Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Hungary refuses to budge as EU condemns media crackdown

Hungary has come out swinging in defence of its new media law which critics say curtails press freedom and seeks to stifle dissent. The country's new combative conservative prime minister Victor Orban delivered an icy rebuke today to the European Parliament assembled in Strasbourg, following two weeks in which MEPs and national governments have been strongly critical of the new law.

Even before he started his address, several MEPs covered their mouths with gags and held large banners that read 'censorship'. But Orban warned the assembled EU lawmakers that they were insulting the Hungarian people. "We lived under a dictatorship for 40 years," he chided. "I will not stand for you contesting the democratic aspirations of Hungarians."

Orban has maintained that the media law contains similar measures to what has technically existed (but has not been enforced) in many Western European countries for decades. He says the liberal media laws set up as the country transitioned to democracy after the collapse of communism were far too loose, allowing the press to say anything they want with impugnity. His new government has had to take action to rectify the problem, he says.

The new media law took effect at the start of this year, just four months after Orban's centre-right party won a huge election victory and swept the governing socialists out of power. The law will create a new agency called the "media council" that will monitor news reports for "balance" and "human dignity". Offending news outlets who are found to have not been "balanced" would face large fines and possible deaccreditation in the country. The law would require all journalists, even video bloggers, to be accredited by the state.

The European Commission has expressed concern that the law may violate EU directives or principles, with Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes being the most vocal in her concern. Speaking to the European Parliament on Monday she said the law appears to raise a problem under the bloc's broadcasting rules. In particular, she said the fact that the law appears to apply to media from other EU member states in their coverage of Hungary would be against EU laws which specify media outlets are only subject to the laws of their home country.

Kroes said she is also concerned about the vague definition of "balanced" news. Such language is especially striking in Europe, where there is not the same obsession with journalistic neutrality as exists in America. Most newspapers have an identified left or right slant, and the public understands and appreciates that. The same is true in Hungary, and the centre-left papers are concerned that the laws requirement for "balance" actually means trying to shift their coverage to the right. They are concerned Orban's idea of balance might be the same as Rupert Murdoch's.

London, Paris and Berlin have all sharply criticised the new rules and said Hungary should scrap the legislation. The United States as also weighed in, with the US Assistant Secretary of State calling on Hungary this week to take the international debate seriously.

The situation is being made all the more difficult for Hungary – and the EU as a whole – because the country has just taken over the bloc's rotating presidency. The controversy is not only overshadowing the presidency itself, it is putting in serious jeapordy Hungary's ability to act as a mediator over the next six months. The presidency country is supposed to facilitate deal-making and consensus, and with many capitals of Europe furious or suspicious of the new regime in Budapest, this will be a difficult task.

Given that the next six months will be crucial to prevent a collapse of the eurozone, the timing of the introduction of this law seems quite unfortunate. It seems perplexing why Orban would choose to usher in this law right at the start of Hungary's presidency, when it was guaranteed to get the most attention and the most criticism. Perhaps his administration really had no idea that the provisions in this law were going to be controversial. The only explanations for the timing of this law are that Orban's administration is either extremely naïve or extremely belligerent. Neither bodes well for the potential of the Hungarian presidency to navigate the EU through the next six months of crisis.


Anonymous said...

I was there in the chamber yesterday and it was clear that this was a very politically-motivated issue. The condemnation came almost exclusively from the left parties, while the EPP was defending Orban. The Hungarian Socialist MEPs very much want to exploit this as a political issue.

Lars said...

This law is shameful, I can't believe an EU country would enact something like this in 2010. What is happening these days? The commission will lose all credibility if they do not strongly condemn this and make Hungary change the law. How can the EU critisise the lack of press freedom in countries like Belarus or Burma while they tolerate these restrictions within their own borders???