has been located in another country in order to circumvent stricter regulation in Hungary".

Since it won the lections in April, Fidesz has amended the country’s constitution ten times.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn criticised the law, saying it would put Hungary in a similar boat as the authoritarian regime in Belarus.

"It's a direct danger for democracy," Asselborn said in a telephone interview with Reuters. "The state will control opinion."

"Until now [Alexander] Lukashenko was considered to be the last dictator in Europe. When the law takes effect, that won't be the case any more," he added.

Little chance of appeal 

The three opposition parties in the Hungarian Parliament – the left-wing Socialists and Greens as well as the far-right Jobbik – appealed against the law before the country's Constitutional Court, but with little chances of success.

Indeed, the court’s nomination rules were changed in the summer that followed Fidesz's election victory and the party now has support from a majority of judges there. The Fidesz parliamentary group quickly curbed the Court's powers in another constitutional amendment after judges ruled against a retroactive tax on private persons.

European Commission cautious

A spokesperson for the European Commission was at pains to answer journalist's questions at a press briefing on 22 December. 

"At this stage, what I can tell you is that in its capacity of guardian of the EU Treaties, the Commission will follow-up and we will evaluate the situation in what concerns the [Union’s] principles and the European legislation," the spokesperson said.

Asked to specify against which European legislation the Commission would scrutinise the new Hungarian law, the spokesperson refused to comment further. 

Lorenzo Consoli from the International Press Association in Brussels (API/IPA) expressed concern that the Commission had delayed its reaction. Other journalists observed that Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn had plainly said that the new law "clearly violates the spirit and letter of EU treaties" and asked for confirmation.

But they did not get an answer and the spokesperson declined to say when the Commission would complete its scrutiny of the Hungarian law. 

"Will you finish before the end of the Hungarian Presidency?" one of the journalists asked wittingly.

Hungary takes over the EU's six-month rotating Presidency from Belgium on 1 January, with a programme likely to be dominated by the ongoing debt crisis in the euro zone.

'Media Council' to supervise fines

One of the new Hungarian laws creates a new Media Council elected by parliament. The body’s chairperson is appointed for a nine-year term by the Prime Minister and Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban.

Annamária Szalai, a Fidesz member who was appointed to the position, is supported by a council handpicked by the ruling party and will have the power to fine television and radio stations as much as 200 million forints (about €700,000) for "unbalanced" coverage.

Other maximum fines can reach 25 million forints (€90,000) for national newspapers and websites and 10 million forints (€36,000) for weeklies. Private persons can be fined up to 2 million forints (€7,250), which is equivalent to approximately one and a half years net average wage in Hungary.

The fines may be appealed in a very lengthy judicial review that may take years and threatens to send opposition media fast into bankruptcy. The Media Council can also bar public subsidies for media that are found guilty. Broadcasters may be suspended for 30 days in case they breach the new law.

The new regime applies to all public and private media.

The Constitutional amendment also allows the Media Council to issue decrees (second-tier legislation) on the media, including "supervisory fees" on private media companies.

In addition, the Media Council will have the right to access documents before publication, with journalists having to disclose their sources on matters deemed of "national security" or relevant for the "protection of public order".

The legal changes come with a complete restructuring of the public broadcasting sector, re-organising the Hungarian public TV, radio and news agency under a single management. The new public media group will only rely on news of the government-controlled news agency and will "streamline" other reporting journalists. 

'Check reality behind rumours'

Asked to comment on the media freedom situation in his country, Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi advised the Brussels press on Monday to "check the reality behind some rumours". He insisted that media could be fined only if there was a court ruling against their reporting.

From the heated debate in the Commission press room, it became clear that the EU Executive had instruments to take EU candidate countries to task, such as Albania or Bosnia, but lacked the same power with respect to member countries.

According to several reports, media freedom has declined dramatically in several EU countries. Freedom House, an NGO, recently ranked all EU candidate countries on press freedom levels as "partly free," alongside Bhutan and Nigeria. EU members Bulgaria, Romania and Italy also appear in this sad ranking.

