HUNGARY: EU Telecoms Chief Says Hungarian Media Law May Violate EU Law on Press Freedom, Broadcasting

HUNGARY, HUNGARY, 19/02/2011, 15:30

The European Union’s Telecoms Chief said on Monday that Hungary’s new media law may violate EU laws on press freedom and broadcasting.

European Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes told the European Parliament in a speech that she had contacted Hungarian authorities “to raise specific points on which the media law does not appear at first sight to be satisfactory,” Reuters reported.

Kroes said she was concerned the law could apply to media companies established outside of Hungary, contravening EU regulations providing that broadcasters are only subject to rules in their country of origin. She also said that efforts to require broadcasters to present news in a “balanced” manner were not sufficiently clear.

The move came as civil society organizations in Slovakia, including journalists and human rights groups, scheduled a protest against the law for today at 16:00 in front of the Hungarian Embassy in Bratislava to show support for “all democratically-minded citizens of Hungary.”

Citizens’ Initiative UM! Bratislava called on rally participants to shine flashlights into the window of the Hungarian embassy to symbolically “repel clouds” over Hungarian democracy and bring light to “the current eclipse of press freedom.”

International Press Institute Vice Chairman Pavol Múdry — who is also a board member of the SITA-Slovak News Agency and the IPI Slovak National Committee — said: “We have to show our solidarity to the Hungarian media because such proceedings are not a good development in an EU country.” 

The protest in Slovakia follows demonstrations against the law on Friday by thousands of people in Budapest and Vienna.

The legislation, which entered into effect on 1 January as Hungary took over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, has been heavily criticized by top EU politicians, the OSCE, journalists and a host of press freedom and freedom of expression groups.

Eleven Austrian newspapers on Thursday published an International Press Institute insert calling on the Hungarian government to withdraw the legislation, and warning that it constituted a fundamental threat to press freedom.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: “We reiterate that, as was made apparent in the declaration in 11 Austrian newspapers, we urge the Hungarian government to take note of the concerns over this legislation and we ask it to ensure that press freedom is preserved.”

The legislation would allow radio and television stations to be fined up to 730,000 Euros ($975,000) for going against “public interest, public morals and order”, or for broadcasting “partial information”, with insufficient clarification on what constitutes an infringement of the law, according to local media sources. It would also allow journalists to be forced to give up confidential sources in cases involving vaguely-defined ‘national security’.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — who was able to push the legislation through Parliament with the support of his Fidesz party, which controls two thirds of the body’s seats — has rejected criticism of the law, arguing that it is modeled on existing laws in other EU countries. But he has also said that he would be willing to amend the law if EU legal experts found shortcomings.

Hungary’s application of media regulations to broadcasters has come under sharp scrutiny since the new law was introduced in Parliament last year.

Authorities in December initiated proceedings against Tilos Radio for causing harm to minors by playing two songs by American rapper Ice-T containing explicit lyrics during the station’s 1730h program, but announced last week that they were dropping the investigation. 

Proceedings initiated against RTL Klub television last year over a crime report in October about a man who killed his brother and then chopped up the body remain pending.

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