On January 1, 2011, the day Hungary assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union, a restrictive new media law came into force. The law created a National Media and Infocommunications Authority--staffed with appointees of the ruling Fidesz party--that was given vast powers to regulate news media. The law established heavy fines for violations such as carrying "imbalanced news coverage" or running content that violates "public morality." The law applied to all news media, reaching beyond national borders to foreign outlets "aimed at the territory of Hungary." The measure triggered protests in Hungary and throughout Europe, where it was seen as violating the Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty. Hungarian lawmakers agreed to minor changes in response to pressure from the European Commission. In December, the country's Constitutional Court struck down a provision that would have obliged journalists to reveal confidential sources. The court also exempted print media from the law as of May 2012, although it left intact most other anti-press provisions. The domestic media scene reflected deep polarization between supporters and adversaries of the center-right Fidesz. Political pressures were rife in public broadcasting: In July, 570 employees of the four state-run media companies were dismissed, representing about 16 percent of the workforce. Authorities reassigned the broadcast frequency of the largest opposition radio station, Klubradio, to an entertainment broadcaster in December, citing a higher bid.
In March 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Hungary's new media law. This indictment of a member state was followed by another resolution, in July, that criticized Hungary's new constitution.
Parliament amended the law to placate the European Commission, but its changes were nominal, exempting bloggers from a balanced reporting requirement and softening registration rules. More substantively, the Hungarian Constitutional Court struck down a provision that would have eliminated legal protection for confidential sources.
Media law timeline:
December 21, 2010: The Hungarian Parliament adopted the media law. Opposition and civil society groups were excluded from the debate.
January 1, 2011: The law took effect.
January 7: The European Commission met with Hungarian officials to seek clarifications and ensure the law respected EU legislation.
March 7: Hungary made cosmetic changes to appease critics.
March 10: The European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding substantive changes to the law.
October 23: In Budapest, thousands demonstrated in defense of press freedom.
December 20: The Constitutional Court declared portions of the law unconstitutional, but left content restrictions and hefty fines intact.
The media law set very high fines. Outlets with “significant power of influence,” such as national television channels, could face penalties of up to 200 million forints (US$886,000).
Maximum fines for other types of media:
National dailies: 25 million forints (US$110,000)
Internet news portals: 25 million forints
Weekly and monthly publications: 10 million forints (US$44,000)
Online use has increased at only a modest rate, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU.
Do you believe the free flow of information must be protected? Sign the #RightToReport petition and demand that President Obama immediately:
1. Issue a presidential policy directive prohibiting the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations.
2. Limit aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers.
3. Prevent the harassment of journalists at the U.S. border.
Or click here to see the full petition, and join leading journalists like Christiane Amanpour, The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the AP Kathleen Carroll, and Arianna Huffington in signing on.