Hungarian media law 'turns clock back to Communism,' say press advocates

05.08.10 @ 09:41

  1. By Matej Hruska

BRUSSELS - European journalist groups and press freedom watchdogs have sharply criticised the Hungarian government for its new media laws.

  • Viktor Orban's Fidesz party is not pleased with its media law being criticised (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

In unusually strong language, the critics have described the new rules as returning the country to "Communist" times.

The most controversial element of the plans is the creation of a government-controlled "media presidaeum", which would supervise public media, who will now have to guarantee "balanced reporting" and obliged to supply the information deemed by the regulators as "necessary for society".

All subjects of articles, including those appearing in both opinion pieces and straight news reporting, will now have a guaranteed right of reply.

Additionally, the head of the presidaeum is to be appointed directly by the prime minister for a nine-year term. Its executive council will in turn be responsible for nominating the directors of Hungary's public service media.

Public service broadcasting organisations are also to be converted into non-profit companies and supervised by the presidaeum.

European Federation of Journalists general-secretary Aidan White in a statement recently called the bill "a restrictive measure that limits freedom of opinion and thereby freedom of speech. It does not meet European standards of diversity and plurality and turns the clock back to a time when Hungary lived under Communism and the shadow of state control of media."

"It lacks clearly defined norms and is superficial in character the fear is that the new rules will be arbitrarily applied and open the door to high-handed interference," he said.

On 30 July, the local office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that it has tasked legal experts to evaluate the media package. In late June, the OSCE called on Budapest to put the package on hold and engage in consultations with sector stakeholders before it pushed ahead.

The OSCE's Dunja Mijatovic said in a letter to foreign minister Janos Martonyi: "The proposed laws are highly worrisome regarding media freedom… their adoption could lead to all broadcasting being subordinated to political decisions."

Officials from the Hungarian ruling Fidesz party however are rejecting the criticism.

Annamaria Szalai, currently a member of the Hungarian radio and television regulatory body appointed by Fidesz said the new legislation would increase independence of the media.

Ms Szalai, a former Fidesz MP who is expected to be the head of a new supervisory authority created by the law, told public television on Tuesday the legislation would instead depoliticise the media.

She also expects an increase in cost-effectiveness and enhanced quality in the sector.

The first part of the media package, which has already been approved by the Hungarian Parliament, merges the national telecommunication body and the radio and television authority into a single new unified National Media and Telecommunications Authority. The rest of the package regulating media content, including one element dubbed a "Media Constitution", will be considered by the parliament in the autumn.

Following the criticism of the package from the media, Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz, a senior official within Hungary's ruling right-wing Fidesz party, now sitting as an MEP from the ruling Fidesz party, has asked the European Commission to step in to prevent negative reports on the country's law from appearing in the media.

In a written question to the EU executive on Tuesday, MEP Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz, formerly a parliamentary group leader for Fidesz and deputy speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly, says that the media system in Hungary until now "has been operated by means of untransparent, fragmented, multiple instances of political horse-trading", and the new law is intended to change this situation.

She also called it unfortunate that the Hungarian media "presumably prompted by lobby interests more or less anticipate the anti-democratic nature of the new media system," before the act has come into the force.

She asked the commission whether it will in such cases of "mendacious articles hiding behind a mask of democracy" undertake steps to stop them.

Ms Pelcz wanted to know whether the commission agreed with the development of a new media system in Hungary, "even if it might infringe upon the interests of certain individuals or business sectors."