Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

HUNGARY: Media Struggles to Find a Free Voice

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Feb 22 2011 (IPS) - EU pressure may force Hungary to step back on some provision of its controversial media law, but its main goal has been achieved before it even took effect: media are intimidated.

On December 21, just a few hours after Parliament approving a law which would allegedly protect the public from offensive material and partial news coverage, close to a million listeners tuned into Kossuth radio to listen to the popular news programme “180 minutes”.

As with many other media outlets, Kossuth radio also saw a change in ownership shortly after Fidesz’s stunning electoral performance last year, in which the conservative party won over two-thirds of parliamentary seats.

Still, many listeners eagerly awaited the prestigious radio programme’s reaction to the yet unenforced law. What followed was a minute of total silence, a “symbolic act to make people reflect,” Attila Mong, who was promptly suspended, told IPS.

The young journalist was the first and most visible victim of the media law which was widely criticized by international media, organizations and the European Union, leading to strong pressure on Budapest to modify some controversial provisions.

In response to a critical letter by the European Commission, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who happens to chair the EU rotating presidency since January, has accepted to make modifications to the law, claiming these would be of a “technical nature” and that criticism against his law had been “ridiculous”.

The commission has asked Hungary to specify its criteria for media registration requirements and for “balanced coverage” from bloggers, while it has requested it to modify provisions which allow Hungary to fine media outlets based in other EU member states.

Yet none of this will help Mong, who now awaits the results of a disciplinary procedure initiated by the radio’s management against him.

While the journalist expected something close to a verbal reprimand, he now stands accused “of violating the labour law, because I allegedly expressed a political opinion in an unsuitable context,” he told IPS.

The Mong case has been seen by Hungarian journalists as a poisoned appetizer of what is to come when the law is enforced and the new Media council, staffed exclusively by sympathizers of the governing Fidesz and given almost judicial powers, will begin supervising Hungarian media.

Defenders of the law point to the decadence of Hungarian journalism, with news reports increasingly dealing with petty criminality and gratuitous violence, and to the rise of Internet news portals connected to the anti-Gypsy and anti-Semitic extreme-right.

But most observers believe Orbán and his party are more worried about criticism from the left than with the admittedly growing strength of the extreme right, whose main representative Jobbik obtained 17 percent of the vote in the last election.

In view of the weakness of the Hungarian journalist class, many are sure that Fidesz will achieve what it is striving for.

“Journalism is badly paid in Hungary and most of the older, most prestigious professionals who would not stand for what is now happening have turned to the business sector long ago,” János Horvát, president of the Centre for Independent Journalism told IPS.

Horvát belongs to the class of prestigious journalists who have abandoned the profession. His career started in the 1970s, when he took advantage of the increasing opening of the Hungarian communist regime to challenge many of the journalistic taboos of the time.

But in spite of present democracy, the climate is now one of regression. “Newspapers will rather hire younger, badly paid journalists who are easier to manipulate, as there is a lot of pressure from both business and politicians on the media,” he says.

The result is self-censorship, an old habit still promoted by authorities. Upon being named head of the Hungarian state news agency MTI last year, Csaba Belénessy did not shy away from claiming that “public service should be faithful to the government, and fair to the opposition.”

Mong is also witness to the growing self-censorship that surrounds him: “I did not receive one show of solidarity, not even from the journalists’ union. People are afraid of losing their jobs and newspapers fear hefty fines. The only support I got was in private.”

All this is happening in a context of general societal indifference. While a recent poll shows that 51 percent of Hungarians find the media law unacceptable and 35 percent are supportive, Hungarians are hard to mobilize on issues which concern mostly the intelligentsia of their capital Budapest.

In spite of a few protests that gathered five to ten thousand people in Budapest, Hungarians are generally more concerned with their fragile economic situation.

“Most Hungarians want, above all, a better life, and I respect that for them freedom of speech comes second,” Mong told IPS. “Still, I did what I did because I don’t want a young journalist to ask me in ten years time: Why didn’t you do anything back then?”

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