I was working as a writer-editor in Atilim newspaper. On the 4 February 2003, I was taken into custody with other workers of Atilim newspaper and later released. While in custody, one of the police officers threatened me: “You'll be in trouble if you publish news about bombings in Atilim newspaper again. We can have you arrested any time. It's us who decide the time of the arrest.”
It was also a kind of censorship imposition. I replied: “We stand for freedom of the press and we will publish any news that are worthy, and we will do it like any other newspaper”.
Two months later, on the 13 April 2003, I was detained and my computer was taken away. They weren’t able to find any crime element after a house search. I was taken to the anti-terror department of Istanbul Police Headquarters in Vatan, and charged as a "coordinator of bombing acts in Istanbul”. I rejected the charge. I said that it was false and a conspiracy.
After the 4 day long detention, I was handed over to the Public Prosecutor's Office. The Prosecutor's Office sent me to the Court of Inquiry (a military institution). It seems that they did not take the charges against me seriously, so I was released.
However, after a few hours, I was arrested again because of a Prosecutor’s appeal that was issued. For a long time neither me nor my lawyer could see the case records.
The indictment were shown on the 27 March, 2003. What the indictment basically stated was that I was included in the outlawed organization operation.
This was an already seen scheme by the state politicians. They targeted journalists, writers and intellectuals who were then said to be included in the outlawed organization operations. Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener were also arrested under the charges of being 'members of Ergenekon terrorist organization'. Similarly, I was accused of being the person in charge for 3 terrorist cells that performed bombing acts.
The threat made by a policeman on the 4 February 2003 became reality: “ If you make bombing news, we will have you arrested Necati Abay”.
The person who blamed me for the conspiracy was a man I had never met nor seen before. I later found out he was taken into custody 4 nights before me, and after being tortured he was forced to sign a document, prepared and written by the police.
Later, during the trial and in a petition he wrote to the Prosecutor, this man stated that he didn’t know who Necati Abay was. He also said it was impossible to make a claim about a person he never met and that he was forced to sign the statement given to him during torture.
In his appeal sent to State Security Court on the 17 April, 2003, Ali Gul Alkaya said: “While I was in the police department, I was given some pills and then forced to sign the statement”.
In the forged document, it can be seen that the police added 4 sentences about me under the name of Ali Gul Alkaya. All of their indictments were based solely on this.
The part written about me in the 21 page long indictment:
As can be understood from the statement given by defendant Ali Gul Alkaya on the 12 April 2004 in the police department, until the arrest of this person, there were 3 terrorist cell houses of MLKP organization in Istanbul; in the First Cell house he, Hatice Duman and Ali Riza Kaplan, in the Second Cell house Tahir Lacin, Gulizar Erman with Zeynep code name, and Sami Ozbil with Uzun code name, in the Third cell house Erkan Ozdemir and Ahmet Dogan were performing some activities. The responsible for the existence of these 3 cell houses in Istanbul is the defendant Necati Abay, who was providing communication among these 3 cell houses. Using the code name 'Emre' in order to keep his secrecy in the MLKP terrorist organization, the defendant Necati Abay was comitting crime by attempting to amend, change or abolish the whole, or a part of the Turkish Republic Constitution,”
The part of the indictment about me was interjected by the very same police who created that statement, and it is based on the forged document that Ali Gul Alkaya signed by force during his torture.
We cannot say that Ali Gul Alkaya revealed my secret by accusing me, because I don't know him and he doesn't know me. This document is proof of a police-based conspiracy, and the entire indictment against me was based on a forged document.
Six months after my arrest, on the 3 October 2003, my court hearing was held in the State Security Court. I pleaded to be released and the court released me with the condition of a pending trial. I was very happy.
In spite of the fact that I was on trial and could have been sentenced for life in solitary confinement, the judges didn't believe the claims of 'being the coordinator of bombing acts'. My pending trial continued for the next 8 years.
I'd like to mention that because the press unions who are against the system didn't do anything about my situation at the time, we founded the Platform for Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists (TGDP). Since then I have been the spokesman of TGDP.
During the 8 years of my pending trial, no evidence was found against me. I was charged with groundless claims, so it is logical that non-existing evidence cannot be found.
After 8 years, on the 4 May, 2011, in a hearing held at the 12 Criminal Court, I was sentenced to 18 years and 9 months in prison. I was surprised by the verdict, since I had been expecting an acquittal.
In the Court’s decision, this is written about me: “Even with the opinion that Necati Abay is the member of a terrorist group and commanded in the outlawed MLKP organization; it is understood that the direct relation and participation of the defendant to the crimes within the context of dossier cannot be ascertained, the defendant is within the meaning of 765 numbered, 168/1 Article of the Turkish Criminal Code...instead of life sentence, he is to be sentences to 18 years 9 months...”
As can be seen in the Court’s decision, there isn’t any evidence about me in this case, so my sentence is based on the belief.
There is no evidence, just belief. This is why I think the decision of the special authorized High Criminal Court is not judicial, but political. This is one of the typical examples of lawlessness in High Criminal Court. After the verdict of the Court, I said that this decision would be discussed a lot, and it is.
In many newspapers, journals and TV programs, this particular Court decision has been discussed. Osman Can talked about it in his column in Star newspaper, Prof. Dr Dogu Ergil in his column in Bugun newspaper, Ferai Tinc in her column in Hurriyet, and Aydin Engin in T24 web page; they all reported about it.
In Cumhuriyet newspaper, it became the second headline on the front page. I was invited to the editorial office program of Rusen Cakir in NTV, and we discussed the decision. It was also talked about in the press freedom program of Ertugrul Mavioglu in IMC TV, in which I also participated.
Because of my sentence, Human Rights Association awarded me with the Prize of Aysenur Zarakolu Freedom of Thought. On 9 June 2011, I was invited to the Swedish Parliament to give a speech about the freedom of thought and expression in Turkey. Furthermore, a petition drive has been started with the Ankara Thought Freedom Initiative, which includes 42 intellectuals.
We tried to dispute with the decision, and appealed to the supreme court. I'd like to underline that even though the court sentenced my verdict, it didn't ask for my arrest. I hope the decision given by the 12th High Criminal Court will be annulled by the Supreme Court.
I think this decision is a sentence against the freedom of thought and expression, people's right to receive the news, press freedom, the Atilim newspaper I was working in that time, and the Platform for Solidarity with the Imprisoned Journalists. In our country, freedom of thought and expression and freedom of press are under double pressure.
The first pressure is by the anti-terror law (TMY) which is called anti-society law by social dissidents. Until we oppose to TMY, and ask for the removal of TMY, we won't be able to defend the freedom of expression and thought. The latter one, as seen in my situation, is the lawlessness of High Criminal Courts.
The Platform for Solidarity with the Imprisoned Journalists
I feel like I have a splinter in my finger. I cannot see it but my fingers start to ache each time I touch the keyboard. This is the kind of ache, which comes from deep inside, hitting my heart and extending to my brain.
I move my fingers off the keys and start thinking about them. I can touch them, I can type. However, not just one, five or ten but a total of 65 colleagues of mine cannot touch those keys. They have been in jail for years and they cannot write anymore. Remembering them is giving me a deep sorrow.
Certainly I am not the journalist in Turkey who is sharing this sorrow. Professional (occupational) organizations have gathered together and established the "Freedom for Journalists" Platform. Journalists and writers have hit the streets after a very long time in this country. Last March, several marches were organized in a number of cities; primarily in Ankara and Istanbul. The hearings of prosecuted journalists had been followed closely to support them and they had been visited in jail. Indeed an "Arrested Daily Newspaper" consisting of articles sent by those imprisoned journalists was published, which was very rich in content and could hardly be found in any other country. (*)
With all these attempts, the release of journalists under arrest and changes in the regulations hindering freedom of communication were demanded. Every protest and attempt was a reminder to the Turkish people: " Where there is free press there is a free society".
This reminder was not for nothing. Additionally, we are not worried because journalists are being arrested while performing their profession and kept in prison for many years. We are concerned because of the government's (ruling party's) approach to the media and its practices. We are aware of the fact that the structural problems of media, its ownership structure and the general perception of journalism have been laying the groundwork for the ruling party's plans. What we have been going through today reminds me of the one party period. I do not know of any other text that explains (documents) the single party system's perception of journalism as clearly as this. I found this text in Emine Usakligil's book "My Republic". In the book there was a quote from the CHP Statute. The 160th article titled "Rules that party member journalists should abide" is as follows:
"Articles in newspapers and magazines owned by party members and their publications shall be reviewed in accordance with the principles of the party. Meetings are organized with party member journalists, magazine owners and authors to reach consensus in this direction. Party members, cannot make publish publications in their newspapers, magazines and press against the party program and statute, general framework of internal and external politics and higher interests of the state. "
This was the ruling authority's understanding of press during the period after Ataturk passed away: Newspapers and journalism that would stem from internal and external politics within the framework of the party program. This type of journalism was in effect to a very large extend. Majority of the media bosses were already supporters of CHP and they had internalized the policies of the ruling authority. Newspapers were bulletins captioning the words of the National Chief and journalists were the members of the choir praising/ flattering the rulers of the country.
