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20th Jan 2019

EU concedes it has little power to act over Hungarian media council

The European Commission has signaled that Hungary's new media law may be in breach of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, but concedes it has no powers to challenge a controversial media watchdog made up of political appointees.

"As it stands, [EU law] does not include specific provisions on the independence of media regulatory authorities," a spokesman for EU digital affairs commissioner Neelie Kroes told a regular news conference in Brussels on Monday (24 January).

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  • The Hungarian law contains a requirement for 'balanced' reporting (Photo: GiantsFanatic)

Established at the beginning of this year, opponents fear Hungary's media council could use its ability to impose substantial fines as a means of silencing criticism of centre-right prime minister Viktor Orban and his government.

Budapest insists this is not its intent, pointing to problems in the country's state-owned media, recent controversial television programmes and a former media law that dated back to the Communist era as reasons for the overhaul.

The commission has raised a series of concerns however, despite the restricted room for manoeuvre over the media council.

In a letter sent to deputy Hungarian prime minister Tibor Navracsics on Friday, Ms Kroes suggested the media law may be in breach of the "fundamental right of freedom of expression and information" and a core "principle of proportionality" enshrined in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The charter is legally binding following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009.

Ms Kroes' letter also suggested obligatory registration for Hungarian media, including online forums and blogs, may contravene the EU's Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, while applying the Hungarian law to foreign-based media may run contrary to EU business freedoms.

Budapest now has two weeks to respond to the commission's queries before possible legal action is initiated.

Hungarian government spokesman Anna Nagy said on Monday that clarifications sought by the commission were purely of a "technical" nature, unrelated to "press freedom".

"Our experts are working on a response which is going to be sent in a week's time," she told journalists.

Concern over Hungary's media law has threatened to overshadow the country's term as holders of the EU's rotating presidency during the first six months of this year.

Group's such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have voiced their concerns over the law, while an address by prime minister Orban to MEPs in Strasbourg last week provoked protests and heated debate on the issue.

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