Hungarian Chill

A Q & A with Eva Simon of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union on press freedom
February 23, 2011

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 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 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. A longer version of this interview is here.

What parts of the law are 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 newly created media authority and without a court order. This essentially eliminates investigative journalism in Hungary.

Are the 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. From the constitutional law perspective, these new regulations put an undue burden on the press and violate freedom of expression rights guaranteed by Article 61 of the constitution.

Does the law regulate blogs as well as traditional media?
Yes, the law extends to online news portals that “inform, entertain, or educate,” have any kind of advertising content, and have an editor. A blog with a Google ad falls under the new definition of the “press.”

Fidesz says the legislation is in line with democratic media standards and other EU states. Is this true?
No. The new law is a patchwork of the worst practices in the EU, with extra limits on freedom of the press. It is based on how media worked fifty years ago in Hungary, when there were few media sources. The public no longer relies on a single media source, where if the news were not “balanced” they would be misinformed or misled.

There are some serious problems with free press issues within the EU and other Western democracies. Think about the US Decency Act or the French model, which is totally opposed to net neutrality. Still, there is no precedent within the EU for a single, government-appointed authority with powers to regulate content of all types of media, or to impose fines to Internet, broadcast, and print outlets, and to suspend or shut them down for not paying.

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The EU has come under pressure to act. What power does it have?
When an EU member state puts limits on freedom of expression in ways that clash with EU minimum standard regulations, this can be brought to the European Commission. The EU can also put political pressure on a member state, which is what’s going on now. You can turn to the European Court of Human Rights, the court of the Council of Europe, if there is a case—for instance, if a blogger is fined under the new media law for violating the content regulations, and the case goes through all levels of the Hungarian courts. They can rule that the decision violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression.

Isn’t Hungary bound to comply with EU media standards?
The European Commission can examine whether the law is in line with the EU’s Audiovisial Media Services Directive, which regulates television and on-demand services, and the Electronic Commerce Directive, which regulates ISPs and liability issues, and some competition directives. If the law clashes with an EU directive, they can examine and oblige the member state to modify the law. Basic rights are also protected by Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression and the press.

The government plans to submit a new constitution, which many worry could further weaken the Constitutional Court and Hungary’s balance-of-powers system. What will happen then?
We have no idea. We have been criticizing the constitution re-writing process, as we believe the current constitution ensures the proper functioning democratic system based on respect for human rights and the rule of law for the first time in Hungary’s modern history. My hope is that the court would consider the petition before the new constitution is passed and that it would rule, as it historically has, for freedom of expression.

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.