Hungary expected to approve Bill critics say will muzzle press

 

HUNGARY’S PARLIAMENT was last night debating a controversial Bill that domestic and international critics say would dramatically increase state control over the media and muzzle the press.

The legislation was expected to be approved by parliament, where the conservative government enjoys a two-thirds majority, despite repeated appeals from prominent Hungarian editors and European media watchdogs.

The new law would allow 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 television 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 involved national security or public safety.

“The media authority will be able to control all kinds of media outlets, not only electronic but also the printed press and the internet,” said media law expert Marton Nehez-Posony.

“It does not require a third party complaint to start a procedure, it can do it ex-officio. The press will need to be extremely cautious about what it prints, what it publishes.” 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 save money.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s media representative has compared the law to those imposed by “totalitarian regimes”, and two international publishers’ groups, the ENPA and WANIFRA complained about it in a letter to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban this month.

“We are deeply concerned that this law poses a serious threat to freedom of the press,” the groups wrote.