Hungary’s conservative government stirred international outrage when tough media regulations went into effect January 1, the same day the country assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union. The laws transferred all assets of public service media—three television stations, three radio stations, and one national news service—to a state fund, installed new directors appointed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to run them, imposed the same content regulations on all media, outlined sanctions and fines for violating the regulations, and gave a new National Media and Infocommunications Authority power to shut outlets down.

In December, Amy Brouillette spoke to human rights lawyer Éva Simon of the Budapest-based Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), which has petitioned the country’s top court to strike provisions of the legislation it argues violate Hungary’s constitutional guarantee of free press, European laws, and clash with basic principles of free media. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Hungary’s new legislation is the most radical change to the country’s media system since 1989. It was fast-tracked through Parliament in less than six months with little opposition or debate. Suddenly a democratic country is facing the loss of press freedom. How did this happen so quickly?

Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, so at present there is no resistance to its policies. Hungary’s Freedom of Information laws require governments to make bills available to the public before voting on them. The government has avoided this obligation by using a parliamentary procedure that lets individual MPs submit legislation in order to rush bills through Parliament without review or input from media experts, civil society groups, or the public.

What parts of the law is TASZ challenging?

The content regulations and specifically the obligations that the media inform the public of events important to the “Hungarian nation,” and offer “balanced news” that serves the “public interest,” does not infringe on “public morality,” violate “public order,” or offend the “minority,” the “majority,” or “church or religious groups.” No one has any idea what any of this means or how authorities will interpret it. It seems this would discourage or even eliminate critical journalism.

We’re also challenging new rules on source protection. Journalists must reveal their sources if they report anything relating to vaguely defined issues of crime prevention, public order, or national security, at the demand of the Media Authority and without a court order. This essentially eliminates investigative journalism in Hungary. We believe this undermines the media’s most critical watchdog role and could have a ‘chilling effect’ on the press.

But how are those provisions unconstitutional?

There are already provisions in the criminal code that regulate media content—hate speech, for instance. There are also provisions dealing with defamation and breaches of privacy. So from the constitutional law perspective, these new regulations put an undue burden on the press, and violate the freedom of expression rights guaranteed by Article 61 of the constitution.

What types of media does this effect?

This law imposes the same content regulations on all media—print, online, broadcast—which is unprecedented for Hungary. And it’s is not in line with modern media-regulation standards, which use different regulatory standards for different media.

So blogs are now regulated, too?

Yes, the law extends to online news portals and blogs that either “inform, entertain, or educate,” have any kind of advertising content and have an editor. So basically a blog with a Google ad falls under the new definition of the “press” and can be fined and shut down for publishing content deemed offensive to public morals, for instance, at the media authority’s discretion. This goes against the most fundamental notion of press independence. The government should not have the power to determine what is news.

By the “government” do you mean the new Media Authority?

Yes, which is run by members who were selected by and are directly connected with the government. So a former Fidesz party member heads the Media Authority, and she now decides whether any kind of media—online, blogs, print, radio, television—meet these content requirements. If a radio station that plays music but also runs 10 minutes of news every four hours, or a web-based video service or a professional blog offends “public morality,” they can now be sanctioned and fined under the law.

With a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Orbán says he is acting on the “will of people.” And so far, there has been little public outcry over the media law. Does this matter?

Amy Brouillette is a Budapest-based journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post, and a number of other publications. She is holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is currently a research fellow at the Center for Media and Communication Studies at Central European University in Budapest.