The newish right-wing government in Hungary is proving a real headache. Clearly not content with gaining two thirds of the vote (enough to guarantee constitutional change) in last April’s general election, the ruling Hungarian Civic Alliance or Fidesz Party now appears to be severely overreaching itself.
Like eastern European governments before, the current Hungarian administration under Viktor Orban is casting a distrustful eye over the country’s media and as a result the Hungarian Parliament has recently passed new media legislation.
However, this legislation appears far from benign. MEPs and other European organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have made representations along the following lines:
The new legislation undermines media pluralism in that the Hungarian Media Authority and Media Council, which are essentially part of the state apparatus, can sanction the content of all media
The Media Authority and Media Council are politically homogenous, led exclusively by members supported by the current governing party and the members were elected for a term of nine years
The legislation abolishes the political and financial independence of public service media as all heads of public service media were recently replaced by new directors all of whom were nominated by the governing party
These media laws can only be modified by a two-thirds majority on the Hungarian Parliament. In other words the media legislation could be on the statute books for a very long time.
The EU, which has competence over aspects of media policy through the Culture and Education Committee and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes is rightly concerned about what is going on in relation to the media in Hungary.
A joint meeting of the Culture and Education and Civil Liberties Committees yesterday debated Hungary’s new media law after hearing presentations from Mrs. Kroes and Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice Tibor Navracsics, who was questioned closely on the aspects of the legislation which require all media to register as such and provide “balanced” coverage of national and EU events.
Mrs. Kroes rightly chose a conciliatory approach saying, “We are looking very carefully at the provisions and will make a legal assessment of the law. We have been in contact with the Hungarian government in order to raise specific concerns”. She added that the Commission is assessing the new law’s compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority.
Following a press conference this morning led by S&D Group President Martin Schulz, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has decided to wait for the Commission’s legal assessment before taking any further substantive action.
Although I believe both the Commission and the S&D Group are doing the right thing, there are clearly serious concerns about the way the Hungarian Government appears to be going after the media and seeking to diminish press and media freedom. If there is a case to answer the European Union must not shirk its responsibilities.