Media freedom is "a sacred principle" of the European Union, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, stated ahead of a visit alongside all his commissioners to EU presidency holder Hungary. Budapest is under fire over a controversial media law adopted recently.
"The freedom of media is for us a sacred principle. It's a problem of values, let there be no doubt about it. In the European Union, freedom of the media is a sacred principle. It's a fundamental principle," Barroso made clear before the Brussels press yesterday (5 January).
The Commission president was answering a question from EURACTIV regarding the importance of the issues he was expected to raise with his Hungarian hosts, one of which is a contentious media law adopted by the Hungarian Parliament on 21 December, along with 'special taxes' imposed on foreign businesses.
Regarding the 'special' or 'crisis' taxes, Barroso said his services had been in contact with the Hungarian authorities since October to clarify whether they were compatible with EU law. He admitted that the issue was "extremely complex and sensitive" and said the Commission would look at it from a legal point of view with "all certainty".
"All these matters are important, because without the internal market we cannot have a European Union," Barroso said.
But he stopped short of commenting further as he was wary of pre-judging the outcome of ongoing assessments and consultations.
Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly explained that the EU executive had received that very morning a 194-page translation of Hungary's media law. As a consequence, he said, it will take longer than expected to examine it and Barroso's team will not be in a position to pass judgement as early as their Budapest trip.
Asked by EURACTIV why an EU member state such as France had already proven capable of assessing the Hungarian media law and had even called on other members of the bloc to take action against it, Bailly said an analysis by a member state was political, while a juridical analysis by the Commission was more complex and took more time.
In response to a separate question, Bailly also hinted that the Commission's agenda in Budapest would include other issues as well as the media law and special taxes. Indeed, Hungary has also been criticised for a citizenship law that makes it easier for ethnic Hungarians living abroad to obtain Hungarian citizenship.
Lost in translation?
Meanwhile, Hungarian media claimed that the English translation of the media law provided by Hungary to the European Commission was missing several sections.
Indeed, EURACTIV Hungary reported that the Hungarian National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH) had acknowledged in a brief Hungarian language-only press release the fact that the translation prepared by the authority (not the legislator) for the Commission was not full. MNHH admitted it was still working on the final text.
The submitted translation neglected to mention changes enacted in other laws – including a deadline set for changing from analogue to digital TV broadcasting in Hungary, which since 3 January is no longer applicable – allegedly "without affecting understanding of the media law" and transitory measures that are not effective yet.
The most important of these transitory measures is the fact that heavy fines for "imbalanced" or "improper" reporting can only be applied after 30 June 2011, co-incidentally when Hungary's EU presidency expires.
On 4 January it was briefly reported that international pressure on the Hungarian government had started to produce results. Zoltán Kovács, state secretary responsible for communications, said in an interview broadcast by commercial TV channel RTL-Klub that like all laws, the new media law may be amended if it infringes common principles.
But this impression quickly dissipated. On 5 January Peter Szijjartó, personal spokesperson for Viktor Orbán, said all members of the cabinet were convinced that the media law was "European to the last bit" and would not consider changing it. He insisted that criticism would fade as those interested abroad became familiar with the English translation.
The Foreign Ministry also released a statement. "The Government of the Republic of Hungary is steadfastly committed to carrying out the programme of the EU rotating presidency, but at the same time firmly rejects any suggestions that raise doubts about the Hungarian EU Presidency's ability to act and suggestions of limiting the responsibilities of the presidency," it said.