The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), held a press freedom fact-finding mission to Hungary on 15-16 December 2010.
The mission participants were: SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Board Member Marta Palics, and IPI Press Freedom and Communications Manager Anthony Mills.
The SEEMO/IPI delegation met with a broad array of journalists and state officials, including the head of Hungary's newly-established Media Council, Annamaria Szalai.
The mission came as Hungary's parliament debated another package of media legislation which would significantly expand the powers of the newly-formed Media Council, allowing it to oversee virtually all media in the country.
In recent months, IPI and SEEMO have also expressed concern over legislative efforts - described by the ruling party as necessary media reform - to consolidate public media under a powerful umbrella, and to give the government greater control over the media.
The draft legislation currently being discussed in parliament grants the Media Council the right to monitor the media's compliance with the recently-passed Media Constitution, according to which the media cannot "offend" a variety of entities, including "majorities" and "minorities", "nations" and "the Church". What exactly "offends" means in this context is not spelled out, and journalists IPI spoke to in Hungary warned that the vagueness of the legislation meant that they did not know what they could or could not publish. Under the new legislation, transgressions can be punished with sizeable fines. Critics of the new legislation and Media Council say that the latter is composed entirely of government nominees. However, the Media Council's head, Szalai, assured SEEMO/IPI that the body was independent.
Parliament has been debating the bill - which enjoys overwhelming support from centre-right government parties - for the past week or so, and is expected to pass it any day now.
In a related development, the SEEMO/IPI mission heard that the right-wing Jobbik party had proposed that the draft legislation currently under debate also include a limit on the amount of air time that can be devoted to "crime" in any newscast.
In November, Hungary's parliament passed legislation ostensibly aimed at promoting press freedom but which in fact allows for journalists to be forced to give up their confidential sources in cases involving vaguely-defined 'national security'.
Critics of the media legislation packages passed in recent months in Hungary complain that it was rushed through parliament without consultation with key stakeholders and journalists. Proponents of the legislation have said the need for reform was urgent and could not be delayed.
Critics also noted that the new media authority is to supervise both print and online media and that this goes against international standards and will have a serious chilling effect on reporting.
SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said: "Hungary has a vital role in the EU. The Hungarian Government is due to take over the presidency of the European Union and the country should be a positive example of developments in all areas, including media. The fact that the new law was passed very fast, without a wide, open discussion between media professionals, and that some elements of the new regulation have been criticized by media professionals, is a cause for concern. We will now have to see how the new regulations work in practice, and will monitor media developments in Hungary, and then visit the country again. Corrections are always possible, which means that there may be amendments to the new law after some months."
IPI Press Freedom and Communications Manager Anthony Mills said: "We welcomed the opportunity to meet with key media stakeholders in Hungary, and to discuss with them the serious concerns that have been raised about the new media legislation in recent months. We will be closely following the situation in the coming days and weeks.