Hungary's media crackdown slips off EU radar

17.01.12 @ 09:24

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - Hungary's Media Act - put out January last year - drew international condemnation, but to little avail. The ruling right-wing Fidesz party now has control over a press that is fast-losing its independence and sense of balance.

  • Media under fire in Hungary (Photo: g.rohs)

"The politicians control the media in Hungary. It is not controlled by media self-regulation," Oliver Vujovic, secretary-general of the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (Seemo) told this website, noting that journalists are becoming reluctant to report on politically sensitive issues.

Under the new law, which entered into force on 1 January 2011, anyone - even anonymously - can file a complaint against any news outlet that its report was, for example, biased. If found guilty, TV stations can be fined up to €700,000, papers and websites up to €36,000 and individual journalists up to €7,250.

The Media Council - a new regulator run by five pro-government people whose mandates are nine years long - imposes the fines.

"Members of the council are delegated by Fidesz. There are no members from the opposition parties," Szabolcs Hegyi, from the Budapest-based Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told EUobserver.

The regulator is also in charge of all tendering, licensing and spectrum management. All media are required to register with the body, which appoints directors in public outlets, such as state TV channel MTV.

In 2010, top decision-makers from the Hungarian Television, Hungarian Radio, Duna Television and the Hungarian News Agency were replaced by apparatchiks widely known to support Fidesz.

You're talking nonsense Mr Regulator

The Hungarian government at the time said its law is based on existing regulations inside EU countries. But an analysis of EU-sourced media law by the Budapest-based Center for Media and Communications Studies indicates this is not true.

The report - out earlier this month - looks at 56 media regulations from 20 European and EU countries cited in two statements by the Hungarian ministry of justice in its defence.

"These analyses indicate that the Hungarian government's general assertion that its media laws are derived from those in other European and EU member states cannot be substantiated by the examples it provided. Instead, many of the most important features of Hungary's new media laws appear to be unique," it said.

It highlighted several factual errors in Hungary's line, such as citing out-dated laws and misrepresenting the real powers of other regulators.

The Hungarian government could not be immediately contacted for a comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, Hungary's Constitutional Court in mid-December struck down some parts of the new rules. It said journalists should not be forced to disclose sources, that print media should be exempt and that the institution of the media ombudsman - another control mechanism - should be eliminated.

The court's decision must be endorsed by parliament to have any meaning. But HCLU - for one - is sceptical this will happen.

"The parliament must enact a law to make it a reality. For the moment, there are no indications they will do this," the NGO's Hegyi said. He added that the court failed to address questions on sanctions and on Fidesz control of the Media Council.

Brushed under the carpet

For its part, the European Commission last January said the media law undermines freedom of expression and media diversity in the teeth of EU regulations.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban changed the bill to make it easier for foreign media to operate in the country and softened rules on "balanced" coverage and "offensive" content on Internet agencies and blogs.

EU digital affairs commissioner Neelie Kroes at the time said it is good enough for her.

But experts say the changes skirt real problems, especially the Fidesz monopoly on media oversight.

"The European Commission is not critical enough against the media laws. Last year, statements made by the OSCE and the Council of Europe were far more explicit and critical," Seemo's Vujovic said, referring to Vienna and Strasbourg's democracy watchdogs.

Cruel and unusual?

Some journalists and media representatives in December held a hunger strike on the doorstep of Hungary's public TV station, MTV.

Among them were Balazs Nagy Navarro and fellow journalist Aranka Szavuly, who went without eating for three weeks and who endured freezing winter cold and MTV blasting high-volume music at them round the clock.

The strike has now ended. But MTV threw them both out of work.

Correction: This story was amended at 1pm Brussels time on 17 January. The original text said the national TV station is called MTVA. It is called MTV. It also said the Hungarian government declined to reply to a query. In fact, it did not receive the query in time