Parliament scales down Hungary media law debate

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A European Parliament debate over Hungary's controversial media law, scheduled to take place at a Strasbourg plenary, had to be rescheduled in a smaller room after the EU assembly's two biggest political groups voted against the plan.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) insisted on not giving too much visibility to the debate because a European Commission legal assessment on Hungary's media law was still pending.

"There is a great deal of political motivation behind this debate," argued MEP Simon Busuttil (EPP; Malta), stressing that his group would prefer to wait for the Commission's complete assessment of the law.

The move by the Parliament's largest political group is hardly surprising since the ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz, is EPP-affiliated.

More intriguing was the backing from the assembly's second largest group and main opposition party, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which also backed the motion to reschedule the debate.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment, an S&D spokesperson said his group did not want to put the cart before the horse and that legal arguments were needed for holding such a debate in plenary.

This did not prevent S&D MEPs, however, from attacking the law in the Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). The debate took place on 17 January.

Claude Moraes (S&D; UK), agreed that all member states must comply with EU law. "We are not interested in targeting a particular country, but in analysing whether EU rules have been breached," he said, adding that the Hungarian media law "raised concerns all over Europe".

"The fact that this law is so widely criticised shows that something in it is seriously wrong," observed Tanja Fajon (S&D; Slovenia).

Commission assessment pending

The debate, featuring Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, took place in a crowded room, where she repeated the same statements she had made in Brussels in a hearing organised by the liberal ALDE group the week before.

Kroes said her services were assessing the Hungarian law's compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, adding that that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems. Among them, she cited the law's apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries as well as rules on media registration and political control over the country's media authority.

Unlike the debate in Brussels, Hungary was represented by a government representative, Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics, who promised to amend the law "if necessary". Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised the same on the occasion of a Commission visit to Budapest earlier this month.

But Navracsics defended the new law, which from the official Hungarian perspective is intended to replace outdated provisions and implement the EU directive. "All of these comments were already out and about before the law was approved," he insisted.

Kinga Gál (EPP; Hungary) blasted the "collective hysteria" among political opponents regarding the law.

Manfred Weber (EPP; Germany), suggested that the Commission should examine the media laws of all 27 member states and not just Hungary. "My experts are well aware of all national laws. And we will not act against Hungary without acting on media rules in other countries, that would be unfair," replied Kroes.

In separate surroundings, Commission President José Manuel Barroso revealed that the EU executive would send a letter to the Hungarian government this week to express its objections "again".

Barroso said this yesterday (18 January) during a question and answer session at the European parliament in Strasbourg.

"We must treat Hungary like any other member state, prudently and objectively," he added.

It remains unclear, however, if this letter is the final legal opinion regarding the media law or if a more detailed opinion will follow.

Several MEPs voiced concerns about the "balanced communication" requirement in Hungary's contentious media law. "There are different truths or different opinions of the truth out there [...] Listening to different media is what makes democracy stronger," argued Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini (Greens/EFA group).

But Hungarian Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics defended the need for the balanced coverage requirement "given the broad influence that the media have on public opinion". 

"In Hungary this concept is not unrealistic [...] It has emerged from political and legal debate and is broadly accepted," he added, arguing that Hungary's "level of democratic maturity" had to be taken into account.

Rui Tavares (GUE/NGL; Portugal) warned against public authorities over-regulating the media, and said the Hungarian government should suspend the application of the law while the Commission examines it.

Kinga Göncz (S&D; Hungary) suggested withdrawing the law altogether given the strongly negative international reaction to it.

Monica Macovei (EPP: Romania) asked about the state of investigative journalism in Hungary. Mr Navracsics replied that the new law protects investigative journalists more than ever before.

"This debate is not about Hungary, but about the credibility of the EU and the enforcement of fundamental rights," said Sophia In 't Veld (ALDE; The Netherlands). She advocated creating an EU media monitoring tool and assessing the risk of media self-censorship as a result of a faulty law.

"The real question is whether the EU is currently equipped to solve such problems," observed Morten Løkkegaard (ALDE; Denmark).

In response, Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes outlined the Commission's media monitoring efforts to date and promised a follow-up on this issue. Most importantly, however, "we got the guarantee from the Hungarian government that they are listening and they will act," she concluded.

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.

  • Last week of January: Commission to send letter to Hungarian government to express its objections regarding media law.

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