In any case, those who would not disagree with this choir had no chance of survival. The iron fist of the government was ready to hit anyone who would dare to criticize. The single party government deemed all forms of pressure legitimate be it censor, jail, closing newspapers and appropriation.
We have to admit that those who ruled Turkey at that time would not talk about democracy. Nobody would claim that there existed free press and journalists free to write as they will. Everyone was aware of the fact that newspapers were guarding the system rather than reality.
Although press has become more versatile and turned into media through radios, TVs and internet sites in today's World, it is still hard to say that it is well functioning as a guardian of reality. On top of that, if all the castles of media have been captured by AKP, it is not because the Government has made it a priority to fight against the media. When AKP was first elected as ruling party, there had already been serious structural problems in media. The establishment of Tayyip Erdogan's political party coincided with the collapse of central parties and this helped the rise of AKP. During the same period media had serious problems.
The primary structural problem of media is the ownership structure. Starting from 1980s those newspaper owners who would only deal with publishing had to draw away from the sector one after the other. Businessmen who had investments in various sectors filled that gap. For these new owners newspapers were no different from a bank or insurance company. They would view press as profit and loss account rather than a public duty.
From a different perspective, newspapers could be considered to get stronger when they became part of larger holding companies and more capable of rising up against certain power groups within society. However, this was not the case. On the contrary, newspapers became weaker against those groups and especially the political power. Although these businessmen had good intentions they also had certain weaknesses against the political power. The newspapers were made to pay for mistakes of group companies.
This structural change of ownership in media coincided with the period of technological transformation. In a short while, the new type media owners also became owners of radios, TV channels and ultimately internet sites. Certain bosses were not satisfied with just one newspaper and TV channel which led to formation of media cartels.
While media's new structure took its final form in 1990s, it gained new functions other than conveying the truth to the society. On one hand it started to tackle structuring of society and social engineering where on the other hand it became an arena where predominant ideologies were reproduced. While concepts like democracy, human rights, women rights were under emphasized even the bloody war in southeast that mainly military but security forces all together have pursued was not investigated. New media as a secret player of power games has also supported military's games behind the curtain.
The economy pages started to pay more attention to businessmen rather than news that would impact larger community and issues related to trade unions and labor. They became a part of home advertising and public relations sectors. The primary concern was to stimulate consumption and praise achievements of businessmen. These new approaches brought along an elitist (selective) understanding of journalism. This understanding of journalism resembled the "site journalism" concept of the US in 1930s and it was stuck in Istanbul ; distant from the Turkish Society, could not get the pulse of the Turkish people and keep up with the changes.
Although the presence of deeper state had been questioned after a certain car accident in Susurluk , also known as the Susurluk Accident, these efforts did not last long. With the journalism structure of that period it could not continue for a long while anyway. The central media also became a part of the February 28th Period, which followed that. They were not expected to act in a different manner either. The media, which had always been a part of deeper state and spokesperson of their illegitimate activities, had no intentions to struggle against the ruling power. They could not stand up against the army's pressure during that period as well.
Tayyip Erdogan has right at a certain point. The media had not helped him to become the prime minister. On the contrary, he got political power despite the media of that time. He has never forgotten that and never hesitated to express that openly.
" We have sufficient power to fight against the media which considers itself a part of the opposition. We have no fear of ideological attacks. We became the ruling political party while struggling with the media which considered us incapable of governing a village. We got our political from you our people but not the media. We would never be thankful to anyone or assume protection from any party or suppress the opposition using such methods.
Erdogan is a politician whose priority is to empower his political mission and position. Starting from 2002 from the first day he was first elected as the Prime Minister, he started to strive against the media. His purpose was to create his own media.
We can easily say that he has accomplished this goal over the past 9 year period. How could he do that? Through his 3 period, he has been successful in transferring capital to businessmen close to him. One role of those rising businessmen was to contribute to the transformation of media. Some of them founded newspapers, TV channels and radio channels and some acquired existing media organs through various methods.
Owners of those media organs that were not sold had been subject to pressure from the government in an open or covert manner. Tax penalties worth billions of dollars were used as a tool to serve this purpose. Prime Minister Erdogan was not satisfied with this and targeted writers and journalists directly.
Correspondents and photo correspondence who are directly covering ruling party are limited in activity. Correspondents who wrote news that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is not happy with, lost their accreditations. The correspondents and columnists who are going to cover President and prime minister are chosen by themselves.
But real transformation has started in 2008 with the Ergenekon Case and following cases Ergenekon. This has initially started as cleaning up the "deep state" , "military protection" and anti "coup d'état" attempts. But it turned out to be in short time to be opposition hunting. Gang members with "dark" activities, opposition, journalists, soldiers all of them are combined together and demonstrated as a single organization.
Stoping militaries' influence on policy making, that had deserved praise in terms of jurisdiction unfortunately became suddenly the law of illegitimacy. Neither democracy developed nor deep states dark activities are enlighten as it was claimed, and responsible of such activities couldn't be sent to trial. In every occasion "those who try to pull leg of ruling party"..! were all the targeted by the jurisdiction and security forces. It is interestingly prosecutors and judges who are totally dependant to the government were chosen to decide who were acting democratically and who were acting illegally.
This also gave power to the police forces as they have already sided with religious groups. They became the main actor of this witch hunting by modern technological tools at phone and environment listening operations. Prior arresting people, they served the recordings of these listening to the papers which have close publication to government in order to diminish credibility of such people. These people are announced guilty with no juridical decision in front of public opinion.
During these operations, too many journalist have also been put in the jail. Although there was no evidence that they are member of terrorist organization. On one hand They are accused of being a member but all the questions at the prosecutors' office were about the books and news that they have written. Journalistic activities were considered as crime, while "vilifying the government" was the biggest crime of all!
People put in jail did not have a chance to learn their "crime" for years. The accusations became tool to keep people in the jail for long time while they had no substantial content but full of many unrelated papers.
Hanefi Avci, who formerly was chief of police and also commonly known to have tortured leftist groups as well as has devoted his life to struggle with left organizations also has been accused of being member of the same terrorist organization. Even Avci couldn't defend himself and he is in jail for more than one year. The government that can not tolerate any opposition made police to stop protestors like environmentalist, jobless workers, students defending rights, Kurdish protestors by using force.
In this environment, government did not only pushed back the media owners but also scared journalists. As a result, there is a division between journalists. One side praises al the activities of the government as they were their spokesperson while other side is hidden in a corner with no power at all. It has also lost its connection with people. We call it "press at the center"
How much democracy can develop here under these conditions and how much media can inform people about the realities? For the moment, I am not very optimistic about the future.
(*) Arrested Daily Newspaper
Turkish journalists syndicate published on 24 July 2011 a newspaper called "Arrested Daily Newspaper". Arrested 39 colleagues have found chance to write at this "special" newspaper. Headlines of those articles is already very sorrowful. There is a list of writers and their articles below:
Baris Pehlivan: I interviewed my self.
Musa Kurt I have not seen the court yet
Ali Bulus: Defendin pres freedom
Ahmet Sik: This article may disturb you
Soner Yalçin: Am I witness or accused
Miktat Algül: Turkey is surrounded
Tuncay Özkan: being a journalist in opposition after AKP
Mustafa Gök: I'ma arrested in February 2004
Deniz Yildirim: Press is free for who
Nedim Sener: you call Ergenekon Ergenekon. Look you are in Silivri now.
Füsun Erdogan: why are we at jail?
Seyithan Akyüz : Accusation can not change reality?
Vedat Kursun: Being a Kurdish journalist.
Faysal Tunç: Thinker or commando?,
Sedat Senoglu: so we learnt that we were not journalist.
Rohat Emekçi: I'm kept in prison for a tragicomic reason.
Fazil Duygun: I'm in prison for more than 5 months.
