Hungary feels heat over media Bill ahead of EU presidency

 

HUNGARY IS under close international scrutiny over a controversial new media law as it prepares to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union next month.

The Hungarian parliament – where the ruling conservative government holds a two-thirds majority – voted overwhelmingly in favour of new legislation that supporters claim will update media rules for the internet age and ensure fair coverage.

But its many critics at home and abroad say the law will give the government unprecedented control over all media outlets, and warn that the threat of potentially massive fines for breaching the regulations will have a chilling effect on Hungary’s cash-strapped press.

“The plans clearly violate the spirit and the letter of EU treaties.

“It raises the question whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU,” said Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn.

“It’s a direct danger for democracy. The state will control opinion.” Germany said yesterday it was closely watching Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party has this year used its crushing parliamentary majority to tinker with the constitution, strip powers from the constitutional court and dissolve an independent budget council that monitored state spending.

“Holding the coming EU presidency, Hungary of course has a special responsibility for the image of the European Union in the world,” said German government spokesman Christoph Steegmans.

Mr Steegmans declined to say whether Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, about her concerns, but did refer to what he called a “critical statement” on the law from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s media freedom representative, said the law could “silence critical media and public debate” in Hungary. “The law regulates all media content – broadcast, print and online – based on identical principles, which runs against OSCE standards on free media.

“It also gives unusually broad powers to the recently established media authority and media council, which are led exclusively by members supported by the governing party,” she added. “Such concentration of power in regulatory authorities is unprecedented in European democracies, and it harms media freedom.”

The media council could impose fines of up to €90,000 on print and internet media and more than €700,000 on radio and television broadcasters, and could force journalists to reveal their sources in cases that are deemed to involve national security or public safety.