Hungary reviews its media law

Article  by  Samuel MILLER  •  Published 23.02.2011  •  Updated 24.02.2011
Hungarian prime minister
[NEWS] After widespread criticism and disputes with the European Commission, Hungary has reviewed its new media law. 
One day before the European Parliament was due to vote on a motion relating to a new media law in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government announced changes to the law in accordance with recommendations and expressions of concern made by Union members.
In a last-minute move to address EU concerns, the government agreed to refine its terminology regarding “causing offense” in instances of incitement to hatred, one of the restrictions to be enforceable under the new law. It also agreed to limit the scope of applicability of the law, which formerly applied to media operators in other EU countries, as well as in Hungary. “Balanced coverage” will now only be required of broadcast media – television and radio – and not of pay-per-view or download services.
Controversy began well before Orban’s Fidesz party introduced the media law on 1st January, the same day Hungary assumed its six-month presidency of the European Union. The law’s stated objective was to address what the government saw as ‘sensationalist’ and ‘imbalanced’ media reporting, by enforcing a ‘balanced’ view requirement.
The law, in its unaltered form, invests the state-endorsed Media Council with the ability to investigate and fine broadcasters and newspapers for “offenses” to minority or majority groups, or for “violating public morality”. Discussion centred on the ambiguity of such terms, and on the fact that it required all media organisations to register with the Authority immediately. There was also concern that the law extended to all content providers, including those registered in other EU countries. 
Heated debate within the European Parliament quickly followed its taking effect, with some members expressing concern that the law might be in conflict with EU rules regarding the freedom of the press from state intervention, as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Denouncement of the law was not unanimous, however: "There is a great deal of political motivation behind this debate", said Simon Busuttil (EPP, MT). He went on to say that although his group attaches great importance to press freedoms, “it would be wrong to single out a single Member State for condemnation".
According to European Parliament member Sophie in 't Veld, “[t]his debate is not about Hungary, but about the credibility of the EU and the enforcement of fundamental rights". This view was seconded by Morten Løkkegaard, who stated that “the real question is whether the EU is currently equipped to solve such problems".
Despite the conciliatory move by the Hungarian government, there are still concerns that the basic content of the law will remain intact and that the European Commission did not go far enough. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “new law will continue to say that the freedom of the media can’t infringe on public morality or offend human dignity”, with “[n]o clarification [...] given to define those values”. Claude Moraes, spokesman for a centre-left group in the European Parliament, told the New York Times that the rapid reaction by the government was evidence of its centralised nature and strength, and that “[b]y producing concessions before the vote they may rob the Parliament of its voice in condemning robustly the media law.”
Reporters Without Borders criticised the European Commission for its “inadequate” response, saying that the Commission was merely “offering the Hungarian government and parliament a face-saving way out and a last chance to make substantial changes in a law which is still in large part totally unacceptable”. It said that while the revisions address issues concerning media providers in other EU countries, they leave Hungarian journalists with undefined threats hanging over them. Furthermore, it said that the European Commission had “simply debated the issue and not passed a resolution clearly condemning a law which tarnishes the EU’s good reputation for defending media freedom.”
In the wake of the new law coming into effect, thousands of Hungarians took to the streets in January to voice their dissatisfaction. Oliver Vujovic, secretary general of the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), spoke pessimistically on the matter: “The question is, what will happen when the presidency ends in July? Nobody will be watching.”Vujovic said that the risk of self-censorship among journalists was a real one, and that “[i]f a journalist is afraid to report about something then it shows there is something wrong with the regulations." He went on to say that the greatest risk of the proposed law is in the way it may touch those countries – including some aspiring EU members – that are less democratically robust: "Countries could just adopt the Hungarian model and say, 'We are just copying a law from the EU.'"
On May 25th 2009, the New European Charter on Freedom of the Press was signed by forty-eight editors-in-chief and leading journalists from nineteen countries, and endorsed by the European Commission. Initiated by Mr Hans-Ulrich Jörges, editor-in-chief of the German magazine Stern, the charter is intended to be invoked in cases where governments and the press come into conflict: “Ideally, journalists all over Europe will be able to cite the charter in cases of conflict with the state or with state-controlled institutions, and to call on their international colleagues for help and support.”


Photo credit: European Parliament / Flickr

Further Reading

"Hungary's EU presidency may not be enough to stop the press freedom rot",, 9 February 2011

Stephen Castle, "Hungary Tones Down Media Law to End E.U. Conflict", New York Times, 16 February 2011

Margit Feher "Hungary to Leave Controversial Media Law's Core Intact", Wall Street Journal, 17 February 2011

"Hungary: Media Law Endangers Press Freedom", Human Rights Watch, 7 January 2011

"Hungarian media law sparks controversy at the European Parliament", European Parliament press release, 18 January 2011

"European Commission response to media law 'inadequate'", Reporters Without Borders, 17 February 2011
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