Bayram Namaz: Fish on the stall,
Mehmet Yesiltepe: why we should not expect democratization from AKP,
Müyesser Yildiz: the media without syndicate is arrested
Bedri Adanir: Tell them not to shoot the kite
Hatice Duman: why we are in prison
Halit Güdenoglu: we do not know the accusation
Ozan Kilinç: Mazlum is tortured at the age of 160
Suzan Zengin: we should speak loudly about our request to abolish special courts and laws against terror.
Cihan Gün: Article from cell.
Murat Ilhan: "Negari,"
Baris Terkoglu: from which activities journalists are arrested?
O.Baha Okar: Dark side of the punishment. Accusations without evidences but with beliefs.
Sait Çakir: Turkey: open air prison
Mehmet Karabas: Freedom of thinking is changed with the law against terror
Sinan Aygül: One who is scared of you should be like you
Kadri Kaya: Media has societies' eye and ear function.
Hamdiye Çiftçi: Freedom of press has reached its 103 years while we are kept in prison.
Ahmet Birsin: Democatic Constition will prove that he will not become dictator.
Kenan Karavil: Thoughts have soul.
He started journalism at 1980's, in the days of military coup. He worked at Cumhuriyet for 12 years where he worked as correspondent for education, estimation and politics and then as news manager. He has been working for Hürriyet since November 1992. He did administrative duties as well as field duties. He wrote articles for weekly Tempo magazine. He did a TV show called "Çuvaldız" for TV8. After that he made several political TV shows. He nows weekly writes "Puzzle Portraits" and he is the ombudsman of Hürriyet. He has nine books which are mostly biography.
Koha Ditore daily, Pristina
They show that being a member of EU or an aspiring country is not in itself a guarantee that media freedoms will be safeguarded and respected.
On the other hand, these trends expose the intentional ignorance among other members of EU and western world, who, with their silence, seem to be happy to sacrifice media freedoms for whatever political calculations.
Finally, these negative trends in Hungary and Turkey give a very bad example to all other EU aspiring countries of South East Europe, by providing our local authorities throughout our region justification for limiting and infringing the free speech and freedom of the media.
It is therefore instrumental to see a unified and unequivocal response against these trends, so that we prevent the further downfall of media freedoms, which is always linked with the downfall of other human right freedoms, as well.
Instead of waiting for an unlikely positive change, Europe should use its leverage on these two countries and act with determination to reverse the trends in favor of what we these days call Western and Democratic values of free speech and media
Former Deputy Director RTV Slovenija, Ljublana;
Former EBU Deputy President;
SEEMO Board President
Press freedom is indivisible as a whole – in content and geography. Although this is a part of universally agreed upon, endorsed and legally sanctioned human rights, there exists no once and for all victory.
Nowadays, we are facing a number of new obstacles that are working against free and unbiased journalism and media. We can only fight against such obstacles with common efforts, united in solidarity and transborder in approach. Against closedness we can offer openess, transparency and enthusiasm.
So we continue to act in the case of Hungary where we are supporting the matter of media freedoms by all sorts of awareness campaigns, including a SEEMO website devoted specifically to systematically collecting all of the relevant information about the state of affairs in the media environment and offering a permanent platform for dialogue about the given arguments.
Currently, SEEMO is introducing a similar website about Turkey, a country that is a newly emerging European power with a growing population and economy. Turkey offers unlimited talents and potential yet these positive aspects are accompanied by a long history of differing experinces in terms of democracy and obstruction.
We wish to support the process of democratisation in Turkey, as well as the European perspective, by closely monitoring the area of media freedom.
It is a core activity of SEEMO, and an invitation that we extend to everyone,– to improve the current situation and secure a beter future.
Diplomatic Correspondent, Swiss Broadcasting Corp., Switzerland;
IPI Board Member
Modern-day Turkey is a success story. There’s no doubt about that. A country at the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Africa. a democratic country, a free society. A model even for – hopefully – emerging democracies in Tunisia, Egypt… But now all of a sudden, these worries caused by the Turkish government. These measures and misbehaviour in regard to the freedom of the press and the journalists: why does a strong government think it needs to do that? And why isn’t it wise enough to realise how much harm it does to the perception of Turkey, not only in Europe, but also in its eastern and southern neighbourhoods? Young democratic Egyptians, Syrians and Iranians would like to admire Turkey for its achievements. But can they any longer? A country, a government that fiddles with press freedom can never truly and convincingly be a model, cannot be a respected negotiator, cannot be a widely accepted go-between. And, of course, cannot be a member of the EU.
SEEMO Board member
It untied the hands of the government to sue and to pursue journalists without anyone having complained of slander, insult or having been affected by them. It has been a long time since our humanity has seen such a rude bridle of the press. Even more disturbing is that this attack on freedom of expression occurred in the European Union - the territory of the oldest and the most strictly observed democracy in the world. Moreover, it occurred just as Hungary took over the EU presidency.
Ostensibly, as a consequence of the economic crisis, the media situations in Italy, Slovakia and other countries are in fact as a result of ugly political pressures. Combined with the total commercialisation of television and magazines – claiming they are objective – this not only indicates that freedom of speech is in danger, but also that it has been less and less respected as the mother of all freedoms.
Dr. Pál Eötvös
The Association of Hungarian Journalists (MÚOSZ)
The new Hungarian media legislation, presented in June 2010 and passed without relevant professional and social conciliation, according to the opinion of the Association of Hungarian Journalists (MÚOSZ), violates the democratic public opinion and is restrictive for freedom of expression in terms of its content and the process of its preparation too. We have expressed our counter-arguments for the legislator by a number of open letters, announcements and submissions to the constitutional court as well.
The composition of the leading authority bodies responsible for overseeing the media regulation guarantees the exclusive influence and control of the governing power over the media. Our submission to the constitutional court, among other proposals, initiates the correction of this monolithic structure. Based on a recent announcement of the constitutional court, we are hoping that we can learn about the results of the submission by the end of the year.
The features of the new media legislation, extended to the online and print private media outlets, representing a duality of strict sanctions and obscure norms (the so called ‘gum-paragraphs’), are facilitating self-censorship by establishing legal uncertainty, and they might significantly diminish freedom of Hungarian press. One of the latest modifications of the media legislation further facilitates this risk by qualifying press penalties as public dues, to be paid obligatorily even if the decision of the media council or media authority is debated on the court by the fined media outlet.
Protesting against the drastic way of the public service broadcasting company’s reorganisation in the past few weeks, in particular attracting attention to the withheld exposition of the arrangement’s professional background and the imprudent human resources strategy of the multitudinous layoffs, we released an announcement expressing our solidarity with the affected journalists, for whom the MÚOSZ, besides the moral support, offers legal representation too.
The Association of Hungarian Journalists (MÚOSZ), established in 1946, is the largest and oldest independent organization of professional journalists in Hungary. MÚOSZ enhances freedom of press and upholds the morals and traditions of ethical journalism. The Association is a full member of the International Federation of Journalists.
Steven M. Ellis
IPI Press Freedom Adviser, Europe and the Americas
Hungary's cosmetic amendments to its media law may have defused some criticism by the European Union, but the International Press Institute (IPI) and the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) welcome news that other international observers remain unsatisfied.
IPI and SEEMO join the United Nations' Human Rights Council's special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, in his recent conclusions that changes passed last month did not remove concerns that the law could be used to limit press freedom.
"The media legislation still risks generating a climate of self-censorship," La Rue said Tuesday. "Freedom of the media is an essential foundation of democracy. Hence, every State must ensure that every medium of communication, be it television, radio, press or the Internet, can convey diverse opinions, including those that shock, offend or disturb."
During a visit to Hungary, La Rue specifically pointed to the law's prescription of media content based on vague concepts, and insufficient guarantees to ensure the independence and impartiality of the regulatory body empowered to apply the law. He also highlighted excessive fines and other administrative sanctions that can be imposed on media; the law's broad scope regulating all types of media, including the press and the Internet; registration requirements for the operation of media service providers; and the lack of sufficient protection of journalistic sources.
La Rue's concerns follow similar criticism by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, who said following the amendments last month that the law "can still be misused to curb alternative and differing voices in Hungary."
Given Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's stated desire to reform his country's Constitution, which could have strong implications on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, IPI and SEEMO are pleased that observers are continuing to pressure Hungary to conform with international human rights standards.
A flourishing, diverse, critical media is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy. The fundamental values underpinning the EU, including the right to freedom of expression, provide benchmarks for evaluating the admission of new members. Such evaluation would mean little if states can discard their commitments to those values upon joining the EU.
