Hungary’s Media: The Reform Trap

A version of this post also appeared on openDemocracy.

The visit of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to a session of the European parliament on January 19 was greeted by a protest in which some members of the body taped their mouths and displayed signs reading “Censored.”

The parliamentarians were showing opposition to the Hungarian government’s controversial new media “reform” laws. But their concern is not shared widely enough across the European Union, where an inadequate response to Budapest’s legislation raises troubling questions about the union’s willingness to stand up for democratic values in its member-states.

The government’s reforms are part of a broader partisan effort to radically reshape the country's democracy that has followed the victory of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in the elections of April 2010 (see Anton Pelinka, “Hungary’s Election, and Viktor Orbán’s Choice,” April 15, 2010).

The ground for the new laws­—which took effect on January 1, 2011, the day that Hungary assumed the presidency of the European Union for the first half of the year­—was well prepared: by a series of constitutional amendments and a limitation of the powers of the constitutional court, then by the placing of Fidesz loyalists atop many of the country’s independent institutions. Janos Kornai, perhaps Hungary’s most respected economist and political commentator, compares the Orbán’s government approach with that of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia.

Viktor Orbán, whose country holds the presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2011, argues that all elements of the media laws have already been adopted in one EU member-state or another. This assertion is misleading, for no state has adopted a systematic package of this kind that is so clearly driven by political concerns. In fact, the most problematic aspects of the laws—including provisions granting arbitrary powers to new media watchdogs to deny or revoke licenses to media companies - are reminiscent of the authoritarian ways of the Soviet world’s information ministries.

An incremental process has created a situation where the whole of the reform is more insidious than the sum of its parts. It began in July 2010 with an amendment to Hungary’s constitution, which Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz was able to make thanks to its parliamentary majority of more than two-thirds. The change removed a provision that obliged the state to prevent the formation of media monopolies and thereby promote media pluralism, and replaced it with a somewhat Orwellian formula about the citizens’ right to “adequate information about public life.”

This was but the prelude: since then, the government has used its control of parliament to establish three separate media statutes which grant the new media-monitoring authorities unprecedented powers.

They require all media—print, broadcast, and online, and whether publicly or privately owned—to provide “true and objective” coverage of national and European affairs; obtain official registration in order to operate, and refrain from offending (unspecified) social groups or (undefined) family and religious values.

The vagueness of these standards leaves the press at the mercy of the new media council’s interpretation. The council’s composition, moreover, is wholly one-sided: its chair and four other members are Fidesz appointees, leaving no room for opposition or independent representation. In addition, its sanctioning powers are subject only to limited judicial review - a provision that appears to be inconsistent with the European convention on human rights.

If the council finds that media outlets have violated the new conditions, they could face serious sanctions. These include the loss of their licenses, punitive fines, the closure of web-based news platforms for violating content requirements, and it the demand that any press outlet hands over commercially or professionally sensitive information.

This new media regime in Hungary poses clear threats to media freedom. It is worrisome then that the EU’s response is failing adequately to address the problem. Instead, the union is showing the same kind of indecision that has already undermined tits ability to push for press freedom and democratic openness in (for example) Armenia and Turkey.

The EU’s digital-affairs commissioner Neelie Kroes did formally notify the Hungarian authorities on 21 January 2011 that three aspects of the media package, including the “over-extensive” registration rules, appear to violate EU regulations. The problem is that this kind of response, by focusing narrowly on the issue of compliance with the union’s audiovisual legislation, is both too limited in itself and likely to backfire - for it gives the Viktor Orbán government an opportunity to tweak the new laws and then claim that they conform to Brussels’s rules.

This indeed is the import of the “compromise” formula reached following a letter sent to Neeli Kroes on January 31, 2011 by Hungary’s deputy prime minister Tibor Navracsics, which pledged that the government would amend the legislation to ensure that the media law “is in full compliance with (European Union law) requirements.”

The EU needs to raise its sights. It must show that it takes seriously its own charter of fundamental rights, which guarantees respect for “freedom and pluralism of the media”. It must do so by treating the matter at the proper level: not of technicalities, but of non-negotiable democratic values.

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Thank you for this valuable primer on what has been happening in Hungary. Egyptians have taken to the streets to fight for democratic change in their country -- at the risk of assault by thugs, detention, and torture. It seems to me Europeans should be no less determined to face off the serious threats to freedom of expression in their own neighborhood.

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