France blasts Hungarian media law

Hungary Budapest Parliament Picnik.jpg

France said yesterday (4 January) that a new media law passed by Hungary, which took up the EU's rotating presidency on 1 January, violated EU laws on press freedom, and called on other members of the bloc to take action against it.

French government spokesman and Budget Minister François Baroin told France Inter radio the law was "incompatible with the application of ideas on press freedom that have been validated in European treaties".

Several EU members have criticised Hungary over the law, which calls for a new media authority, dominated by appointees of the ruling Fidesz party, to oversee all public news production. It can also levy big fines on private media, which are required to be "balanced".

'Put the law between parentheses'

Hungary has been publicly rebuked by the UK, Germany and Luxembourg, whose foreign minister questioned whether Hungary was worthy of leading the 27-member bloc.

"France's position [and] the position of all EU member states needs to be strong enough in diplomatic and political terms so that Hungary's government can have a more serene presidency by putting this law between parentheses," Baroin said.

Budapest said it was confident that the regulation "complies with the relevant EU standards in all respects".

In France, the law has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, with the main opposition Socialist Party labelling it "a very bad sign for Europe and for the liberty of the press".

The controversy over the media law has contributed to a growing cloud over Hungary's EU presidency.

Budapest and Brussels have clashed several times since Prime Minister Viktor Orban rejected austerity measures, cut ties with the International Monetary Fund and opted for unorthodox fiscal steps to cut the budget deficit and boost economic growth.

The European Commission announced on Monday that it was investigating the legality of crisis taxes imposed by Hungary's centre-right government on the telecoms, retail and energy sectors.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

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French daily Le Monde published yesterday (4 January) an editorial article entitled 'Hungary makes a mockery of European values'.

The conservative government of Viktor Orban has adopted a number of laws which run counter the spirit of the European Union, which wants a democratic space and balance of powers. The new media law is one of them, Le Monde writes.

The influential French daily describes the European Commission's reaction as "feeble" and notes that in the European Parliament, only the Socialists, Liberals and Greens have clearly condemned the texts.

But in most EU countries - with the exception of Germany, Luxembourg and at a later stage France - governments do not dare criticise the Hungarian government, Le Monde writes.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, published a statement condemning the Hungarian media law.

"The time of Pravda is over. This new law is unacceptable. Hungary must explain and the Commission must act," Verhofstadt states.

"Hungary is about to start its first EU presidency. In that function it not only needs to accept and endorse but also defend all democratic principles that we commonly share, including freedom of information and press. No member state can be allowed to put, in the name of undefined national security, restrictions to freedoms that lie at the heart of our Union of values," he declared.

"We have witnessed a shocking precedent, whereby critical media and public debate will be silenced, the free market economy will be violated and political independence will be denied. What must we expect of Hungary after this?" Verhofstadt asked.

The Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament published a statement, calling on the European Commission and the Council to take action against Hungary over the "draconian" media law.

Greens/EFA co-president Rebecca Harms said "this draconian media law is an echo of Europe's undemocratic past and it is scandalous that the EU Council and Commission have allowed the situation to go so far".

"The EU has sat on its hands in spite of serious concerns being raised about the draft law, which is in conflict with the fundamental democratic principle of media freedom, as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, and, as such, the EU treaty," Harms added.

Greens/EFA co-president Daniel Cohn-Bendit added: "The Greens call on [the European Commission president] not to waste any more time and to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU treaty. It is unthinkable that the incoming EU presidency, Hungary, should be allowed to maintain this odious law, which is at total odds with a core EU principle."

"The Greens will insist that the situation in Hungary is discussed at the plenary session of the European Parliament in January 2011 but strongly hope the Commission will not wait that long to launch action," Cohn-Bendit said. 

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 EU executive 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.

France is itself under Commission scrutiny over its Roma expulsions.

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