IPI and SEEMO therefore renew their call on Hungary to bring its media law in line with those values, and to respect the freedom of the press. Steven M. Ellis
IPI Press Freedom Adviser, Europe and the Americas
Diplomatic Correspondent, Swiss Broadcasting Corp., Switzerland;
IPI Board Member
When Hungary joined the European Union it was an extremely welcomed entry. As Hungarian friends living in Switzerland always mentioned, there had been a little bit more openness in their native country compared to elsewhere in the then Warsaw Pact. Hungary, known for its lively discussions, colourful media scene and its cultural alertness – should it all be yesterday’s story? For all of us –for us friends in another small state – it would be extremely sad. We are worried about the recent developments against media freedom. We wonder why a government with such a strong majority in parliament needs such laws that clearly go against press freedom? Is there something this government wants to hide; is there an agenda, which should not be discussed in public? These are serious questions but no good, acceptable answers have been provided from the government in Budapest as of yet. A small country’s major asset cannot by crude power. Its best asset is a positive image. Rulers who don’t care for this image do enormous harm to their country.
editor, analyst of CIS countries, Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations
Among the so-called European post-Soviet space, neither journalists in Moldova nor Ukraine experience such problems and difficulties as those in Belarus. With regret to note, Belarus is becoming more and more similar to countries with restrictive press freedoms such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Looking ahead, we denote that the electronic media in Belarus is completely under the brutal control of the authorities. Everything is subjected not only to censorship, but self-censorship. Attempts from all other electronic media to fully operate in Belarus do not work. In particular, the satellite television channel BelSat can not obtain a license in the country because President Alexander Lukashenko considered it a "silly, stupid and unfriendly" project. TV stations, in turn, broadcast via satellite from Poland. In Belarus itself, journalists who cooperate with BelSat are prosecuted for collaborating with unlicensed media. Moreover, the pressure is on those who give comments on the individual situation. It got to the point where people were forced to file complaints against journalists for not warning them about which media they are interviewed for.
The biggest pressure is subjected to non-state print media. Let's start with the fact that in Belarus the registration procedure is extremely difficult for media. Among the many documents for registration, editors must show the Ministry of Justice proof that they've gained permission from local officials to operate in the district. In the case of objections, the media was forced to find another address for registration. Fortunately, this anachronism was recently abolished, but it is not much easier for the registration and activities of the print media since the government already has enough levers of pressure on the newspaper.
Even with registration, non-governmental publications may not have access to printing, as many presses prefer not to deal with such publications. There are cases when printing houses refuse to replicate the newspaper, Way Out – they were published in Russia, in particular, in Smolensk. Delivery of the printed edition to Belarus posed another problem. Typically, such cases were recorded in the period before elections or opposition activities. There were several seizures of circulation by law enforcement officials for the purpose of reviewing the text. Newspapers were eventually returned, but in that period, the article had already lost its relevance. And who needs a semifresh issue?
Another problem is distribution. As the country's main distributor, "Belposhta" is a monopolist and maintains a small circulation. It attempted to distribute the newspapers with the help of individual distributors, but the latter were periodically checked and deprived of newspapers, so many of them refused to deal with the independent press. It is also periodically expelled from the subscription catalog. After some pressure from international organizations, catalogs would include it again but usually not for long. This undermines the financial component of non-state media. After an increase in prices for newsprint, it became even harder to make ends meet. Thus, unequal conditions for state and private press emerged which also substantially undermined the budgets of private enterprise.
In early July, it was reported that Shklovsky Plant of Newsprint Paper refused to sell paper to non-state media. Then the regionals "Intex-press" and "Brest Courier" faced the problems. Deputy director of the plant, Oleg Podobed, said that the approach of providing public and private media with paper would be different. "All the media outlets that were previously in the state order, of course, we will provide with paper; for the rest we will put our products on a stock exchange," he said. "Now we get more profit by selling the paper for export than the dealers in Belarus."
Another important method of pressure on the media are warnings for any infraction. Non-government newspapers are to receive a warning from the Ministry of Information if they forget to specify the number of copies or did not have time to change the address data. However, any faults are forgiven to government publications.
The saddest aspect is that the editors of independent newspapers tend to not seek justice in the courts. In particular, on 8 August, the Supreme Economic Court decided the case of the newspaper "People's Will." The newspaper filed an administrative case for multiple violations of law during the year. Under violations, they imply a warning that the newspaper received. The court decided that the newspaper must pay the state a fine of 14 million rubles. The newspaper lawyer Harry Pahanyaila said, "There is no sense in appealing against the verdict; it is a mere formality. The Supreme Court will review the case and simply will not change anything. Reasons for the fine are formal, so we can say that the state introduced economic sanctions against us. As you can see, independent publications supplement the budget by 14 million each." Another non-governmental newspaper "Nasha Niva" is subjected to the same penalty for the three warnings.
It is worth talking about access to information and obstructing the work of journalists. The fact that independent press are not invited to meetings or gatherings and its members are denied accreditation is not so bad because the reporters still manage to get information by hook or by crook. It is much more dramatic when they interfere with the work during the protests, flash mobs, and other public appearances. Thugs in civilian clothes obstruct reporters, jostle them from the street, cover their cameras with their hands, and steal mobile phones to erase the pictures. Journalists are often detained by law-enforcement agencies for frivolous reasons, from foul language in public to taking part in an unsanctioned rally.
A particularly acute situation occured before the presidential election. Journalists were detained, staged raids occurred in their offices, computers were confiscated and some were imprisoned for "hooliganism" for several days. The impression was that the authorities deliberately behaved as if they intended to drive the most active and prominent journalists out of the Republic. It would be so much easier to accuse them of treason and Motherland aspersion. Search and seizure of equipment share the same goal--to paralyze the work of journalists and publications.
The apotheosis was reached during the election itself, which took place on 19 December 2010. On Election Day and the following day in Belarus, according to our data, 18 journalists were detained. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, about 20 journalists, including those working for foreign publications, had been beaten during a protest on 19 December. Then opposition media house searches began. The search and seizure of equipment took place in the Internet edition of charter97.org, which already received a third criminal case brought against it. According to the head of the investigation at the prosecutor's office in Minsk, Sergei Ivanov, the new criminal case was initiated based on information found in the art confiscated from Natalie Radin, as well as Russian journalist of "Novaya Gazeta" Irina Khalip, the journalists of the newspaper "People's Will" Svetlana Kalinkina and Marina Koktysh. But the law sections which brought the case were not named.
The searches also took place in the newsroom of the international station, European Radio for Belarus, which was deprived of its entire equipment. The Minsk office of BelSat was stormed on the night of 25 to 26 December. The unknown perpetrators even had to cut the door with a saw to gain access.
"We are reforming the Internet, bringing it in line with Western models. We have not done so before the election. That was my position: Do not touch, I said, they will think that we pressured someone," said President Alexander Lukashenko. "That's enough to mock the authorities and the people. For every printed word, you will take full responsibility!" Lukashenko warned the journalists.
This is an open challenge to the national journalism. So far the situation with the media can be described as serious but stable.
Journalist Andrew Gazety Wyborczej Poczobut, who was accused of defaming Lukashenko, received a suspended sentence. In this case, the prosecution has failed to present substantial evidence of his guilt.
Spokesman for presidential candidate Sannikov, Alexander Atroshchenko, received four years in prison. The journalist was accused of Part 2 of Article 293 of the Penal Code or participation in the riots.
One can not ignore the fact that the Belarusian journalism industry, especially the parts which are in opposition, is extremely politicized. In some cases, journalists have come under pressure not only as members of the media, but as activists of the protest movement. The arrest and conviction of journalist Irina Khalip, wife of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, confirms this. In our opinion, the authorities targeted her not so much because of her journalistic work, but because she was an active participant in the opposition movement. In this case it was strange to read comments by Khalip herself who said she had not expected "such cruelty from the tyrant," even though she repeatedly stated the despotism of the president in her articles. There have been situations where the activists of the protest movement were issued membership cards from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, even while they were indirectly related to journalism. We are against any form of pressure and violence, however, in such situations. Each must decide for himself who he is: a journalist, human rights activist or a participant in the protest, because the tasks and functions are different. Perhaps this somehow would reduce the force of repression against them and would not give authorities another reason to blame the private media in provocations.
Be that as it may, according to experts in Belarus, the country suffers from its lowest level of media freedom in the past 16 years. It turns out that the government have achieved its goal.
Head of Advocacy
for Index on Censorship
Hungary is the only European state whose guide to their media law includes an entire appendix dealing with international criticism.
