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23rd Mar 2019

Barroso puts the squeeze on Hungary over media law

  • Hungarian PM Victor Orban (l) and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Freedom of the press is a "sacred principle" that the European Commission will raise in Budapest in the wake of the introduction of a controversial media law, Jose Manuel Barroso said on Wednesday (5 January) ahead of his trip to the central European country, currently in charge of the rotating presidency of the bloc.

"I am going to discuss this issue," said Mr Barroso, who on Friday is scheduled to meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

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The commission will seek "clarification of the situation and, if possible, a lifting of the doubts" concerning the new media law that came into force on 1 January, allowing greater state control over private news outlets.

"Freedom of the press is a sacred principle, a fundamental value," Mr Barroso added.

The law gives broad powers to a media regulatory authority, including the right to impose fines of up to €720,000 for material that is considered offensive or politically "unbalanced". The authority also has the right to inspect documents and force journalists to reveal sources in issues related to national security.

The media "regulatory" measures were criticised by human rights groups and media organisations from all over Europe, with Turkish mass daily Hurriyet on Wednesday running an editorial calling for Hungary to be stripped of the EU presidency.

France and Germany also have slammed the law.

On Tuesday, German deputy foreign minister Werner Hoyer said Hungary should not be allowed to speak on violations of free speech in Belarus.

"The right to speak in the name of Europe naturally implies a duty to respect internal European norms to be able to represent them to the outside world in credible fashion," he said.

A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier that day also said France wants the Hungarian media law text to be altered, deeming it "incompatible" with the idea of freedom of the press.

A disputed translation of the 194-page law has meanwhile arrived in Brussels and is being analysed by the commission's legal services, but the formal analysis will not come in time for the Friday meeting, a spokesman for Mr Barroso said earlier on Wednesday.

According to Hungarian media outlet Origo, the English translation is missing some parts of the original text, notably that that the fines will only be levied after Hungary's EU presidency is over on 1 July.

Meanwhile, in Budapest, foreign minister Janos Martonyi on Wednesday indicated some room for manoeuvre.

"Let's wait for the comments of the European Commission, then we'll see how the situation can be remedied," he told foreign journalists.

"We'll see what kind of comments, criticism will be made and then we can sit down together (to talk)," he added, reports AFP.

Aside from the media debate, Hungary has come under fire over a "crisis" tax targeting foreign companies - mostly German. An investigation has been opened by the commission to check whether the law is in breach of EU rules.

Another new law easing citizenship applications for ethnic Hungarians has also caused tensions in the region, after thousands of people in Romania and Slovakia rushed to get Hungarian passports in the new year.

Meanwhile, Hungarian opposition parties have raised the red flag over proposed amendments to Hungary's constitution which they say will see the country lurch to the right via measures including a ban on abortions and a weakening of constitutional checks and balances on government power.

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