Letters   |   Hungary

Hungary must repeal repressive new media law

January 10, 2011

Viktor Orban
Prime Minister of Hungary
1357 Budapest, Pf 6th
Hungary

Via e-mail: [email protected]

Dear Prime Minister Orban,

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on you to work toward the immediate repeal of Hungary's new, severely restrictive media law. "On Media Services and Mass Media," better known as the Media Act, was approved by the Hungarian parliament on December 21 and signed by President Pal Schmitt on December 30, despite domestic and international alarm at the potentially devastating effect on press freedom. The measure came into force on January 1, the same day Hungary assumed the rotating European Union presidency, sending the very damaging message that Hungary is seeking to nullify citizens' internationally recognized rights to free expression and access to information.

While Article 3 of the Media Act asserts that "information and opinions may be transmitted freely," nearly all of the measure's 229 pages are devoted to restrictions on free expression and politicized means of enforcing those limits. The measure equates all online information-sharing--including that of personal sites and blogs--with mass media, while establishing cumbersome registration requirements for all.

Under the act, the newly created National Media and Infocommunications Authority has broad authority to regulate all domestic and international media--including print, broadcast, and the Internet--as well as their publishers and service providers. This intricate bureaucracy is endowed with vast powers to interpret and implement the many vaguely worded provisions of the Media Act. Because the authority is to be staffed by parliamentary appointees serving renewable nine-year terms, the Media Act effectively grants Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, the power to control news media.

Multiple articles in the Media Act raise alarm, including its scope. As postulated in Article 1, the many restrictions in the new law apply not only to "media services provided by and media products published by media content providers established in Hungary" but also to content "aimed at [its] territory." This broad provision enables the authority to block domestic access to international media content if it considers the material to be in violation of the Media Act. Not only is the authority empowered to block the content, it can also penalize the content carrier or service provider.

The Media Act is fraught with broad and ambiguous terms that are left to the authority alone to interpret and apply. The measure demands "balanced" coverage from all media, for example, while imposing penalties for content deemed "insulting" to vaguely described "communities," or material considered incompatible with broad ideals such as "human dignity" and "public morality" that are subject to considerable interpretation. The law also requires "unbiased, accurate, thorough, objective, and responsible" news reporting from domestic public service broadcasters.

In case the authority finds a media outlet in violation of the so-called "obligation of balanced communication," the outlet is required to prominently display the authority's decision. The outlet may also be required to publish the plaintiff's response to material deemed unbalanced, with the potential that outlets might be forced to publish an indefinite number of responses. In addition, the outlet could be fined in the amounts determined by Article 187 of the Media Act. According to that article, not only outlets, but also publishers, editors, and service providers found in violation of the Media Act are subject to penalties. Media service providers could be fined up to 200,000,000 forints (US$928,634); newspapers of nationwide circulation 25,000,000 forints (US$116,079); weekly publications 10,000,000 forints (US$46,431); Internet outlets (with the provision broad enough to include individual blogs) 25,000,000 forints (US$116,079); and broadcasters 5,000,000 forints (US$23,215). The Media Act also provides for suspensions of certain programming or content.

Of particular concern is a section of the Media Act titled "providing data," which compels journalists and media outlets to divulge their sources on demand. Article 175 of that section empowers the authority to require "media service providers, publishers of media products, entities providing ancillary media services and broadcasters" to "furnish any and all data indispensible for the authority to perform its duties." This catch-all definition gives the authority broad rights to demand disclosure of sources; media outlet and service providers are subject to a fine of up to 50,000,000 Hungarian forints (US$232,158) for failure to comply.

The authority and its subdivision, the Media Council, are empowered to penalize international media and content providers in the same manner as their domestic counterparts if "the measures are necessary for the protection of public order, the prevention, investigation and prosecution of criminal acts" or "for the protection of minors, public health, public security, national security and consumers and investors."

Granting such broad authority over the flow of information and placing it in the hands of an agency comprised entirely of political appointees threatens media freedom and sets a dangerous precedent. Even more disturbing is that your state is implementing this draconian law the same month it is assuming the position of European Union president. In doing so, Hungary is not only eroding media rights at home, it is compromising them for all EU members.

We were pleased to learn that during your meeting on Friday with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso you expressed Hungary's preparedness to amend the Media Act if an EU review deems it necessary. We urge you to repeal the Media Act and bring all legislation in line with your country's international commitments as a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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