The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), today visited Hungary to meet with journalists and with András Koltay, a lawyer who is a member of Hungary's new, all-powerful Media Council.
A joint delegation, including SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic, IPI Press Freedom & Communications Manager Anthony Mills, and - as observers - SEEMO member Sándor Orbán, program director of the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media, and Judit Acsay from the Hungarian Association of Journalists, followed up on a joint IPI/SEEMO press freedom fact-finding mission to the country on 15-16 December 2010.
Hungary's press law, portions of which entered into effect on 1 January as the country took over the European Union's six-month rotating presidency, has been heavily criticized by top EU politicians, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), journalists and a host of press freedom and freedom of expression groups. Implementation of the elements of the new legislation dealing with print and online media was postponed for six months, and came into effect on 1 July.
The new legislation allows fines of up to 730,000 Euro against radio and television stations that broadcast content against "public interest, public morals and order", or "partial information". However, the law provides insufficient clarification on what constitutes an infringement, and also allows journalists to be forced to give up confidential sources in cases involving vaguely-defined "national security".
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban - 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 modelled on existing laws in other EU countries.
Hungary's Parliament in March passed amendments intended to defuse criticism, narrowing the law's scope against foreign media reporting from Hungary, and eliminating a requirement that on-demand services such as Internet sites and blogs provide balanced news coverage. Parliament also threw out a requirement that news outlets register with authorities, and softened a ban on offensive content.
However, the OSCE and other observers said the amended law still violated OSCE press freedom commitments.
"The legislation can still be misused to curb alternative and differing voices in Hungary despite modifications adopted following a request from the European Commission," Dunja Mijatovi?, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, commented in March.
"Several problems remain…," she continued. "The law vests unusually broad powers in the politically homogeneous Media Authority and Media Council, enabling them to control content of all media. The legislation regulates broadcast, print and online media content based on identical principles. It leaves key terms undefined. It requires all media to be registered with the Media Authority. It punishes violations with high fines. It fails to guarantee the political independence of public service media."
Critics have accused Hungary of postponing application of certain parts of the media law until the country concluded its six-month rotating presidency of the EU at the end of June.
Reports indicate that, since 1 July, a number of websites have terminated or imposed tighter controls on readers' comments sections in the wake of a media council enquiry into remarks that appeared on the website of the pro-Socialist daily Népszava.
The website www.politics.hu
Index.hu was quoted as announcing that it had removed its comments section because the changed legal environment means "we have to play safe" and the website was unable to hire additional personnel to monitor readers' comments around the clock.
When he met with the SEEMO/IPI delegation, Koltay, of the Media Council, said that the comment on the Népszava website "clearly does not fall within the new media regulations," implying that the news outlet would not be sanctioned.
During the meeting, Koltay responded point-by-point to a list of concerns raised by the SEEMO/IPI delegation.
In response to the suggestion that the Media Council remained under the influence of the government he challenged observers to identify instances of alleged political bias, and reiterated his belief that the Council is independent.
Answering allegations that the wording of the new legislation remained, in many cases, vague and open to interpretation, he argued that in his study of the UK media, he found what he called equally-vague wording prohibiting "offensive and harmful" content, although he acknowledged that this applied to television and radio only, and not, as in the vague wording in the Hungarian media legislation, to all media content, including print and online. In effect, this means that for print and online media in Hungary, the powerful, statutory Media Council is doing work that critics argue should be the responsibility of a self-regulatory body like the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in the United Kingdom.
He reiterated, in response to concerns about the independence of the newly-structured public media, the suggestion that in its prior form Hungary's public media was in catastrophic financial straits, and was open to "direct political influence".
He said that a tendering process for the renewal of an expiring license owned by liberal Klub Radio would not be unfair - as critics have suggested - and that "the best tender will win".
Koltay sought to fend off criticism about the still-high fines envisioned under the legislation by suggesting that they were "not without example" in Europe, and that so far in Hungary the fines have been very low.
There is "no trace of self-censorship in Hungary" he said, in answer to the concern expressed by SEEMO Secretary General Vujovic that the legislation may be fuelling self-censorship.
Following the meeting, Vujovic said: "We are grateful for the opportunity to exchange views, again, with the Media Council. In our meeting, I noted that serious concerns remain, including the view that the legislation is fuelling self-censorship. We will be monitoring the situation closely in the coming months, and will return before the end of the year. We hope that there will not be a need for us to conduct an emergency mission to Hungary, in response to any specific cases."
IPI Press Freedom & Communications Manager Mills said: "Although with Hungary's handing over of the EU presidency to Poland one spotlight may have been dimmed, IPI and SEEMO, as well as other international organisations and institutions, will be ensuring that Hungary's media legislation remains a focus of attention, particularly following the 1 July implementation of the portions dealing with online and print media. Serious concerns remain. We would invite the Hungarian government to consider the possibility of further amendments, and of broadening the associated social dialogue."