Hungary restates defence of new tax and media laws

 

HUNGARY’S ROTATING presidency of the EU has started in disarray as the government of prime minister Viktor Orban rebuts mounting European criticism of stringent new media laws and defends a “crisis” tax on business.

Mr Orban’s centre-right administration took over the union’s rotating presidency from Belgium on New Year’s Day and he will preside tomorrow over an official opening ceremony in Budapest.

While the role of the rotating presidency has diminished since Herman Van Rompuy took charge of the European Council a year ago, Hungary will chair monthly meetings of EU ministers for six months.

As Mr Orban’s ministers face into the difficult task of recasting Europe’s tarnished economic rulebook, the opening days of their EU mandate have been marred by a barrage of international complaints over their own domestic policies.

France became the latest country to call for elements of a new media law to be repealed as a spokesman for president Nicolas Sarkozy argued on national radio they were “incompatible” with the notion of press freedom.

The law, which prohibits the violation of “human dignity” by the press, has prompted a hostile response outside Hungary as it includes powers to impose fines of up to 200 million forint (€724,000) on media deemed to have breached the law. Budapest has insisted the criticism is misinformed.

The French rebuke followed similar public criticism from Germany, Luxembourg and Britain, but Hungary issued a 6,000-word defence of the law in which it said it had been subjected to “false accusations” and “distortions of actual facts”.

Budapest adopted a similar defensive tone over temporary “crisis” taxes on the telecoms, retail and energy sectors, denying in strong terms the measures discriminated against foreign investors.

However, dispute over these policies are likely to surface on Friday when the European Commission meets in Budapest with Mr Orban’s government. The EU’s executive arm is to investigate whether the tax measures violate anti-discrimination laws and it has already questioned the independence of a new media regulatory authority.

Despite unwelcome attention from Brussels and suggestions from Luxembourg that Hungary may be unsuitable for the presidency, a spokesman for the Hungarian presidency said there was no disruption. “We are striving for a competent presidency,” he said.

“What we have always said is that we don’t try to put Hungarian issues on the table. You should judge the presidency on the first of July based on what the presidency has achieved.” In a defence of the media law titled Beliefs and Misbeliefs, Hungary said many elements of the legislation mirrored similar provisions in other European countries, Ireland among them.

“The Act is not about censorship, preliminary restriction of the press, suppressing political views, or posterior sanctions that would ruin the press,” it said.

However, the law gives Hungary’s new media regulator the power to compel journalists to reveal sources in the interest of “public order” and “national security”.

A spokesman for Mr Sarkozy said the law “profoundly alters” press freedom and was not compatible with principles enshrined in the EU treaties. Hungarian state secretary for EU affairs Eniko Gyori has rejected complaints from German and Austrian firms that foreign groups are being targeted by the “crisis” tax, which is designed to raise some €1.8 billion over three years.