Hungary under fire over 'totalitarian' media law proposal

 

A MONTH before assuming the presidency of the European Union, Hungary is under fire over a proposed media law that a major watchdog has compared to those of totalitarian regimes.

Two prominent Hungarian magazines are publishing blank covers this week in protest at new rules allowing a government-controlled council to fine any media outlet, including websites, whose reports are deemed to be unbalanced or whose content breaches guidelines on content involving sex, violence and alcohol.

The media council – all of whose members were chosen by government parties – would have considerable leeway to interpret the new law and could impose fines of up to €90,000 on print and internet media and more than €700,000 on radio and TV broadcasters.

The new code would demand that media outlets pay fines before lodging any appeal – potentially plunging cash-strapped publications into bankruptcy – while another element would force journalists to reveal their sources in cases deemed to involve national security or public safety.

The ruling Fidesz party, which has quickly concentrated power in its hands since a landslide election victory in April, insists the reforms would ensure balanced reporting and protect journalistic freedom, while plans to merge the operations of the national television channels, radio stations and state news agency would also save money during tough times.

Parliament – where the government holds a crushing two-thirds majority – is expected to vote in the law this month, and it would come into force next year.

“The media and communications law . . . gives total power to the media council, and through it the government will control the internet and print media,” liberal news magazine Magyar Narancs said yesterday in a small caption on an otherwise blank front page.

“Because of this, on January 1st 2011, press freedom will come to an end, and with this law freedom of speech and opinion will also become obsolete. We are against this, and demand that the law be withdrawn.”

Critics say the Bill is only the latest government abuse of its massive parliamentary majority, which has allowed it to tinker with the constitution, strip the constitutional court of much of its power to rule on financial issues, and install party loyalists at all levels in all areas of public life. Particular anger was aroused by the appointment of the head of the new media council and the prosecutor general to terms of nine years in office.

“The essence of the press is to be able to give free opinions. From now on the press will be under constant pressure,” said Zoltan Kovacs, editor-in-chief of the political and literary weekly ES, which will publish a blank front page tomorrow.

Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said the reforms were “not in compliance with OSCE standards”. “Laws like this have only been known in totalitarian regimes where governments are restricting free speech,” she said.