Judit Bayer says Hungary’s new media law is a serious attack on press freedom
There has been consensus in Hungary that the Media Law from 1996 needed reform. Media legislation requires, however, a two-third parliamentary majority, therefore any amendment, let alone reform was almost impossible in the highly polarised Hungarian political scene. This obstacle was removed after the electoral coalition of Fidesz and KDNP won more than 67 per cent of the votes in Parliament in the 2010 elections.
The legislative process that brought us Hungary’s controversial media law intentionally evaded the legal requirement of public consultation, both before and after the submission of the bill. Pál Schmitt, then Speaker of the Parliament, cooperated with the ruling party by postponing the signing of the bill until the last day possible, when László Sólyom, then President of the Republic, had already left his office, for fear that Sólyom would submit the law to the Constitutional Court.
The law puts all media — including printed press, news sites (and perhaps blogs), television and radio — under a government-run almighty authority. It claims extraterritorial effect, so no medium on Earth (or beyond) is safe from its reach. It has wide investigative powers, severe sanctioning rights and a broad remit, with a Media Commissioner who may investigate even deeds that are not against the law and report them to the Authority.
Content requirements are included in the so-called Media Constitution (2010. CIV.). These include vague categories like the obligation to objective and balanced information, respect human dignity and human rights. If any media outlet — and even blogs may count here — provides content that may potentially hurt any community, or church, or violates any of the other rules of the law, the Authority may impose a fine of up to EUR 722,000 (HUF 200,000,000) for electronic media and up to EUR 90,000 (HUF 25,000,000) for print and online media. After repeated and severe violation of the law, it may also erase an audiovisual media provider from the register.
In order to verify the violations, the authority may access any data, even secrets protected by law, and use this information in any other procedure anytime later. If the information demanded is not provided within the required time in the required format, it may levy a fine up to EUR 180,000 (HUF 50,000,000) to any media outlet, whether print, online, etc. If anyone involved in the procedure — even if only loosely connected to the media outlet against whom the procedure is initiated — shows any behaviour that could potentially hinder the process, he or she may be fined up to EUR 3,600 (HUF 1000,000), or, if it is an organisation, up to EUR 90,000 (HUF 25,000,000).
All decision-making powers, property and income of the public media services (including the state news agency) have been aggregated in the Public Service Fund, which is overseen and managed by the president of the authority. The old public service organisations from now on must operate with just 49 employees each, whereas their staff is subordinated to the fund. Therefore the supervisory structure has become superfluous — the fund itself, however, is under the sole control of the president of the authority.
The president is appointed by the prime minister for a nine-year term and may be reappointed any number of times.
Although governmental influence on media bodies is known in some European countries, in older democracies the political culture guarantees that governments do not misuse such power. In Hungary the rules of the democratic game have not become routine yet –– and they will never, should this law be implemented. While in the past two decades we witnessed covert attempts to influence theoretically neutral public institutions by political interests, , this government is misusing its political power shamelessly in a direct and open manner.
The law is unquestionably a serious attack on press freedom, and contrary to Article 2 of Lisbon Treaty, Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Judit Bayer (PhD) is associate professor of media law at King Sigismund College, Budapest. Her research area is new media content regulation and freedom of expression. She published two books on internet regulation and one on public service television