Why Hungary’s new media law is no surprise

About Hungary’s clumsy timing and an alarming trend in Europe.

, by Koen Colpaert

Why Hungary's new media law is no surprise

On January 1 Hungary took over the rotating EU Presidency of the Council from Belgium. But while the latter succeeded to keep its domestic politics on the background for six months, Hungary fights public criticism and disgrace because of a new media law. Critics say this law will greatly restrict press freedom and constitutes a direct threat to democracy. The past few weeks, it triggered a huge storm of protest; the European Commission is now investigating whether the contentious legislation is compatible with EU law. However, the law is nothing more than just another sign of an alarming trend in Europe.

“Hungary’s new media law violates OSCE media freedom standards and endangers editorial independence and media pluralism”, stated the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on December 21st 2010 when the Hungarian parliament passed a controversial media law. That day, the Hungarian ruling centre-right party Fidesz, enacted a law that will strengthen the government’s control on the media. The new media constitution creates a media authority which can impose fines of up to 750.000€ upon broadcasters and newspapers for violating ‘public interest, public morals or order’, without explicitly defining these concepts.

Clumsy timing

Several organizations such as Reporters without Borders, International Press Association and the European Federation of Journalists raised concerns and are mainly worried that Hungary is about to violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the article on media freedom and pluralism. Some political groups of the European Parliament even released fierce press statements as “the time of Pravda is over” and “this draconian media law is an echo of Europe’s undemocratic past and we call on Commission President Barroso to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary”. On December 23 Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for the digital agenda, sent a letter to the Hungarian authorities to express her concerns. Despite these declarations the European Commission and its president José Manuel Barroso persevered their ‘wait and see’ attitude and did not show any intention to set up an official legal analysis of the law.

Ironically, the contentious media law entered into force on the same day (January 1, 2011) that Hungary took over the EU Presidency of the Council from Belgium. When holding the six-month Presidency the domestic politics of the presiding country are closely examined and highly scrutinized. One of the requirements for running the Presidency of the Council is that the country sets an example and lives up to certain standards and democratic values. Due to the large criticism on the new media law in the country holding the Presidency, an official reaction had become inevitable. Call it unfortunate, or clumsy timing, but Hungary received more media coverage than they ever could have wanted.

Legal analysis by the European Commission

Only on January 5 – the day before the official ceremony, where Belgium passed the Presidency flag to Hungary, took place – José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, argued that “media freedom is a sacred principle in the European Union”. Furthermore he said that his visit to Budapest will be used to elaborate on the law with Hungarian authorities. Meanwhile, a Commission spokesperson admitted that the Commission had received a 194-page translation of the new media law and is now examining “the extremely complex and sensitive issue from a legal point of view”. Although Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán initially stated that they would not amend it only because of criticism, a member of the Hungarian governing party pronounced his willingness to change the law “if it was applied in a wrong way, or if there are problems” and hereby indicating that the international pressure had produced some results. This impression was quickly swept away. An official statement from the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The Government of the Republic of Hungary is steadfastly committed to carrying out the programme (sic) of the EU rotating presidency, but at the same time firmly rejects any suggestions that raise doubts about the Hungarian EU Presidency’s ability to act and suggestions of limiting the responsibilities of the presidency”. A spokesperson of PM Viktor Orbán even added that “the media law is European to the last bit and they would not consider changing it.”

Given the length of the text, the analysis by the Commission may take up to several weeks or months; so we’ll have to wait some time for a thorough legal opinion. But, is this media law actually such a derogation in Europe ? Without going deeper into the legal framework, we dare say ‘no’. No, the context of this law is nothing more than just another sign of an alarming trend in Europe.

An alarming trend

Freedom House, an NGO dedicated to promoting free institutions worldwide, recently released a ‘Freedom of Press Index’: an annual survey of media independence in 196 countries. They ranked EU countries as Italy, Bulgaria and Romania on the press freedom level “partly free”, next to countries as Nigeria, Columbia or Sierra Leone. This is no surprise. Men does not need an impressive memory to flash back to 2009, when the European Parliament voted on the issue of press freedom in Italy. MEPs narrowly rejected a European Commission proposal to protect media pluralism in the European Union. Thanks to 338 against, and 335 in favour, Berlusconi was not held back by the EU and, up to now, he still exercises control and influence on around 90% of Italy’s television audience. Several MEPs regretted “this black day for press freedom in Europe”, as the call for an EU directive against concentration of media ownership had been rejected. Also in 2009, a new law in the Czech Republic raised concerns: the new law prohibited media from accessing wiretapped data. This new legislation was later challenged in the country’s constitutional court.

Also at the borders of Europe, press freedom is severely limited. In the aftermath of the Belarusian presidential elections (December 2010), the International Press Institute called on Belarus to stop intimidating and arresting independent journalists. On January 3, Belarus even decided to halt the OSCE in observing the presidential elections as they believe further observation is not needed. To date, approximately 200 people, including 20 journalists, are still behind bars in Belarus. It’s no surprise that Belarus is ranked as “not free” and “extremely restricted” on the ‘Freedom of Press Index’. On that same index Lithuania’s score declined in 2010 because of a ban on information that promotes sexual relations in general, and nontraditional family structures in particular. We observe the same score pattern (though limited) in Estonia, were media sustainability and diversity were affected due to economic conditions.

It is clear that the Hungarian new media law is part of a broader European context. Even if a substantive, legal analysis proves that it is compatible with EU law, this raises concerns. A possible directive on media pluralism or media freedom is – and will always be – very susceptible to political conflicts in the European Parliament. Opinions vary heavily. From “Europe shouldn’t interfere in domestic decisions that are not subject to the treaties” to “such situations are an anomaly to European democracy and should be tackled before being exported to other countries”. Once again, with this Hungarian law, a debate that started on national level spread like wildfire over the European public opinion. And it will always remain difficult to streamline diversity or pluralism in media, cause in the end still it is about morals and values. But, please, don’t act surprised next time an EU country votes a dubious media law. Nobody can deny that Europe has a problem with press freedom.

Images: Writing with Pen, source: e.g. Google images

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