Hungary told to amend three elements of media law

Hungary EU flags Picnik.jpg

The stand-off between the European Commission and rotating EU presidency holder Hungary this week entered an appeasement phase, after Budapest indicated it was ready to make changes to its controversial media law. Brussels said it wanted three elements of the text modifying.

In what should be seen as a conciliatory development, Hungary responded within due time on Monday to a letter from Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes to the Hungarian authorities raising ''serious concerns'' about the Hungarian media law. The Commission was quick to respond to Budapest's move later that same day.

Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, who is also the country's justice and public administration minister, said in his reply that the Hungarian law complied with European rules in all three areas of concern raised by Kroes.

Navracsics asked the Commission to consider Hungary's arguments in defence of the related provisions. He further suggested that Hungarian experts should be allowed to consult with Commission officials if the provisions were still found to be problematic.

If the Commission still finds the law problematic in light of the arguments put forward in yesterday's response, Hungary is prepared to make any necessary changes and to update the EU executive with details of the codification process, Navracsics added.

In her reply, Commissioner Kroes welcomed the Hungarian authorities' readiness to discuss the issues raised in her letter and their clear indication that they are prepared to modify the law if need be.

She further requested Budapest to address ''a number of serious doubts'' about the compatibility of the Hungarian media law with EU legislation in three key areas:

  • The Commission is concerned about the lack of specific criteria for ''balanced coverage'' by bloggers, which it thinks could lead to disproportionate restrictions to the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and information. This may result not only in a breach of the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive (as regards audiovisual media) but also of general EU Treaty rules on the establishment and provision of services and of Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is applicable to all media.
  • Certain provisions of the media law appear to also apply to media firms established in other EU member states, including the possibility of fining them for non-compliance. The Commission insists that the AVMS Directive establishes a single market for broadcasters, including providers of online audiovisual content, based on the 'country of origin' principle. According to this principle, a general power to impose fines on non-resident media providers, as foreseen by the Hungarian law, appears to be disproportionate, the Commission states.
  • The Commission is concerned about possible over-extensive application of rules on media registration, due to the lack of specific criteria. Extending the registration requirement to all media service providers seems disproportionate and restricts without justification the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and information, Kroes writes in her letter.

Jonathan Todd, spokesperson for Commissioner Kroes, said today (1 February) that the Commission expected the Hungarian media law to be modified in the three areas indicated, ''within weeks rather than months''.

He said that the EU executive was not considering launching an infringement procedure against Hungary at the moment, adding that the Commission was optimistic about the prospect of a ''fairly rapid resolution'' of the matter.

The Hungarian government's response to concerns raised by the European Commission over the country's media legislation is "totally inadequate," Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, said in a statement on Monday.

''The question is not just about technical adjustments to the media law, but about a fundamental modification of the law. The argument put forward by the Hungarian government that the law complies with EU rules concerning registration, plurality and country of origin is clearly wrong."
"In no EU country is prior registration of all media outlets required. This may not be a breach of the EU directive itself, but clearly constitutes a breach of Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights guaranteeing press freedom. Furthermore, the country of origin requirements can only be supplanted by national laws in certain very specific areas, and not in the generalised manner as set out in the Hungarian law."
"If the Hungarian government is unable to understand the seriousness of the case and remains unwilling to make the necessary modifications and oblivious to the critical assessment of the OSCE, then the ALDE group will seek a commitment from the Commission to step up the pressure to initiate legal proceedings against the government,'' Verhofstadt concluded.

Hungary took over the six-month rotating 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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