Hungary defends media law against claims it is gagging free speech

HUNGARY began its fightback against claims that its new media law muzzles the media and prevents free speech, saying it is part of a revolution to break its last links with the communist era.

The legislation, described by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) as endangering editorial independence, came into force on January 1, the day the country took over the EU presidency.

It is one of several controversies involving the government of prime minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party that holds an unprecedented two-thirds majority in parliament.

The European Commission has said it is concerned the political nature of the body may be contrary to EU legislation while the Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has requested “more clarity” on the provisions.

Under its provisions, all media, including print, online and broadcast, must be registered with the state and be subject to scrutiny by a five-member body, appointed by the government for nine years. It subjects the media to a range of requirements such as the protection of public order, balanced coverage and providing appropriate information in relation to public affairs. It extends the prohibition on hate speech to cover anything intentional or unintentional written or broadcast about churches and “any community”.

The OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, said concentrating such power in the hands of regulatory authorities was unprecedented in European democracies. “It harms media freedom and risks curbing free public debate and pluralism.”

It fails to define numerous key terms, such as the protection of public order which, if violated, requires journalists to reveal their sources. “In the absence of clearly defined guidelines, it is impossible for journalists to know when they are in breach of the law.”

The media body can impose fines of up to €90,000 on media for breaches and, in the event of repeated offences, take them off the register. Media can appeal to courts.

Communications minister Zoltan Kovaks said Mijatovic’s statement was factually inaccurate on many points, but agreed the five media agency members were all appointed by the government and its chair by the prime minister. Asked why there were no media nominees, he said they could not be asked to judge themselves.

Kovaks justified the new legislation, which has been criticised by several governments and led to protests by the Hungarian media, by saying the old law was unenforceable and allowed invasion of privacy, political bias and disrespect for people. He said since Fidesz took power in May they have been creating a revolution.

“We are changing the country on the run and it is an undertaking that is unparalleled. This revolution is for all Hungarians and is not against anybody.”

The European Commission and President Barroso meet the Hungarian prime minister tomorrow in Budapest to kick off the country’s six-month presidency of the EU.

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