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23rd Jul 2016

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Hungarian media in mass protest against new tax rules

  • Orban's government has denied it is trying to curb press freedom (Photo: Mehr Demokratie)

More than 60 media outlets in Hungary have joined a protest against a planned tax on advertising revenues which the industry says will cripple press freedom in the country.

The move, unprecedented in scale by the politically divided Hungarian media, includes TV broadcasters, radio channels, print, online sites and communication companies.

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TV, radio, and online media held a 15 minute blackout on Thursday (5 June) evening, while Hungary's top newspapers were to be published on Friday with a blank page, reminiscent of the protest against a media law in 2011.

The planned tax supported by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's centre-right government will add little to the budget revenues.

Media companies and press organisations say its real goal is to undermine the press and put the media at the mercy of the government.

Peter Csermely, editor of Magyar Nemzet, a daily generally seen as pro-government, argued in an op-ed that the government's "two-thirds majority wants to step on the throat of press freedom".

The levy would tax Hungarian media companies' annual advertising revenues progressively, at a maximum rate of 40 percent on revenues above 20 billion forints (€65 million).

The lawmaker who submitted the proposal on Monday said he also aims to tax the ad revenues of Internet companies like Facebook, YouTube and Google.

Janos Lazar, Orban's chief of staff, said Wednesday the tax is not a move against the press. Lazar said it is an exaggeration to think that the tax rate has anything to do with democracy and press freedom.

"Only because you have to pay taxes will democracy remain in Hungary," he said, adding the government plans to spend the revenue on education.

Hungary's government has been putting sectorial taxes on telecommunications, banking, energy and other sectors in an effort to consolidate its finances.

Deutsche Telekom dragged into fray

In the meantime turmoil continues at Origo.hu, one of the most popular news portals in Hungary, where the editor-in-chief was abruptly removed on Tuesday after a series of articles questioning the costs of Lazar's official foreign trips.

Several editors and key journalists have resigned along with one of the founders of the site.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticised the removal of Origo's editor as well as the planned ad-tax.

Astrid Frohloff, a RSF spokeswoman in Berlin said in a statement that after a resounding election victory in April, that "Orban's government wants to silence critical voices and curb civil society".

She also said the removal of Origo's editor is a severe blow to independent journalism in Hungary.

The press organisation asked for a statement from Origo.hu's ultimate owner, Deutsche Telekom AG.

Hungarian news portal 444.hu reported on Thursday that German economic interests in Hungary played a role in allowing Origo.hu's freedom to be compromised, with the Budapest government planning a comprehensive rural IT development project with Deutsche Telekom.

The German firm said that its subsidiary, Magyar Telekom (the owner of Origo.hu) works independently, and that personnel changes are a result of an internal restructuring that Deutsche Telekom has not influenced.

Magyar Telekom also denied that its partnership signed with the Hungarian government in February has anything to do with the removal of the editor, and said there was no pressure on the company from the government's side.

Leaders of two opposition parties, LMP and Together, have sent letters to Timotheus Hoettges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG, and asked that the case of Origo.hu be brought before the firm's management board and general assembly to be investigated thoroughly.

A protest is planned for Monday (9 June) on the Origo affair.

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