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BUDAPEST, Jan 14 2011 (IPS) - Following the approval of a restrictive media law that led to widespread domestic and international condemnation, Hungarian society is trying to come to terms with the broader consequences of the country’s alleged descent into authoritarianism.
Hungary’s conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán approved a controversial media law last December, making the most of the two-thirds constitutional majority he gained in last year’s parliamentary election.
Supporters of the new legislation claim it will protect the public from content offensive to national, religious or ethnic minorities and from partial news coverage.
The government also created an all-powerful Media Council in charge of monitoring the media’s application of the law, and has authorised it to impose hefty fines which could potentially force dissenting media to shut down.
The Council will be staffed exclusively with sympathizers of Fidesz, the party led by Orbán, causing fears that the law will be used to restrict freedom of speech and attack the non-aligned press.
The move was closely observed by Europe as Hungary took over the EU (European Union) presidency Jan. 1, with various Western European countries making harsh criticism of the law and asking if Hungary was fit to preside over the EU Council.
In Hungary confusion prevails as media outlets make contradictory assessments of the law and most of the public remains apathetic.
Supporters of the law accuse the domestic opposition of causing panic in Europe, while its opponents warn Hungary is descending into authoritarianism.
“I am prepared to accept that any regulation will be contested by journalists, but we were surprised by the ferocity of the attacks,” György Ocskó, international spokesperson of the Hungarian Media Council said in a public discussion last Wednesday.
The discussion on ‘Is Freedom of Speech Threatened in Hungary’ was held at the Common Sense Society in Budapest and was joined by journalists, academics and representatives of the Hungarian state.
Ocskó defended the law against the mostly critical voices at the event: “Hungary is still a parliamentary democracy and has all the necessary checks, the law will be scrutinized by the Constitutional Court, which is an independent body, and all our decisions can be contested.”
Ocsko was reacting to information circulated in the international press, assuring the public that fines can be judicially contested and paid only after litigation. He also denied journalists could be forced to reveal their sources by anyone other than the police or the judiciary.
But Ocsko was unable to provide satisfactory answers as to why the law was passed without consulting stakeholders and his Council staffed exclusively with Fidesz supporters.
“This law is said to protect the public interest, but nobody in the public asked the Council to legislate,” said Mihály Gálik, professor of media studies at Budapest’s Corvinus University. “No public consultation took place. This is the worst approach, secretly legislating on the media is a contradiction in terms.
“There is one regulatory agency accumulating excessive power and this goes against the principle of checks and balances,” said Gálik. “The media council has too much power to interfere with the day-to-day activities of the media. It takes over powers from the judiciary.”
Even members of the once faithful right-wing press expressed similar criticism: “I’m not surprised by the hysteric reaction of the public and the international community. The regulation was made quickly, it was passed without any public discussion and a media council full of Fidesz people was elected,” András Stumpf from the conservative weekly Heti Válasz told participants.
Still, the journalist argued the problem was not the law itself: “After reading the law, I looked in the mirror but I didn’t see a scared man. I don’t think freedom of speech is in danger. Indeed the government might be able to control the media, but not because of this law. The previous law also had regulations on fairness and impartiality, so formally there is no problem with it, but in real life it might be different.”
Speaking to IPS, Stumpf called the law “idiotic” and “unnecessary”, but explained that the real potential problem lies in the enormous power Fidesz accumulates, of which the media law is just a small part.
“The danger for opponents of the law is not the law itself, but the fact that Fidesz has a two-third majority and may want to control every corner of the country. But that is a different question.”
Stumpf admitted the law contains worrying elements, such as the council’s rights to check the computers of newspaper redactions and to access their business secrets. “If they do that, I will write about it and all of Europe will be able to find out,” he told IPS.
But Europe should not only look at Hungary, Andris Mellakauls, from the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on the Media and New Communication Services told participants.
“Freedom of expression is in danger all around Europe,” he noted. “Just look at the questionable libel laws and misuse of anti-terrorism legislation in the U.K. or at the French minister of Industry asking French Internet providers to block Wikileaks.”
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