HUNGARY: Hungary Media Laws Remain Cause for Concern, Say Media Experts

HUNGARY, 28/03/2012

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, “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, “wrote Paula Schriefer, Vice President for Global Programs, Freedom House, in her recent analysis for the web portal www.hungarypressfreedom.org, specialised in monitoring media developments in Hungary. The web portal is run by the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), in cooperation with the   International Media Centre (IMC). Additional partners for the www.hungarypressfreedom.org are: the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM); the Center for Independent Journalism (TASZ); and the Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS).

Schriefer was referring to the media laws adopted by the Hungarian parliament in 2010, revised after international and national criticism in 2011, and still a matter of concern for both the international community as well as for Hungarian media professionals.

Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy for Index on Censorship, said: “Hungary’s model of ‘co-regulation’ is a peculiarity ... Annamaria Szalai, the President of the Media Authority is a known Fidesz supporter and all five members of the Media Council were delegated exclusively by the Fidesz majority in Parliament. Members of the Media Council serve a nine-year term (over two parliamentary cycles) so even in the event of a change of government the media authority will still be dominated by Fidesz delegates.”

Agnes Urban, Assistant Professor at Corvinus University in Budapest, and an atlatszo.hu expert, said: "The legal environment does not support investigative journalism: Section 6 of Act 104 of 2010 (of the 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.”

Márton Nehéz-Posony, Legal Representative of the Hungarian Association of Journalists, stated: "The Hungarian Media Law raises grave concerns in believers in freedom of speech.”

The president of the Hungarian Association of Journalists (MÚOSZ), Pal Eotvos, noted: “The composition of the leading authority bodies responsible for overseeing media regulation guarantees the exclusive influence and control of the governing power over the media.”

Ildiko Vincze, editor-in-chief of the media law monitoring site mediajogfigyelo.hu, said: “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.” 

Sandor Orbán, Program Director of the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media from Budapest added: “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.”

Jan Mainka, publisher of two Budapest-based dailies, the German-language Budapester Zeitung and the English-language Budapest Times, has a different view: “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 web pages 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. Orban, 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 Orban 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.”

Controversial media laws in Hungary have generated a lot of debate in Europe and raised concern among international journalists:

Piotr Stasinski, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw, Poland, wrote: “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).”

Bulgarian journalist and SEEMO board member Milena Dimitrova is equally concerned:  “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.”

Fredy Gsteiger Diplomatic Correspondent, Swiss Broadcasting Corp., Switzerland, and former IPI Board Member, asked: “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. 

Janne Virkkunen, editor-in-chief, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland, was critical: “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. “

IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Europe and North America Steven M. Ellis, stated: “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.”

Agron Bajrami, editor-in-chief of the daily Koha Ditore, Kosovo, said: "They show that being a member of the EU, or an aspiring country, is not in itself a guarantee that media freedoms will be safeguarded and respected. “

SEEMO Board President Boris Bergant, former Deputy Director of RTV Slovenia, Ljubljana and former EBU deputy president, praised the hunagarypressfreedom.com initiative.

“This is an invaluable initiative by SEEMO and our Hungarian colleagues. We must defend journalistic freedoms everywhere, at all times, as well as the right to sufficient, balanced, and uncensored information, and the right to be informed and able to inform others.”

Full texts written by these experts appear on the SEEMO-run website: www.hungarypressfreedom.org. In addition, this specialised webpage includes news updates and regular reports on media developments, SEEMO and IPI statements on press freedom in Hungary, documents on media and human rights, links to specialised Hungarian and international sources and various special reports, as well as statements by Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe.

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