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11th Jul 2020

Hungary leads EU attacks on press freedom, watchdog says

  • The Hungarian parliament passed the controversial new media law on Tuesday morning (Photo: EUobserver)

The creation of a new Hungarian media authority with powers to sanction national press outlets is the latest sign of a worrying trend in the wider EU, Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders has said.

"It is a growing problem in Europe at the moment. There is no member state that is going in the right direction in terms of media freedom," Olivier Basille, the watchdog's chief representative for the EU, told this website in a telephone interview on Tuesday (21 December). "Ever since the US terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, we have been moving backwards," he added.

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On Tuesday the Hungarian parliament, dominated by MPs from the governing centre-right Fidesz party, passed a controversial media law that critics say will greatly restrict press freedom in the eastern European state which is set to take over the EU presidency on 1 January 2011.

The law will create a new media authority, called the NMHH, with powers to issue fines to media groups whose coverage is deemed to be unbalanced or an infringement upon human dignity.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has also criticised the step, arguing it will give "unprecedented powers in content regulation to the newly established media authority".

Editors are concerned that the new body - to comprise five appointees from the ruling right-wing Fidesz party – could also force journalists to reveal their sources in national security or public order cases.

"We don't know how exactly it will change the situation. Much too much is left open to interpretation, nothing is clear," Reporters Without Borders' Mr Basille said. "Hungary is set to represent the EU for the coming six months. What credibility will the government have when it speaks to regimes in places like Zimbabwe or Belarus?" he added.

Budapest has denied that the new law will restrict media freedom. Asked by a reporter in Brussels on Monday if Hungarian journalists who criticize its EU presidency will be punished, Hungarian foreign minister Janos Martonyi said: "I would encourage all of you to violently criticise the Hungarian presidency if you are unhappy with it."

Mr Martonyi, who himself worked for Hungary's censorious Communist-era regime and who was outed in press in April for collaboration with the Communist secret police, added that the legislation compares favourably with other EU press laws.

This may come as little comfort to media freedom groups who have witnessed a raft of restrictive measures across the 27-member union in recent years.

A new law that came into force in Ireland on 1 January 2010 makes blasphemy a crime punishable with a fine of up to €25,000. The government has defended the measure as necessary to protect the growing diversity of religious faiths, arguing that the 1936 constitution only extends protection to Christians.

Slovakia has also caused alarm with its 2008 Press Act, handing the minister of culture the authority to penalise editors for publishing articles that promote certain kinds of hate. The law also established a sweeping "right of reply" by individuals to articles published in newspapers or magazines.

"The vote means that ... anyone will be able to reply - even in an untrue manner - to any opinion piece, even if it contained nothing untrue," the OSCE said in a statement after the law was passed.

Media concentration in the hands of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a primary target of critics, while Britain's tough libel laws are frequently used by business leaders, celebrities and politicians eager to muzzle reporters.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a leaked US cable has shown how the State Department handles the press.

A cable from January this year on the Haiti earthquake personally signed off by secretary of state Hilary Clinton bemoans adverse press coverage of the US reaction to the crisis and goes on to say: "Where you see ill-informed or distorted perspectives in your host country media, I direct you as Chief of Mission to personally contact media organizations at the highest possible level - owners, publishers, or others, as appropriate - to push back and insist on informed and responsible coverage of our actions and intentions."

One nation appears to stand out on the positive side.

Badly beaten by the financial crisis, Iceland has sought to establish itself as a media haven over the past year, with a new bill - The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative - seeking to strengthen journalistic source protection, freedom of speech, and government transparency.

This could be partially unwound if Iceland joins the European Union however, warn critics. "EU legislation will oblige Reykjavik to break some of these new rules," said Mr Basille.

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