Barroso: Media freedom is ‘our sacred principle’

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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.

German MEP and leader of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said: "There is great concern across Europe that the new Hungarian media law and its government-appointed media council will stifle press freedom. The right to receive and impart information without interference by public authority is enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Treaty of Lisbon clearly defines the EU's values."

"We cannot allow Hungary or any other government to drive a coach and horses through the fundamental values of the European Union," Schulz said. 

"This is an important matter and it must be handled seriously. I wrote to the chairman of the civil liberties committee, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, immediately after the adoption of the law in December. I asked for his committee to analyse the law as soon as possible so that the Parliament can decide whether or not to open procedures laid down in Article Seven of the Lisbon Treaty," Schulz continued.

"I would like this analysis to be completed, with the participation of the two European commissioners concerned, Viviane Reding and Neelie Kroes, and international media representatives, in time for our discussions at the parliamentary session," he added.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) expressed its "deepest concern about the new law passed by the Hungarian parliament to tighten government control over the media". ETUC warned that "Hungary is in breach of EU treaties and values".

"Hungary assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 January 2011 and, on the same day, enacted a new media law that violates free expression, editorial independence and fundamental rights," read their statement.

"Moreover, the new council set up to investigate, judge and levy heavy fines on the media (both publishers and broadcasters) if they don't provide 'balanced coverage' raises the question of the independence of such a media regulator and creates a real danger for democracy."

"This new media law clearly shows that Hungary wants to control opinion and curb free public debate. This censorship law is unworthy of a democracy and of a country currently assuming the political leadership of the EU."

ETUC warned Hungary that it is "in breach of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and its Article 11 on media freedom and media pluralism".

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

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

In particular, the Commission is investigating whether a contentious media law adopted by the Hungarian Parliament on 21 December, along with 'special taxes' imposed on foreign businesses, are compatible with EU law.

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