The country needed a new media law to replace outdated regulations enacted before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a second series of provisions in 1996. Yet in the interim, whilst politicians debated regulation, Hungary’s journalists did a disservice to their profession, by failing to provide a model for self-regulation. With reform on the agenda, the newly elected Fidesz government stepped in and imposed one of the most draconian media models anywhere in Europe. As the international partnership mission to Hungary (which Index on Censorship is part of) found, the new law is broad, uncertain and inconsistent with basic standards of media freedom.
The Hungarian government is keen to export its model of regulation – as a way of seeing off criticism from bodies including the European Parliament and OSCE. If it is successful, media freedom across Europe will be under threat.
Hungary’s model of “co-regulation” is a peculiarity. The new media law created the National Media and Infocommunications Authority which has statutory powers to fine media organisations up to €727,000, oversees regulation of all media including online news websites, and acts as an extra-judicial investigator, jury and judge on public complaints. It is portrayed as an arm’s length government agency. Yet Annamaria Szalai, the President of the Media Authority is a known Fidesz supporter and all five members of the Media Council were delegated by exclusively by the Fidesz majority in Parliament. Members of the Media Council serve a nine-year term (over 2 parliamentary cycles) so even in the event of a change of government the media authority will still be dominated by Fidesz delegates.
Co-regulation is neither statutory regulation nor self-regulation. Those bound by the Media Authority include the Hungarian Association of Internet Content Providers, all TV stations and major newspapers. All volunteered to enter co-regulation which allows the Media Council to rule on received complaints. Yet, there was little choice. For organisations that remain outside the code, the Media Authority can levy fines of up to €727,000 for breaches of the new national media law. Inside co-regulation, fines cannot be levied, but the grounds for censor journalists are exactly the same as the national media law — and both are broad and uncertain. Hungary has forced the press to internalise a code that is far stricter than in other European countries.
One of the strongest provisions is that media owners should be “fit and proper”. In Hungary under Articles 185 – 189 of the new law, media owners who have previously been the subject of complaints upheld by the Media Council cannot bid for further licenses. Whilst it’s fashionable to suggest such provisions in the UK after phone-hacking, the result in Hungary is chilling. Journalists told our mission that media owners are keen to avoid any possible transgressions of the law and their contracts of employment are being edited to include reference to the new law.
Miklos Haraszti, the Hungarian former OSCE representative on freedom of the media is damning: “It is outsourcing media censorship to the owners.”
Protecting the audience
Article 4 (3) The exercise of the freedom of the press may not constitute or encourage any acts of crime, violate public morals or the moral rights of others – Freedom of the Press
Article 14 (1) The media content provider shall, in the media content published by it and while preparing such media content, respect human dignity – Obligations of the Press
Article 17 (1) The media content may not incite hatred against any nation, community, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minority or majority as well as any church or religious group – Obligations of the Press
At the heart of the new media law is a requirement to protect the audience from insult, threats to public morality, and hatred whether against a minority, or the majority. Its terms are broad and the grounds for investigation by the Media Authority uncertain. As Dr Judit Bayer points out, the law “may restrict any critical statement about any person or organisation”. Even defamation of religions is now an actionable offence.The media code embodies a wide set of protections for the audience. This includes an obligation for broadcasters to warn viewers before the transmission of “any image or sound effects in media services that may hurt a person’s religious, faith-related or other ideological convictions or which are violent or otherwise disturbing” (Article 14 – Requirements regarding the content of media services).
Typically, the most restrictive sections of national media codes (such as the UK’s Ofcom regulations) apply to media that exists in a limited spectrum – such as analogue TV or radio where there are a fixed number of possible stations. Hungary’s code applies to any for-profit media, whether within a limited spectrum, in print, or online.
The mission raised with the Media Council’s President the possible imbalance between the positive obligation Hungary has to protect freedom of expression and the breadth of the grounds for complaint under the media code. Annamaria Szalai was keen to emphasize that ‘not a single forint’ of fines have been levied to date. This is of cold comfort to journalists writing on controversial matters, where a single complaint to the Media Authority could mean the end of their career.
Protection of sources
At the same time, the government’s new media law initiated measures that remove protections for journalistic sources, which the mission found to be incompatible with European law.
Even under Communism, the 1986 Press Act allowed the denial of testimony for journalists. Article 6 (3) — Freedom of the Press — contains a worrying revision to this allowing journalists to be forced to reveal their sources “in order to protect national security and public order or to uncover or prevent criminal acts”. Whilst there is a public interest clause, as the European Court of Human Rights has found in past cases, the protection of journalistic sources is taken very seriously and the “public order” proviso is highly unlikely to pass this threshold.
Tamas Bodoky, the founder of investigative website Atlatszo.hu is currently facing the possibility of 5 years in prison for refusing to reveal the source of a leak to his website. He has been questioned by the police who told him he had to reveal his source. He alleges that his home was entered without a warrant. Bodoky is prepared to take his case to Strasbourg — in the meantime, a hard drive storing the contents of his website has been seized by the police.
Hungary’s new media law allows individuals to take action against journalists and online content for non-criminal offences through co-regulation. With media owners likely to discipline or sack journalists who attract complaints, we can see that co-regulation is likely to deliver the privatisation of state censorship. With partisan reporting on the rise to curry favour with the government — for example, see this TV report on MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s criticisms of the new media law that gratuitously made reference to past allegations — journalists were keen to emphasize to our mission that the independence of the media is under serious threat.
Hungary has pushed back on press freedom in the face of widespread criticism but little action from European institutions; the real concern is that their model may be exported.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan claimed that they, the ruling AKP, were the ones who “unleashed” Turkish journalists. Are they really? Let’s do a fact-checking to find out: When I visited Turkey’s Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin on May 2012 as a member of the delegation from the National Committee of the International Press Institute (IPI), I was told that the new constitution, as well as a couple of legal “packages”, will solve the most obvious and urgent problem in Turkey: the freedom of the press.
The minister’s optimism, whether it was an honest hope for a more democratic Turkey or a sinister tactic of foot dragging to put free speech advocates off, didn’t change the facts on the ground yet:
According to the Freedom for Journalists Platform (GOP), an umbrella organization that represents 94 national and local journalist associations in Turkey, more than 100 journalists are still in prison today.
This toll is confirmed by several professional associations around the world, including the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). The most widely-accepted, updated number for the jailed journalists is 102 now.
As” world’s foremost jailer of journalists” in the words of the Overseas Press Club of America (OPC), Turkey fell back ten places to number 148 in the 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The bodies of the European Union (EU), including the Council of the EU, the European Parliament and the European Commission, voiced their growing concern over the free speech record of Turkey, which they have been conducting formal accession negotiations since 2005.
Although the government alleges that several journalists are in jail, whether as a convict or a defendant, “because they are bank robbers and rapists”, the identities of such criminals are not revealed, even at the requests referring Turkey’s Freedom of Information Act.
The rest of the people, which seems like the whole lot of journalists behind the bars, are doubtlessly jailed because of their journalistic work, as the evidence is clear:
Their homes and offices are being searched, their public writings are being seized as “criminal documents”, their unpublished books are being banned by prosecutors, they are being questioned about why they published a certain news story and the indictments against them list their news items or published commentary as the only “smoking gun.”
The pro-government media in Turkey, on the other hand, amplifies the human rights violations of the political authorities, worsening the personal tragedies of objective journalists or their dissident counterparts.
Character assassination becomes the norm. For instance, wiretapped conversations, which have generally nothing to do with the legal case, are being published or broadcasted in violation of the privacy of the defendant.
Cold facts and flat statistics cannot properly describe the tragedy of the Turkish journalist as a human being, though:
Take IPI World Press Freedom Hero Nedim Sener, who was kept in jail for over a year in spite of the huge international outcry over his arrest, as well as his colleague Ahmet Sik, an equally respected investigative journalist.
Biscuits and Strip Search for Children
When we visited Sener in Silivri Prison on November 2011 with another delegation of IPI’s National Committee, he had told us how his 8-year-old daughter offered to be jailed with him. “If they have biscuits, it would be enough for me”, she had explained to him.
Later, when he was released on March 2012, the same Sener would be crying on live TV when revealing how her daughter was strip searched at the entrance of the prison, because three metal buttons of her skirt had alerted the detectors.
Sener and Sik are prominent journalists, so everybody listened to their personal tragedy in the pursuit of truth.
But what about scores of their colleagues who are still behind the bars, pending trials?
Fusun Erdogan, a director of Ozgur Radio, is one of the forgotten names. Erdogan, who described herself as “a dissident journalist”, was arrested on September 8th, 2006 and charged of being a member of a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization. Her lawyers, as well as main opposition MPs, insist that there is no sound evidence against her.
