Hungary: Press freedom is dead, the fight goes on
3 January 2011
January 1st, the day when Hungary took over the EU Presidency, was also marked by the entry into force of new laws restricting press freedom. Criticised throughout Europe, the legislation has also sparked an angry response in the independent national press, this editorial from Népszabadság being a case to point.
Today’s front page makes our position clear: the adoption of the new law on the media has put an end to freedom of the press in Hungary. And lest there be any ambiguity about it, we have said as much in all of the European Union’s 22 official languages. This is the worst news that we have ever reported in the twenty years since this newspaper was founded, which is why we have resorted to today’s unprecedented protest.
Despite all the assertions to the contrary, we believe that the new law on the media will advance the authoritarian agenda of the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition [between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s centre-right party and the Christian Democrats, which has been in power since April 2010] by establishing conditions in which anyone who disagrees with the government can be silenced, punished and in the long term banished from our national media.
From the outset, the supporters of this law have pledged that fines will only be imposed in the most clear-cut and exceptional circumstances. [Under the terms of the law, political commentators can be fined up to five million forints, or 18,000 euros, while newspapers that are deemed to be guilty of repeated violations can be forced to pay up to 25 million forints or 89,700 euros.] Although he has made no definite pledge to this effect, one of Fidesz’s cultural delegates has indicated that no newspaper will be prosecuted for its political opinions and that the purpose of the law has been misunderstood. But if this is the case, why did the government insist on keeping the offending paragraph in the new law? the unprecedented storm of international criticism that has been directed against Hungary would surely have been enough to have it withdrawn.
A state-owned media all too willing to sing the praises of government
As it stands, the five members of the media council, all of whom will be appointed by Fidesz, will be able to cite virtually any pretext for fining a newspaper: because they believe that an article is not objective, because they do not like what has been said about a member of their party, even if it is true. Thereafter, the newspaper can go to court to proclaim its innocence and demand a suspension of the fine. But what will be the criteria retained by the court when it rules on that suspension? We simply do not know. The outcome of this legislation is anybody’s guess. The media council will have the power to impose or to waive sanctions, and in so doing it can simply put a newspaper out of business, while journalists will have to rely on the good faith of this council -- a flimsy safeguard in a country which already had adequate legislation to protect its citizens from abusive reports in the press.
We had no need of a new agency to take charge of procedures of this kind. We had no need for a media ombudsman with draconian powers who is solely answerable to the president of the media council: if he deems it necessary the ombudsman can demand documentary evidence from a newspaper, and if this is not forthcoming, he can impose a fine of up to 50 million forints [the media council can also demand that a newspaper reveal its sources, and has been granted the right to order searches]. Of course, the ombudsman may choose not to initiate procedures or to impose fines. But the question is: why should the law on the media grant him so much latitude, if he is not going to take advantage of these powers? And if he can take advantage of these powers, why would he refrain from doing so? With the introduction of these measures no newspaper will be safe from the threat of unjustified retribution.
Those who wish to portray the reality of life as it is lived in this country must act to defend their rights. We already have a state-owned media all too willing to sing the praises of government. If we were only to report on success in combatting crime, on the introduction of effective safeguards for the pension system, and on the unwavering independence of President Pál Schmitt, we could be confident that this law would not be used against us. But we have no such reassurance, all we have is an unreasoned insistence that the legislation “is fully compliant with European legislation.” We are determined to stand by our committment to truthful reporting, and that is why we have devoted our entire front page to one vitally important news item: there is no more press freedom in Hungary, but that is not to say that the struggle for press freedom is at an end.