The 2010 overhaul of Hungary’s media laws set a dangerous precedent in Europe. Instead of guaranteeing press freedom in a European Union member country, they seem to guarantee press freedom for the governing party at the expense of the right of the public to free information.
The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), expresses concern at the State appropriation of the Hungarian media landscape.
The Hungarian Media and Telecommunication Authority and its Media Council are controlled by the parliament in which the governing party, Fidesz, has a majority. Although the law prescribes a two-thirds majority of votes in parliament for the council members to be elected, all four members were nominated by Fidesz. The legal procedure was respected but Fidesz controls two thirds of parliament seats in the parliament and can easily choose its candidates. The political independence of the Chairperson of the Media Council is not guaranteed.
The Chairperson appoints, dismisses and remunerates the Director of the Programming Service Support and Property Management Fund. The Fund may be considered ”the public service media company”, because it disposes over the employees, the property and the funding of the public service broadcasters Hungarian Television (MTV), Hungarian Radio, and Danube Television.
From 1 January 2011 all assets and most of the staff of the three public service media organisations (Hungarian Television (MTV), Hungarian Radio, and Danube Television) and the National News Agency (MTI) were allocated to the Media Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA). The fund is solely supervised by the Media Council which controls all incomes and properties of the broadcasters. The director of the fund and the supervisory board are appointed by the President of the media authority who in turn is appointed by the Prime Minister. This structure creates the possibility of direct governmental control and direct political influence over public service media.
The national news agency, MTI now operates as the single concentrated newsroom for public service television in Hungary. According to observers, MTI operates as a government service. Public media must buy news from MTI, which publishes its news online for free, and offers media service providers to download and republish them. “This leads to an unprecedented market dominance and power of MTI, destroying the business model and viability of other agencies and is contrary to the European rules of fair competition,” concluded the International Partnership Mission on Press Freedom to Hungary (November 14-16, 2011), in which SEEMO and IPI participated.
In other words, the state controls public broadcasters politically and economically, and the Media Council can prescribe the content, as well: In December 2011, liberal talk radio Klubradio had to renew its licence and lost its frequency to a less experienced broadcaster that offered mainly music programmes. The Media Council published the frequency tender and set out that the applicants should offer mainly music, and not more than five minutes of news per hour. Klubradio was known for its talk shows.
The above mentioned decisions generated street protests as well as a hunger strike by MTV journalists.
Further, although the Constitutional Court annulled certain parts of the controversial media law, some questionable regulations remained. This led a group of Hungarian media experts to write:”The Hungarian legal system is not capable to protect the principles of freedom of expression anymore.”
SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said: “I urge the international organisations to do everything they can in order to underscore that people in Hungary have the same right to information and professional public service as in the rest of Europe, and to guarantee that right.”
SEEMO and the International Press Institute will continue to closely monitor the media situation in Hungary and organise further regular visits to the country.