Despite unanimous opposition from leading media freedom organizations, the Hungarian parliament has adopted a controversial law overhauling the state-owned media and creating a Media Council with utterly disproportionate powers. The law was passed by an overwhelming majority of votes (256 to 87) on 21 December.
Appointed directly by the government, the Media Council’s five members will not only have a right of oversight but also the authority to impose heavy fines (of up to 700,000 euros for a TV station and 89,000 euros for an online publication) for content that is “not politically balanced” or “violates human dignity.”
The council can also punish offences against religion and the nation, while journalists can be forced to reveal their sources when national security is involved. Although the government intends to ensure “fair balance” in the media, it has not respected this principle in its choice of Media Council members, who all belong to the ruling Fidesz party. The council is supposed to enforce “balance” but it will have no opposition representatives.
“Our organization, a 2005 Sakharov Prize laureate, urges the European Parliament’s president and bureau to make discussion of this law an emergency item on the next plenary session’s agenda,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“We hope that a debate will take place and that a resolution will be adopted condemning this law and asking the Hungarian government and parliament to do what is necessary to prevent its implementation. The European parliament must use all possible influence to ensure that this law is completely revised in consultation with journalists’ organizations.
“The European Commission and the European Council’s president must end their silence on this issue and must insist that the Hungarian government prevent this law, which is incompatible with democratic standards, from coming into force. It is the job of the commission and the council to ensure implementation of treaties that guarantee equal rights for all European citizens. This media law strips Hungarian citizens of the legitimate and fundamental freedom to receive and impart news and information.
“The concept of ‘correct news balance’ introduced by this law has no place in the vocabulary of a European Union member country. It is clearly always possible to debate or question the professional ethics of news media but any attempt to legislate on media ethics in such a vague way and disregarding the principles enshrined in the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights is completely unacceptable.
“The credibility of Hungary’s EU presidency has clearly been undermined. How can a country aspire to hold human rights dialogues on behalf of the EU with countries such as Russia and China when it adopts such legislation? Hungary has made EU enlargement and relations with neighbouring states one of its priorities. But how can it demand decisive initiatives as regards respect for media freedom from candidate countries in the Balkans when it introduces a system that the European Union would rightly condemn if one of its neighbours adopted it ?”