Hungary’s Media Law
The government claims the new laws follow European models; but in fact, the program’s main features are all unprecedented
Hungary’s accession to the 6-month EU presidency in January drew international criticism of the country’s new media law which required news organizations to register with a new media authority chosen by parliamentarians of the ruling party; and also to respect "human dignity" and cover public issues "properly" or face fines. The law became a flash point for EU concerns over a shift away from rule of law in Hungarian politics since Viktor Orbán came to power in a landslide victory in 2010.
The country has since agreed to four changes to the law, requested by the EU Commissioners. The following are excerpts from an analysis of the new law and the implications of the amendments, prepared in January and updated in wake of the February agreement between Hungary and the European Commission. – The Editors
It is misleading to talk only about the last one or two acts of the so-called "media law package" introduced by Fidesz MPs in June and November of last year. The Hungarian media laws consist of at least five crucial legislative acts since June 2010. All were passed in a hurry before the end of the year without any consultation with other parties and professional bodies, despite loud requests and protests by these.
These laws are built upon each other and are deeply interconnected. Each of them has its own stake in the restrictive character of the new system, while none of them would make sense in and of itself. The Hungarian government claims that no part of the new system is unprecedented in Europe; but in fact, the main features that restrict freedom and pluralism of the media are all unprecedented. And the combined effects of these acts are restrictions and violations of European standards in media governance unknown since Communist times.
Here are the main pieces of law setting up the new system: It amended the Hungarian Constitution to remove a requirement for Parliament to uphold media pluralism, calling instead for "a citizen’s right to ‘proper’ or ‘adequate’ information".
It set up the National Info-communication Authority and the Media Council, both headed by the same person, appointed by Viktor Orban, with authority over all audiovisual, print and Internet-based media. It passed the "Press and Media Act," a law on the rights and "duties" of the press, and "the Media Law," establishing detailed sanctions for breaches of standards of "comprehensive, factual, up-to-date, objective and balanced coverage" on local, national and European issues that may be of interest for the Hungarians inside or outside the country, to be enforced by the Media Council.
Even after the amendments, the language of the law still reads that "It is a task for the entirety of the media system to provide authentic, rapid and accurate information on such affairs and events."
The Media Council’s powers for content control over all media, including the print and the online press, have been left untouched.
However, in exchange for exempting on-demand media from the duty of "balanced coverage", a notion of "proportionality" was accepted by the Commission to be enforced in the linear media (TVs and radios), whose meaning is not defined and thus potentially oppressive. It could mean mandatory proportions when "balancing" the coverage of different political forces, or may simply refer to the need to differential enforcement of the "balance" principle at TV channels with different reach. In any case, it can be defined and applied arbitrarily by the politically partisan Media Council.
The new laws run counter to many of the most basic precepts of European press freedom and human rights standards. In fact any reduction in the protections of pluralism is in direct opposition of Article 11 of the EU Charter of Basic Rights.
Actually, any "tasking" (except for the public-service media) is a restriction of the watchdog function of the media in a democracy. That is why 20 years ago abolishing all such tasking provisions from the constitutions and the laws in formerly communist Europe was the symbolic act of democratization.
The single media governance pyramid is also unprecedented, and would be even if it were not operated by the ruling party alone, and didn’t extend to all media, including private, public service and online. The media regulatory boards, all named or dominated by candidates of the ruling party, have been made into a rubber-stamp, protected by strict secrecy rules; the various boards in effect are "departments" of the Authority that is practically a Media Ministry.
Other requirements call for media organizations to register (softened by the EU agreement to within 60 days of operation rather than before), and the government’s right to request any information at any time, denying journalists or news organizations the right to protect confidential sources of leaked classified information.
However, perhaps most troubling is the Media Council power to punish (and, before that, to freely interpret!) some new, broadly defined transgressions, (earlier explicitly rejected by the Constitutional Court), for example: "insulting" any group, any minority and any majority; "hurting" public order, family values, religion, etc.
In the new agreement with the European Commission, "offending" individuals, groups, minorities, and majorities has been removed from the list of sanctioned content, leaving only incitement to hatred or discrimination against them in the text. But the agreement also left in place the Media Council’s power to punish "insults" of the listed "values", and the vagueness leaves the danger that they will be arbitrarily applied. The Council’s punitive power over speech content comes on the top of (and unrelated to) that of the the criminal and civil judiciary.
The EU agreement finally exempted foreign media from the fines for content offences, thus creating a double standard against the Hungarian media, for whom these fines remain in force.
However, to my mind, the single greatest danger for the freedom and pluralism of the media in Hungary lies in the arbitrary licensing provisions, the parallels of which can only be found in some post-Soviet countries. Based on these provisions, the authorities can shape the media ownership landscape as it pleases. Also, by keeping the owners dependent on the unaccountable will of a politically homogenous regulatory body, these arbitrary rules also force the owners to hold their editors away from content that is critical of the government.
Miklos Haraszti is the former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. He is to receive national honors in a joint Polish-Swedish award ceremony Mar. 3 in Vienna. [See follow-up report in TVR April 2011]