The Hungarian Media: Gagging the Messenger

The new press law passed in Dec. 2010 has created a major constitutional crisis, bringing criticism from the EU Parliament

News | Dardis McNamee | April 2011

"The storm that broke out in December 2010 in Hungary, it’s far from over," Miklos Haraszti began. He was seated in a circle of some 25 people in the library of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna on Mar. 3, to talk about the latest developments since the passage of the country’s controversial new Media Law.

That evening the former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media was to be honored in a joint Polish-Swedish award ceremony for his work in support of press freedom with the Swedish honor of Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. But it was the continuing constitutional crisis in his homeland of Hungary that was absorbing his thoughts that afternoon.

The new laws were sweeping in scope, requiring among other things that news organizations register with a new media authority chosen by the ruling party and that they respect "human dignity" and cover public issues "properly" or face fines.  Massive protests by Hungarian journalists had followed, supported by Western media and the European Commission, facing what they saw as a breach of fundamental rights just as Hungary was beginning its six-month EU Presidency.

After initial stonewalling, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban agreed to several changes to the law, requested by the EU Commissioners, which lift sanctions on content offensive to individuals or groups. Nevertheless, vague corollaries have been left regarding "incitement to hatred" or "insults to values," and exempting foreign media from the law governing content offenses.

This did little to ease the deeper crisis: a combination of inseparable, interlocking legal changes that critics say effectively cripple the Hungarian media and free the government of any kind of meaningful oversight.

"This is nothing less than a ‘coup d’Etat’," said György Konrád, a novelist and human rights advocate who addressed a hearing before the EU Parliament organized by the liberal ALDE Group by video message. He called the regime in Budapest "Demokratura," in effect, a dictatorship in the guise of a democracy, and also used the term referring to the political developments after the elections held in April 2010.

Some of the other EU member states from the former eastern block were among the most outspoken. Romanian MEP Victor Boştinaru feared that Hungary would set a bad example for other countries where democracy hadn’t yet taken strong root, suggesting that his own could be one of them.

This was not just one law, but what Haraszti called a "law package" of civil and criminal laws that will become a "lawyer’s paradise."

Among other requirements, new laws claim the right of the individual to ‘proper’ information, with a requirement for something called ‘proportionality.’  ("Nobody knows what this means," Haraszti said in frustration.) Other sections call for ‘accurate, authentic and rapid’ information about ‘local, national and European affairs’ as well as any event that bears relevance to the citizens of Hungary and the members of the wider Hungarian community. Coverage must be ‘comprehensive,’ ‘objective’ and ‘valid.’ In addition, the Broadcast Law has been expanded to cover all of the media, including print and on-line. The head of the Media Council is also head of the Info-Comm Authority. Originally the heads of the two institutions formed a "dual monarchy," in which one was supposed to be appointed by the Parliament, and the other by the head of State.  The new law requires that the head be one and the same person.

"This is all unprecedented; everything becomes an internal act of the Party," Haraszti went on. "You won’t find any country, any law in Europe that has requirements like this. These are changes to the constitution, down to the level of the door man."

One of the things that most worries Haraszti is the danger of self-censorship: The law used to have a long list of tests necessary before any libel or other free-speech related case became actionable.  Under the new law, there are criminal and civil penalties for transgressions that previously would have been dismissed by the courts. ("Hungary does not any more belong to the Pantheon of nations who have decriminalized press offences," he said wryly.)

However, it was not so much the punitive power of the law that worried him.  Individual media will not be punished for "comprehensiveness" or "swiftness" of delivering information. Rather, the greater danger lies in the licensing power that will be had over the private media. Under these rules, "they can redraw the ownership map as they wish," Haraszti said, putting monopolies into the hands of friends of the government.

"If you are a media owner in television you will have three choices," he said. "You can go along, you can decide only to entertain, or you can say good-bye to your media property."

On Mar. 2, just the day before the session at the IWM, the Hungarian Media Council had issued a warning to every major European outlet with a bureau in Hungary. This set a base line: under the new law, any media company that has been warned "in a grave or repeating manner" can be excluded from bidding for licenses or having a stake in a media business.

"An action can be labeled "grave" a postiori, i.e. not at the time of the offence but later, at the time of the bidding," Haraszti said. "In this way, whole families of investors can be excluded from having a footprint in Hungary.

"All this has a huge chilling effect," he said. "The result is self censorship, without creating heroes or martyrs out of the journalists. If they punished editors and journalists, the storm could break out at any time." One of the puzzles to outsiders, though, is why the EU Commission didn’t ask for more in the negotiations. The answer?  The EU commission doesn’t have the power.

"Vivienne Reading [EU Commissioner for Fundamental Rights] wanted the media under the EU, but member countries refused," Haraszti said. They could perhaps have put more pressure on the Hungarians. But "in this case, they didn’t want the precedent that a member has not upheld human rights. There are many other issues."

It was simply a case of priorities.

"The EU is not a confederation," he emphasized. "Historically we are simply not there."  So why did they do it at all, with just those minor four points?

"The real work is going on behind the façade," he said. "They are saying, in effect, ‘We have real work to do in the next six months – to save the Euro, for example. We can’t afford to have the façade collapse.’"

Perhaps most discouraging is that these changes, possibly because of Viktor Orban’s overwhelming victory at the polls, will be very difficult to correct. A 2/3 majority is required to change the constitution back again, Haraszti pointed out. So as long as Fidesz has at least 1/3 of the seats in Parliament, it can not only prevent a roll back, they can present new  amendments – for instance they could increase the election cycle from four to six years.

"This is ‘deeply thwarting’ to the idea of the rule of law," Haraszti said. "At the end of this process, of which the media law is just the tip of the iceberg, it leads to a powerful civil force. Every government has an interest in having as much power as possible."

"So even if an election changes the ruling party, why would the socialists want to give this power up?"

If a change were to happen, he said, it is "inevitable" that a left alternative emerges ("After all, we are in the middle of Europe"). In this, he hopes for "a revolution of self restraint" that is self-limiting.

In the meantime, Hungary is saddled with a muffled press and a broadcast media with ever-longer advertising "windows." These have grown well beyond the 6% per hour of the European standards.  Given that the only groups with whom the drafters consulted were the business community, it was in their favor that these windows were negotiated.In the end, says Haraszti, this is "an unprecedented philosophical scandal" that will discourage foreign investment, encourage the already severe brain-drain in Hungary, and could easily set Hungarian recovery back a decade. "We are no longer a 1st amendment country," he said. And without a free media, a vigorous, open European society is simply not possible.

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