Brussels happy with Hungary’s pledges on media law

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The European Commission welcomed yesterday (16 February) the amendments that Hungary has pledged to make to its controversial media law, seeking to draw to a close an episode that has poisoned the beginning of the Hungarian EU Presidency. EURACTIV Hungary contributed to this article.

Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said she was "very pleased" that the Hungarian authorities had agreed to change their media law in four areas, following a letter she sent to Budapest on 21 January.

Kroes's spokesperson Jonathan Todd said the agreed changes touched upon the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive and the Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 11 on freedom of expression).

He said the Commission would now closely monitor the adoption of these amendments and their subsequent implementation.

The four areas where Hungary agreed to change its media law are:

  • The disproportionate application of rules regarding balanced information;
  • The application of fines to broadcasters legally established and authorised in other EU countries;
  • Rules on registration and authorisation of media service providers, and;
  • Rules against offending individuals, minorities or majorities.

On balanced coverage, Hungarian authorities agreed they would no longer apply these requirements to on-demand media services, an obligation which was seen as disproportionate by the European Commission.

On country of origin, Budapest agreed that broadcasters legally established in other EU countries could no longer be fined for breaching the Hungarian media law's provisions on incitement to hatred.

On media registration, Budapest agreed that on-demand audiovisual media services established in Hungary and in other member states would no longer be subject to prior authorisation.

On causing offence, the agreed amendments limit the ban to situations of incitement to hatred or discrimination.

The fact that one controversial issue, political control over the country's media authority, had not been addressed was highlighted during a debate in the European Parliament yesterday (see 'Positions').

Hungarian opposition remains sceptical

Hungarian opposition parties voiced scepticism as to the changes and the way they were agreed.

They also argued that the issue of political control over the country's media authority had not been addressed.

Gergely Karácsony, deputy leader of the LMP (Greens) in the Hungarian parliament, said the media law would need to be defeated "three times".

"Firstly, by the resistance of journalists and civic society, secondly by the procedure of the European Commission based on European law, and thirdly by Hungary's Constitutional Court, because […] the law breaches the Hungarian constitution," he said.

Karácsony explained that the changes forced by the European Commission were important, but they did not touch upon the most important elements, because the underlying European directives did not cover those.

He pledged that the Greens would fight against the law with more substantial amending proposals in the Hungarian parliament and in the Constitutional Court. He also lamented the fact that the government had discussed the amendments "secretly" with the European Commission.

"The LMP would like to see a proper debate with Hungarian stakeholders, too," he said.

Socialists & Democrats group leader Martin Schulz EMP (Germany) said: "Our relentless political pressure on both the Hungarian government and the European Commission has delivered its first results. Eventually, Mr Orban had to face the hard facts and give in."

"At first glance, a series of changes, some of technical nature have taken place. But other important matters, such as the composition of Media Council, are outstanding. Commissioner Kroes' response on these matters was far from satisfactory," Schulz added.

"We still need to analyse the text carefully. Media freedom is an issue of central importance to the S&D group and we will do everything in our power to protect it," he said.

French MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the European People's Party group in the European Parliament, stated: "The consultations on the media law between the Hungarian government and the European Commission successfully came to an end today. The clarifications on the criticised items have been made, and the Hungarian government will carry out the requested modifications in the coming days. The Commission announced that the modifications would ensure that the act complies with the aspects of EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights." 

 

"The European Commission expressed its satisfaction with the outcome and will work closely with the Hungarian government. This situation further proves that the wave of political attacks on the law was premature and unjustified," Daul concluded.

The Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main rights and security body, which has criticised the media law, said Budapest should also comply with its requirements.

"If the Hungarian government is now going to change the laws, then the media legislation needs to be amended also in light of protecting OSCE commitments, such as media pluralism and the free flow of information," the OSCE's media freedom chief Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement, quoted by Reuters.

"I ask the Hungarian authorities to seize this opportunity, and render their media legislation in line with the OSCE commitments that they have signed up to."

The OSCE was particularly concerned that the new Hungarian media authority and media council were led exclusively by members supported by the governing Fidesz party, as this could undermine media pluralism.

Hungary took over the six-month presidency of the Council of Ministers on 1 January 2011.

But since day one, a controversial media law recently adopted by Hungary's ruling majority has been straining relations with the European Commission.

The Hungarian Media Law was adopted on 21 December 2010. Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes wrote to the Hungarian authorities on 23 December expressing her concerns and asking for details. Following notification of the law, Kroes wrote to the Hungarian authorities again on 21 January expressing her specific concerns about the compliance of the media law with EU law.

This was followed by meetings in Brussels at expert level between Commission and the Hungarian authorities on 7 February and 15 February, where the Commission discussed its concerns about the media law.

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