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17th Feb 2019

Orban meets barrage of MEP criticism over media law

  • MEPs showed their disapproval with banners and by putting sticky tape on their mouths (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was met with an unprecedentedly hostile welcome for an incoming EU presidency in the European Parliament on Wednesday (19 January), with MEPs venting strong criticism against Budapest's new media law.

Scheduled as a discussion on Hungary's presidency priorities for the next six months, the controversial media law dominated discussion and prompted a number of MEPs to display white banners with the single word 'censored'.

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In his introductory speech Mr Orban repeated the government's willingness to change the law if a European Commission legal opinion finds it to be at fault, but Socialist, Liberal and Green group leaders called for a complete scrapping of the legislation.

Introduced at the start of this month, the contentious act establishes a media council to ensure 'balanced' reporting, and requires all media types to be registered, including online media such as forums and blogs.

"The hour is grave," Socialist leader Martin Schultz said, singling out the media council's membership of government appointees as unacceptable.

Others joined in. "The aim of media governance is not to guarantee 'proper' and 'adequate' information," said Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt. "The aim is to uphold pluralism and to guarantee that any initiative in media can be developed."

The loudest criticism came from Green group leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit. "Today Mr Orban you are on the path of becoming a European Chavez, a national populist," he said, referring to Venezuela's controversial president Hugo Chavez.

"Do you think Mr Nixon got balanced information? Or Mr Bush on Abu Ghraib? Do you think Mr Berlusconi thinks research done on his life amounts to balanced information? No, information is to be a gadfly to politicians. That's why your law does not correspond with the values of the European Union."

The Hungarian government has vigorously defended the new media law since it came to public attention late last year, arguing it is vital to replace its predecessor which was designed under the country's former Communist regime.

The law must be judged on its implementation, insists Budapest, but a range of group's including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have blasted it a priori as restricting Hungarian press freedom.

Brussels is currently undertaking a legal review on whether the media act contravenes EU law, a judgement Mr Orban says he will follow, provided it is scrupulously objective and treats Hungary like any other EU member state.

Analysts suggest Brussels' room for manoeuvre is limited, but commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has persistently talked up the "political" need for alterations, as well as potential legal reasons. "You are certainly aware that the legal enforcement powers of the commission regarding fundamental rights are limited to cases where the member states act in the sphere of EU law," EU commissioner with responsibility for media policy, Neelie Kroes, told a committee of MEPs on monday night.

Recent pronouncements suggest the commission may demand changes on the grounds that single market rules have been broken, including the EU's Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive.

Responding to MEP criticisms, Mr Orban said many of their interventions had been based on "mistakes" and misunderstandings on the Hungarian legislation. "You can not go on offending the Hungarian people in this way," he said, prompting a fresh outcry against "populist rhetoric" from the anti-media-law euro deputies.

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