In the last hearing on May 30, 2012, the court refused to release Erdogan once again and postponed the case to September 6th, which meant that she would remain in prison without conviction for over six years alongside ten other defendants, including two more dissident journalists.
It is clear that the need to democratize the the Constitution, the Turkish Penal Law (TCK) and the Anti-Terror Law (TMK) is urgent. But don’t get it wrong: It is more about legal practice than the legislation; as with the same laws, Turkey’s free speech record was relatively better in the past, although not ideal at all. Such legal cases aside, at least the Prime Minister was not rebuking pundits by personally targeting one of them by yelling that “this is an individual whose pen always drips with filth”.
This picture reinforces the perception that the government, which is preparing some –seemingly- cosmetic improvements to the defuse the situation nowadays, could be attempting to quell dissent and keep its hegemonic control over the public opinion.
What may be even worse is the perception that many journalists feel an urge to censor themselves in order to stay away from the wrath of the government and the judiciary.
But what can they do after seeing their independent colleagues either crying on TV or silenced in prisons?
And what can they do after reading from their colleagues, maybe not leashed but unfairly favored by the government, that Turkey is being presented by the West as a role-model for the “Arab Spring” countries?
What, except censoring themselves or, in other words, changing the color of their collars and leashes?
Chief Editor of the Foreign News Service at Hürriyet, Turkey’s largest newspaper. He is the Vice President of the board of the International Press Institute’s National Committee in Turkey. More information: about.me/emrekizilkaya
Radomir Licina, Senior Editor,
Danas daily, Belgrade; SEEMO Board Member
Being a journalist is a rather insecure and challenging job in many parts of the world today, but Turkey undoubtedly leads the way in Europe in this respect, together with Russia and Belarus.
Depressing figures prove that Turkey is one of the most unfriendly and most difficult environments for the work of local journalists. As of June 2011, almost 60 Turkish journalists were in jail or arrested on dubious or legally ambiguous grounds! Especially alarming is the fact that among those arrested is Nedim Sener, IPI World Press Freedom Hero! Journalists and editors associated with SEEMO and IPI must, therefore, visibly display their solidarity with arrested and jailed colleagues in Turkey.
However discouraging it may appear, this grim reality has another, much brighter side. Regardless of these dispiriting conditions, the journalists in Turkey are doing their daily jobs in a very professional way, bravely and resolutely, withstanding various threats and pressures, openly or covertly.
So, if we are obliged to show solidarity and support to those not permitted to do their job, we also have to express our admiration and esteem to the multitude of unknown, courageous colleagues who fight that never-ending daily struggle.
Veran Matic (2012)
President of the Board of Directors RTV B92,
I had been following years-long trial of Orhan Pamuk charged with „insulting Turkishness“. I sighed with relief when the criminal charges were dropped, but this was a bitter-sweet victory after the demonization of the Nobel laureate.
It was clear, however, if many things were not changed in the Criminal Code, criminal prosecution of journalists and free-thinking people would persist. Indeed, anyone could be charged and punished under such loose legal provisions in Turkey.
Ultimately, personal damages claims were brought by „injured“ families against Mr. Pamuk for the same ’offence’ – for his remarks about Armenian and Kurdish deaths for which he had been previously accused under the Criminal Code. The Nobel laureate was fined in late March this year and ordered to pay about $4,000.
And yet, parallel to this, a series of frightening prison sentences were handed down to journalists from all sorts of media outlets – mainstream and independent, small and big ones, tabloids…
Anti-terror laws in the country have led to a situation where Turkey ranks first in terms of the number of journalists languishing in prisons. Turkey is also ‘a world champion’ when it comes to the number of trials of journalists as well as hefty fines imposed on them.
This appears to be a part of an overall trend to stifle independent voices when we take into account constraints imposed on online and e-mail communication, and filtering of web sites. Apparently, fighting against terrorism serves as an alibi for increasing repression.
B92, the media outlet which I run, was banned four times during the Milosevic’s reign. The old authoritarian regime would always cite some legal provision as an excuse for banning the station, which, as a rule, did not have anything to do with the Public Information Act. Once they even claimed that they had not actually banned B92 but that ‘rain water penetrated transmitter’s coaxial cables’.
Autocratic regimes typically endeavour to lay down very loose rules of the game which could be easily bend to their interpretations so that they could exert control the media scene in many different ways.
It is incomprehensible to me that there are over 60 journalists languishing in prison today in Europe, including a World Press Freedom Hero. It is baffling that many exceptional journalists and editors have been murdered, that they are being attacked, that the very existence of many media outlets is threatened.
Our colleagues in Turkey are waging a very important battle for freedom of expression in this country which aspires to join the family of European democracies in the European Union. Response and a show of solidarity of colleagues worldwide have not been satisfactory so far.
Individual reactions on the part of various associations and institutions would not suffice. International organisations have not as yet shown determination to oppose this wave of violence which is undermining one of the fundamental pillars of every democracy – freedom of speech. They have failed so far to protect the journalists and the media from outrageous accusations, non-transparent judicial proceedings and violations of the right to defend oneself.
It is necessary that all the media organisations rally round to help our colleagues and their media by way of setting up a committee of reputable journalists and editors with a clear objective to pursue every possible legal avenue to amend the laws and practice in Turkey, and thus set free innocent journalists, make their persecution cease and enable normal online communication in this country.
Budapester Zeitung and
The Budapest Times
I am not a lawyer nor am I an expert in media law. I am a publisher of the only two foreign language weeklies in Hungary. It is only from this point of view that I can judge the new Hungarian media law and the situation of the freedom of press in my country. I can say that for my team, nothing has changed when compared to the previous situation. There is not even the slightest sign of the Hungarian government trying to put pressure on us. We are absolutely free to write about what we want to, and this of course means taking the minority viewpoints and the personal rights of individuals into account – just as before. It is a paradox, but the only real political pressure that I occasionally feel – in the form of insulting aggressive remarks about me or my newspapers in articles, on webpages like Wikipedia or in the forum section of our web pages – come exactly from those who allegedly burn for the freedom of press in my country and whose tolerance ends when they get confronted with articles that treat our prime minister, Mr. Orbán, any differently than a “Dr. Evil” from the East. As a result of this latent pressure and because of my unwillingness to assist in undifferentiated Orbán bashing, I stopped writing editorials a few months ago. In this sense, I have to correct my above statement regarding not feeling political pressure about what we can and cannot publish... but I hope this will pass soon.
Free and professional journalism
There are merely two concerns with the latest amendment of the Hungarian media law: that which has been included and that which has not been included.
The amendments of 19 July 2011 contain no changes concerning those sections of the media law that were strongly criticised by international organisations and European Union institutions, moreover, in certain cases these amendments even aggravate the situation. Major concerns have prevailed with respect to the media law.
Although the amendments refine the language of the law in various places, the amendments continue to curb the independence of public media service providers, and give additional entitlements to the already super-powered Media Council and its president.
The following provisions are unchanged:
Dr. Márton Nehéz-Posony
Legal Representative of the Hungarian Association of Journalists;
Expert in media- and press law
After sparking heated debates and strong criticism throughout the European Union with its Orwellian media legislature, the Hungarian Government seemingly gave in to EU demands and did propose some amendments in April, which the ruling party eventually voted for, following not too much deliberation. Still, the Hungarian Media Law raises grave concerns in believers in freedom of speech, some of which have not received the public attention they deserve.
For the sake of clarity, let us distinguish between the two pieces of legislation in question. The so-called Media Act (Act CIV of 2010, often but baselessly referred to as the “Media Constitution”) outlines the basic and substantial rules of media content. The other act (Act CLXXXV of 2010) focuses on the institutional and procedural matters of mass media, including its supervision. This act will hereinafter be referred to as the Media Supervision Act. Both acts were revised in April 2011, following widespread criticism from EU capitals and civil rights groups.
One of the most controversial provisions in the Media Act was the one providing for balanced information, since, in the original version, it would have applied not only to linear but also to on-demand content providers. The amendment has excluded on-demand services from this obligation, they, therefore, are not required to provide balanced information any longer. However, the legislation in question, Article 13 of the Media Act, still contains a provision that should sound alarms in protectors of press freedom, yet it remained in effect virtually unnoticed. The article requires that information not only be balanced, but also “comprehensive”: content providers involved in informing the public are required to provide up-to-date information on events and matters in dispute relevant to the citizens of Hungary and to ethnic Hungarians. The practical question is: who will decide what is relevant? Is it going to be an editor or the media authority? Even under the modified regulation, this requirement will apply not only to TVs and radios operating on frequencies, but also to those providing live services over the internet.
