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30th Jun 2022

Hungary restricts campaign freedoms ahead of EU elections

  • Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban says the amendments passed by parliament respect EU laws (Photo: European Parliament)

Recent amendments passed by Hungarian lawmakers will restrict advertising campaigns for European Parliament elections.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso raised the issue last Friday (8 March) in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

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The letter, seen by this website, questioned the conformity of the amendments to EU law and how “these relate to the issue of advertising campaigns for European Parliament elections.”

Hungarian deputies pushed through an amendment on Monday that would create the constitutional basis to ban political advertisements in commercial media during election campaigns.

Almost two-thirds of Hungarians tune into two commercial national networks.

Candidates who want TV exposure will now have no alternative but to have their views aired on a much smaller public media broadcaster that is heavily influenced by Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party.

“Since the rule covers the elections of the MEPs, Barroso's concerns are well-grounded,” Szabolcs Hegyi, from the Budapest-based Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told EUobserver on Tuesday (12 March).

Hegyi said public TV, radio, and the national news agency is centralised and dominated by the governing parties.

They also depend financially on media council whose head is appointed by Orban. The current media chief is former Fidesz minister Annamaria Szalai.

Hegyi says biased reporting and self-censorship are not uncommon whenever the news slams the ruling government.

He noted that the state broadcast shots of empty streets, despite throngs of nearby protestors, when the Hungarian government last year made other changes to the constitution.

Other examples include cutting a report on a press conference with French Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit or deleting images of the previous head of the Supreme Court.

Other pro-right experts agree.

“The public service media is completely controlled by Fidesz,” said Andras Kadar, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in Budapest.

Andras says the latest rulings passed through the parliament are designed to undermine the power of constitutional court.

“Basically what you see here is a total lack of respect for the decisions of an independent institution,” said Kadar.

The court in January ruled the restrictive advert ban as an unconstitutional limitation of free political competition.

As an independent institution, the constitutional court ensures a balance between the executive and legislative. Except in areas of economic policy, the court can strike down legislation that is in breach of the constitution.

Pro-media rights group say the limitation sets a potentially dangerous precedence.

Free campaign ads will now be restricted to public media and only to so-called "nation-widely supported political parties."

“Those parties that have a representative candidate list regarding the whole country may advertise for free in the public media,” a government spokesperson in Budapest told this website by email, when asked to explain what "nation-widely supported political parities" means.

The amendment notes that candidates must be provided free and equal access to public media.

“While obviously it says that there is equal footing in the public service media, well I don’t think that anyone really believes footing will really be equal,” said Kadar.

The delegation of conservative Hungarian euro-deputies, for their part, says the amendments do not violate EU law.

“Hungary is a well-functioning democracy where media freedom is guaranteed, citizens can demonstrate freely, the courts are independent and the checks and balances are fulfilling their functions,” said the delegates in a statement on Tuesday.

Hungary’s president still has to sign the amendments before they become an integral part of the constitution.

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