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Hungary's media law still unsatisfactory

A Hungarian holds a banner reading 'EU No!' in Budapest on March 15, 2012, during a commemoration of the 1848-1849 Hungarian revolution and independence war. (AFP/Attila Kisbenedek)

The Hungarian press law is again drawing fire from the European Union; the amendments adopted by the Hungarian Parliament on May 24 have not placated Brussels.

In an interview published on June 7 in the Budapest weekly Figyelo, Neelie Kroes, EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda and vice-president of the European Commission, said the recent changes "failed to address the concerns of the EU and of the Council of Europe." The Hungarian media law remains "embarrassing," Kroes added. "It only addresses 11 of 66 recommendations made by the Council of Europe without guaranteeing the independence of the Media Authority or clarifying all ambiguities."

Budapest had been warned. Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, had declared on May 15 in regard to the proposed amendments that more work needed to be done. The chief executive of the Strasbourg-based institution, which acts as the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, was particularly concerned by procedures for the appointment of media regulators. "It is very important that they elect someone seen as independent, not linked to the government," he said.

The media law that came into force in January 2011 established a Media Council appointed by parliament--meaning it would be packed with close allies of the ruling Fidesz party--with members serving a renewable nine-year term.

On May 25 Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative for freedom of the media, although acknowledging some improvements, criticized major provisions that legislators left in place. She mentioned in particular "the ways of nomination and appointment of the president and members of the Media Authority and Media Council and their power over content in the broadcast media, as well as the prospect of very heavy fines that can lead to self-censorship among journalists."

Not only did the Hungarian government not follow most of the EU and the Council of Europe recommendations, but it also introduced new controversial clauses, like exempting the Media Council from concluding contracts for public tender in broadcasting.

The Hungarian government's obdurate attachment to its flawed media law does not occur in a void. It fits into a more general pattern of attacks against fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. According to human rights organizations, the new constitution and other laws have undermined the independence of the judiciary, freedom of religion, women's rights and gay rights. "The deterioration (of the situation in Hungary) over the past five years," Freedom House concluded in its recently released 2012 Nations in Transit report, "has affected institutions that form the bedrock of democratically accountable systems, including independent courts and the media."

The Hungarian attitude is all the more worrying since it is linked to a nationalistic assertion that strives to present Hungary as a victim of history and Europe, at the risk of upsetting the delicate balance achieved by the European Union in its longstanding efforts to appease national tensions and resentments within its own borders. On June 4 the Hungarian government celebrated a national day of mourning for the loss of territories and population after the 1920 Trianon Peace Treaty that followed the end of the First World War. A few days earlier, Hungarian Economy Minister Georgy Matolscy had accused the EU of attempting to create a new "empire." "The centralization of a European Empire, that is to say the further strengthening of Brussels, is contrary to our interests, because it erodes the independence of the Hungarian state," he declared.

In Februrary, Kroes had brandished Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which allows the EU to suspend a member state's voting rights in case of a clear breach of fundamental European values. Since then, Budapest has openly challenged and rebuffed the EU. The clock is ticking. Will Brussels make good on the threat?

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