The second issue raised by critics was the broadness of the requirement of content providers to register in advance with the media authority, outlined in Articles 41-44 and 185-189 of the Media Supervision Act. EU Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes specifically questioned whether such a requirement is justifiable in the case of internet sites and the printed press. The Hungarian Government’s proposal tried to address this issue as well. Under the amendment, registration of on-demand content providers and the printed press is no longer compulsory in advance, but they have 60 days upon commencing their services to register while this certainly is some progress, there are still several other provisions of the law, which remain untouched, that raise the same question of justifiable limitations. First of all, a failure to register will result in a fine up to approximately 4,000 EUR. This threat by the law may be viewed as an administrative obstacle to the provision of services and makes the registration a de facto permission process. The purpose of this regulation could be achieved by a requirement to constantly inform the public about the content provider’s basic data (its principal address, the editor-in-chief, etc.). The other problem the legislation raises, which also has not received much public attention, is the scope of data to be provided during the registration. Linear content providers, even those not airing on frequencies, are required to provide data on the planned number of subscribers, the planned structure of their programming, the planned amount of time to broadcast news, public service programmes and programmes to serve ethnic minorities. This information seems to be unnecessary to be submitted to the authority, especially if they do not have any legal relevance. Similar to the problem of registration is the problem of a fee to be paid by linear service providers. Under the current regulation, this applies not only to TVs and radios in the air, but also to linear services over the internet, although they do not use resources owned by the state (the frequencies). If you receive nothing in return for your payment, that looks awfully like a tax. Still, the amount of the fee is not stated in the law, but it will be determined by the media authority, which in the case of internet-based content providers, makes the fee incalculable, thereby infringing upon the rule of law.
Most of the controversy lay in the powers of the media authority, the president and board members, of which are solely appointed by the ruling party. The media authority is responsible to oversee compliance with the provisions of media-related legislation. Since Articles 14, 16 and 18 of the Media Act provide for the protection of individual rights such as human dignity (which in the interpretation of the Hungarian Constitutional Court is the mother of all individual rights like the protection of reputation) or privacy, and since Article 167 of the Media Supervision Act makes it the obligation of the media authority to enforce provisions of both acts, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that this legislation creates an administrative procedure to protect individual rights, whereas they should exclusively be ruled upon by courts.
Moreover, under Articles 155 and 156 of the Media Supervision Act, in enforcing these rights and supervising content providers, the authority is entitled to examine all kinds of documents and devices carrying data related to the content providers’ activities, including confidential information and business data. The obligation to provide the authority with information is imposed on a wide array of subjects, who also face fines up to approximately 100,000 EUR if they fail to comply. In the scope of the matters to be investigated by the media authority, however, these powers are disproportionately broad.
Article 187 of the Media Supervision Act outlines the system of sanctions the authority may impose on content providers. One of them is the erasure of the provider, which results in the obligation of stopping their transmission by technical providers. Another sanction is an obligation to publish a communiqué set out in the authority’s ruling. If the content provider fails to comply, technical providers are also required to suspend their transmission. There seems to be no need to comment on these ones, lest someone finds it harmful and submits a complaint to the media authority.
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
“Democracy requires the pluralism of opinions, not centrally controlled news services,” proclaimed university student András Szeles before tens of thousands of demonstrators in the very heart of Budapest on 15 March 2011. Szeles, born in the year of the fall of communism, added that he and all those who were still getting information from independent sources could not understand why Hungary was now going against Europe and the European standards of democracy. The protest rally has been the largest one initiated by civil groups since 1989. The organisers chose the date consciously, as March 15 is a public holiday and marks the anniversary of the 1848 revolution when the number one demand of revolutionaries was the abolition of censorship and the call for press freedom.
The demonstration was held eight days after the Hungarian government bowed to the pressure from the European Commission and the parliament modified the controversial media law, having provoked strong criticisms both internationally and domestically. The amendments have decreased the harmful effects of the regulation by tackling some of the worst aspects of the legislation, such as the obligation of balanced coverage for all media, the prohibition of openly or covertly defaming any community, the possibility of fining service providers even settled abroad, and the obligation of registration for all media outlets, including print and online.
Though the changes are not negligible, the core of the problems remains. The package of media legislation adopted late last year by the parliament, where the ruling conservative party FIDESZ has two thirds of the seats, goes against international free speech standards even after having been amended. That is why Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media stated, “Hungary missed the opportunity provided by the modifications.” She recommended further changes in the laws, suggesting that the legal requirement on balanced coverage should be deleted; editorial independence must be safeguarded; print, broadcast and online media require different rules; the vague notions in the legislation must be clarified; excessive registration requirements should be deleted; and the regulatory body should be politically independent and competent. Mijatovic also emphasised the importance of media self-regulation instead of over-regulation.Very similar opinions were articulated in the European Parliament where, on 10 March 2011, MEPs voted 316 to 264, with 33 abstentions, in favour of a resolution calling on Hungary “to repeal the provisions of the laws which are not compatible with the letter or the spirit of EU laws and other European conventions.” Even further, the members of the European Parliament asked the Commission to propose a directive on media freedom and pluralism. This would be a significant step forward as the European Union lacks competence in human rights and media law in general. That is why the Hungarian media package could only have been examined by the Commission on the basis of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and provisions on freedom of movement and freedom to provide services.
Even if there is no EU directive on media for the time being, Hungary – as a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights – must respect the Council of Europe’s standards on freedom of expression and media pluralism. This was reflected in a recent statement of CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg. He concluded that “the wide range of problematic provisions in Hungary’s media legislation coupled with their mutually reinforcing nature result in an unfortunate narrowing of the space in which media can operate freely in Hungary.” According to Hammarberg, all of this suffices to warrant a wholesale review of the media law, a view which certainly resonates with the demands of those tens of thousands who went to the streets of Budapest on 15 March 2011 to demonstrate for press freedom.
Vice President for Global Programs
December 02, 2011 Last week I joined a delegation of leading freedom of expression organizations in Hungary to assess the impact of much criticized media legislation that went into effect in January. Discussions with dozens of journalists, media officials, regulation authorities, and government representatives validated the serious concerns expressed by international press freedom experts since the law was passed last December.
The new media legislation has many troubling features. Not only does the legislation put in place a new regulatory structure with excessively broad authority and questionable independence, it also provides limited possibilities for judicial review of the decisions made by that body, which has the ability to issue or suspend licenses, monitor media content, and issue fines and levies in cases of content violations
At the same time, it provides overly broad language on prohibited content. The law bans content that insults “human dignity” or that discriminates against “any majority” or “any church or religious group.” The legislation extends registration requirements to print and online media, a step that sharply contrasts with internationally accepted norms, and greatly expands the circumstances under which journalists can be forced to reveal their sources. Finally, the new regulatory regime has developed a model of co-regulation that amounts to outsourcing censorship to media owners in exchange for immunity from fines, which can otherwise be levied up to 2 million forints (approximately $950,000) for radio and television outlets.
As troubling as are the legislation’s implications for press freedom is the government’s arrogance in responding to widespread international criticism. Since the legislation was passed, detailed criticisms have been addressed to the Hungarian government by an impressive roster of neutral authorities: the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the Media Representative of the OSCE, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and many leading press freedom and human rights organizations.
Yet rather than engaging in any sincere reflection regarding the concerns of domestic and international experts, the government’s response has been to dismiss criticism as exaggerated and politically motivated. At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has spent countless hours and reams of paper justifying every questionable aspect of the law by searching out and documenting similar examples in other European countries. The examples range from objectionable laws that should never have been passed in the first place to legitimate laws that have been taken out of context and invoked in misleading ways.
Regardless of whether the failings in other countries are valid, the Hungarian legislation represents a collection of laws that when taken as a whole represents a substantial threat to media diversity and the ability of the media to play its essential watchdog function. Journalists we spoke with, aside from those who take a pro-government line, claim that they are already engaging in self-censorship to avoid legal penalties or punitive actions by media owners who have agreed to the broad content restrictions. In an already tough economic environment, these journalists fear that few will be brave or financially secure enough to challenge the new laws. A cowed media is no asset to any democratic system, including one like Hungary, where free institutions generally prevail.
The damage to Hungarian democracy wrought by the Fidesz-led government is not limited to the new press regulation regime. Orbán’s Fidesz government also rewrote the constitution, pushed through a controversial law on religions, and passed a law limiting the authority of the Constitutional Court. Such measures, enacted with little genuine public consultation, are particularly disheartening given Hungary’s status as a model post-Communist democracy. For two decades Freedom House has been documenting the hitherto impressive progress of Hungary since its dramatic break from Communism—progress, it should be emphasized, that was unquestionably advanced by the previous Fidesz government. Since breaking free from the Communist bloc in 1989, Hungary has emerged as a consolidated democracy, rising to an impressive status of “Free” in bothFreedom in the World, our annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, and in Freedom of the Press, the companion survey of media freedom.
Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán, who once fought for democratic principles against an oppressive communist regime, seems to have succumbed to the toxic polarization of Hungarian politics by adopting a winner take all approach to governing. Having returned to power with a resounding two-thirds parliamentary majority following eight years of ineffective and corrupt Socialist rule, he had an unprecedented opportunity to reinvigorate Hungary’s sagging economy and restore public faith in the democratic process. So far, he and his party seem more focused on maintaining their stranglehold on power than on addressing the country’s numerous ills. The months ahead will show how Hungarian democracy will weather the storm.
Piotr Stasinski (2012)
IPI Board Member
From the onset of its EU presidency, which Hungary has just completed, the government in Budapest was widely criticised for enforcing the controversial media law, which was accepted by the Hungarian parliament a few days before the commencement of the EU presidency.
The bill established a new media council, a regulatory body, which may impose severe fines on media that do not, allegedly, report politics in a 'balanced' way. It is at the discretion of the council to judge what is considered to be 'balanced'.
All current council members are also members of the ruling Fidesz party of Mr. Victor Orban. Fidesz has more than two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Council president, Annamária Szalai, is a close aide to prime minister Orban.
Mr. Orban's critics accuse him of infringing upon press freedom, and of limiting, through parliamentary laws, the powers of the Hungarian constitutional tribunal.
Later, the media law, after critical review by the European Commission, was slightly softened. Originally, the powerful media council dealt only with broadcasting media; e.g. fining TV stations for 'indecent' content. However, begining on 1 July 2011, the council gained powers to censor printed press (daily and weekly newspapers) and websites.
There is a threat that, through the aforementioned 'balance' provision, the Orban government may try to silence the media, particularly left-leaning media. Leftist commentators, and other observers, are certain that, to that aim, the government would use its influence on the media council.
This threat is even greater since, after the end of the EU presidency, the coverage of Hungary by foreign media has substantially decreased. So, the Orban government may now take off its 'white gloves', and may, for example, take revenge on the left-leaning media, which criticised him heavily before his two lost elections, in 2002 and in 2006 (the latter case was Orban's defeat by his socialist rival Ferenc Gyurcsany).
The very power of the media council to impose financial punishments on the press and broadcasters may be sufficient enough to make them subdue to self-censorship.
Hopefully, the Orban government would be aware that its potential actions against the media will be closely watched by Brussels, and other European capitals, and press freedom organisations, like the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) and the International Press Institute (IPI).
Press freedom is a part of European 'DNA' and a pillar of democracy. And even a strong democratic mandate, which the Orban government undoubtedly holds, does not give him the right to restrict free speech.
The situation with media freedom in Belorussia currently and like already during the years hardly depends on political regime and its rules.
Local journalists say that with time passing by many of Belorussian audience may start to think that situation can’t be different and nothing is too wrong with it. Though those that are able to travel abroad and get a fresh sight to things realize how much ridiculous many things, including the media freedom, are.
The print media are divided into official and independent, that are just few, like “BelGazeta” (http://www.belgazeta.by/www.belgazeta.by), “KP-Belorussia”, “Nasha Niva” (www.nn.by). They provide the more or less balanced information with diverse points of view, keep it with no propaganda or contr-propaganda. Though they survive hard, especially economically, as, for example, in the country there is only one paper factory where all newspapers have to buy paper – during last year the price raised up 3 times higher – independent media had to buy the paper on stock-exchange, while pro-governmental press had fixed in year-long agreements price. Plus to this in 2011 pro-governmental press was supported with 54 million euro from the budget.
Among regional newspapers “Vechernij Brest” (www.vb.by) is maybe not perfect, but one of the most brave and balanced, they dare to criticize not only “main figure”, which is President, but also couple of local authorities in power.
When it comes to television it is totally official, there are no not-pro-governmental tv-channels. The same is about radio: on-air there are only FM-stations that provide music and entertainment.
When it comes to internet media, civil journalism there are several most respected and popular active bloggers as well as resources – www.naviny.by and charter97.org, bloggers Malishevskij, Lipkovich, Feduta and some others. In 2011 many of active civil journalists were undertaken for criminal cases, their sites were closed as extremists’ ones. Some of them had to leave Belorussia. There is a list on certain media web-sites that is filtered and forbidden to open in governmental organizations, educational and cultural ones. During 2011 the list grown up to 60 forbidden web-sites.
Last year there were 150 cases of journalists’ arrests, 7 from them were attacked physically. While demonstrations and civil actions journalists were arrested cruelly, professional equipment were broken, 22 journalists came through courts, 13 got administrative prosecution, others were assigned to pay fines.
Another noticeable growing trend is building “unofficial” black lists of musicians, writers, actors, artists – local and international – that are forbidden for entering the country as they demonstrated support to belorussian political prisoners. In the list such people as Russian band DDT (leaded with proactive singer), Pet Shop Boys, writer Edward Uspenskij, Andrej Bitov, dramatist Tom Stoppard, actor Jude Law, Kevin Spacey and others. Their names are also forbidden to be mentioned on TV and FM radios. The reason of being included in the list is not even participation in protest action, but only expressing the opinion on Belorussian
Yaroslava Sennikova (2012)
Yaroslava is Editor of the TV Channel ‘100 TV’. As an independent company 100 TV is able to cover a wide range of news stories using commentary from a broad range of sources. At the time of the 2006 Fellowship Programme Yaroslava was News Editor of 100 TV, having since been promoted to the position of Editor.
Being an Editor, Yaroslava does her best to cover news and events from different angles, using the commentary of experts and other sources. In her everyday work she tries to keep the balance among news that concerns politics, economics, and the social and cultural life of the city.
Yaroslava is also a Board Member of the Association of Young Journalists of North West Russia, the “Neva Press Club”.
(Corvinus University of Budapest)
Expert at atlatszo.hu
Atlatszo.hu is the first Hungarian investigative journalism portal, launched in July 2011. Besides the production of investigative reports, it also accepts information from whistleblowers, publishes leaked documents (MagyarLeaks), files requests of data on the basis on freedom of information laws, and starts freedom of information lawsuits in case of refusal.
Idea of this project was evidently not independent from the media environment in Hungary. Rumors are about pressure of political and business interest groups; they have a direct impact even on editorial content. Additionally the legal environment does not support investigative journalism: Section 6 of Act 104 of 2010 (so-called Media Constitution) says in exceptionally justified cases, courts or authorities may – in the interest of protecting national security and public order or uncovering or preventing criminal acts – require the media content provider to reveal the identity of the informant. Anyway, these categories are far from being well-defined, so protection of sources cannot be guaranteed at all and self-censorship is an evident consequence of this regulation.
Launch of a new portal is challenging in these circumstances. The worries were not unfounded: just a few days after the start of atlatszo.hu Organized Crime Department of Budapest Police seized a hard disk of editor in chief, just because he did not reveal his source in the case of a hacker attack of a financial company.
In the last four months atlatszo.hu became a significant player in the Hungarian media scene, some of it stories found a way into mainstream media. The real question is how an investigative journalism portal can be financed in long run. Revenues are coming from donations of private persons and foundations, but the viability of this business model has not been proved in Hungary.
There are some examples for non-profit investigative journalism portals (e.g. ProPublica in US), but the size of Hungary cannot compared to US, moreover the economic decline has a negative impact on civil donations. It is the question of future, if it will be just the hobby of some enthusiastic people in long run or atlatszo.hu becomes a significant player on the Hungarian media market as an independent investigative journalism portal.
Janne Virkkunen (2012)
Editor-in-Chief, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland;
IPI Board Member
Turkey is continuing its EU accession negotiations, yet at the same time the Turkish government continues to seriously violate press freedom in Turkey. The EU cannot accept this behaviour from Turkey. Imprisoned journalists have to be released or tried before court. Imprisoned journalists have a right to a fair trial. If Turkey wants to become a member of the European Union, the Turkish government has to respect press freedom and the EU has to be firm in regard to this issue.
The Hungarian government has only softened the new media legislation a bit. In the European Union, we cannot accept that a member country tries to prevent the media from doing its job. In its new form, the Hungarian media law still threatens press freedom, which means that we have to continue to press Hungarians to improve the situation in the country. For us it is impossible to compromise on this kind of issue.