16 Feb 2011

a Sad New Year for Hungary’s Media

The last months of 2010 witnessed a wave of unrest for the media in Hungary, as well as wide-spread debates about freedom of speech among local media, political opposition groups and national and international civil society actors. The right-wing Fidesz government headed by Mr. Viktor Orban managed to almost ‘smuggle’ in a new draft of the Hungarian media law (“The Law on Media Services and Mass Communication) , with a controversial draft which was passed through the Parliament without any preliminary public consultations and stakeholders’ debates. The law, which was adopted by the Parliament on 21st December 2010 and subsequently signed by President Pal Schmitt and published in the Hungarian Gazette on December 31st, became active as of January 1st 2011.

What are the major issues at stake with the new media law and how does it threaten media freedom?

Several provisions of the law are of particular concern as to their potential to affect the freedom of the press, the status of on-line media, and impact on the core mechanisms of investigative journalism practices, as the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA) has put it in an open letter addressed to Mr. Orban. Of even higher concern is that the law can enable the Hungarian Media Council to control not only Hungarian media but all other foreign media that is distributed in Hungary and can “affect” the Hungarian public. I can expect a slight jurisdiction problem to arise here very soon, and it is likely that the concerned Hungarian authorities might feel the need to rethink this provision (and most others, by the way) in the near future.

The law also enables two recently founded bodies with members named primarily by the governing party – the National Media and Telecommunications Authority and the Media Council – with the following rights:
– to oversee content and licensing of all public and private media – broadcast, print or web-based – according to the same principles;
– to apply extraordinary fines for content that is “unbalanced” without a clear definition of what “balanced” would mean (see complex analysis by media lawyer Judit Bayer at http://janalbrecht.eu/2011/01/02/whats-the-problem-with-the-hungarian-media-law/);
– to access equipment and documents of media outlets;
– to force journalists to reveal their sources in contexts assessed as potentially affecting public order and national security, the later notions being also vaguely defined in the new legal document.

Concerns about how these regulatory provisions would lead to state and political control over content, self-censorship due to very high fines as well as hinder public information and public debate have been voiced by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media’s office and by the Independent Press Institute (IPI) whose representatives conducted a fact-finding Mission to Hungary in 15-16 December 2010. Despite strong public reactions from these and other organizations, the media, as well as European Parliament representatives, the new Law on Media Services and Mass Communication is now “active” in Hungary. Constant monitoring of its implementation followed by prompt reactions whenever media freedom is at stake seems the only way forward for those actors concerned with ensuring that this legal act has a short life .. or a short arm, in the end.

And, on a last note, the fact that Hungary took over the EU Presidency for six months on January 1 2011, may place the government either under increased pressure from media freedom advocates and the EU or on the contrary, under a more relaxed scrutiny of its position for the period of its presidency. This is also left for us to see.

See here the new Hungarian Media Law in English.

Author: Laura Ranca, CSaC collaborator

*Disclaimer: This article presents the views of the author and it is not the official position of the institutions supporting this project.