What future for the Pokemons?

Annamária Szalai, the new media tsar, became famous when she was still in the opposition as a Fidesz-delegated member to the National Radio and Television Council. There, she fiercely urged her colleagues to ban cartoon series Pokemons from Hungarian stations, claiming that the animated Japanese series would badly affect minors.

In December 2010, she sued the daily Népszabadság for claiming she will be "the boss of bosses" as the president of the newly established National Media and telecommunications Authority (NMTA) – with the right to name presidents of public media companies.

Appointing those persons does not authorise her to control their work, she said, arguing that she was wrongly described as the "boss of all bosses".

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The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a strongly-worded statement, saying the new Hungarian media law "violates OSCE media freedom standards and endangers editorial independence and media pluralism."

Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, said: "The law regulates all media content - broadcast, print and online - based on identical principles, which runs against OSCE standards on free media. It also gives unusually broad powers to the recently established media authority and media council, which are led exclusively by members supported by the governing party".

MP Erzsébet Menczer (Fidesz) claimed in a parliamentary debate that the new structure will create a "Central European BBC," and make it the strongest "agency" in the region. Zsolt Nyitrai, a Fidesz high official, called for patience to prove that the new legislation is not intended to scare or intimidate media.  MP László Lukács (Fidesz) said that the new law will lead to "a new, more balanced, more flexible, more correct media world"

The Néz?pont Institute, a Hungarian right-wing think-tank close to Fidesz, finds the new laws to be well-intended and necessary as they "aim at creating a coherent legal framework for both printed and electronic media which is in line with technological requirements." "Political influence over the media will, in our view, not become stronger than it currently is," the institute said.

An editor at Magyar Rádió who presented the news on the vote of the new "media constitution" in Parliament decided to stay silent for a minute because all comments had been forbidden. He was immediately suspended.

Karin Karlekar, Managing Editor of Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press index said: "This legislation, combined with other troubling moves against the media, will be a major setback for press freedom in Hungary. Of particular concern is the wording of the supposed 'violations' which is very is broad, creating an environment conducive to significant misuse, especially given the extremely polarised political environment in the country."

Magyar Európa Társaság, a centrist think-tank, says that Fidesz’s move to adopt a new media legislation, are a threat to the Hungarian EU Presidency, because it will consume a lot of energy in infighting and will attract a lot of criticism.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) warned that Hungary's leadership of the European Union in the first half of 2011 is already blighted following the passing of a new media law this week that appears to violate fundamental rights in Europe.

"Hungary is due to assume the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on January 1st 2011, and on the same day the government enacts a new media law that will create a blanket of self-censorship across the country's media," said Arne König, EFJ President. "It is untenable that a country which has enacted a law undermining fundamental rights including media freedom should now assume the moral and political leadership of the European Union. We will urge the European Commission to thoroughly investigate this law as a priority and ask Commissioner Reding, responsible for Fundamental Rights for quick reaction."

The EFJ is particularly concerned that Hungary is in breach of the Charter for Fundamental Rights and Article 11 on media freedom and media pluralism and is calling for European institutions to vigorously monitor the impact of the new law on citizens' rights. But European journalists are also concerned about the deterioration of press rights in other EU states.  

"Unfortunately, Hungary does not stand alone, the media situation in Romania is dramatic and the EFJ has agreed to send a mission in early January. Given the situation in Hungary it may do the same in Hungary," said König. "We will join forces with other organisations and insist that the EU sticks to its fundamental rights agenda."

Hungary will hold the six-month presidency of the Council of Ministers in the first half of 2011.

The key issues that Hungary wants to tackle during its presidency include energy, the Eastern Partnership, Croatia's accession to the EU, the Roma situation and the Danube strategy.

EU presidencies are organised in trios. The Hungarian one is the last of a series including Spain and Belgium. The next trio will include Poland, Denmark and Cyprus.

Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi compared his country’s presidency with a Spanish corrida, insisting however that Budapest would not play the bull, but the torero.

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