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Critics say proposed Hungarian media reform stifles press freedom

Twenty years after its first post-Cold War democratic elections, Hungary's government has proposed new media laws that critics say puts the country's press freedom once again under threat.

Camera with red circle and strike through it

A new state 'media council' would supervise the press

Proposed legislation in Hungary to reform the country's media has drawn critcism from journalists and opposition politicians, saying it would return the former Soviet satellite to the days of repression of press freedom.

Opponents of the ruling conservative Fidesz party say it is using its two-thirds parliamentary majority to rush through the package that would put key media outlets under government supervision.

Among the most controversial plans is a government-backed "media council" to supervise public media, including national broadcasters and Hungarian news agency MTI. It involves merging the national telecommunications authority and the country's media watchdog.

The media council would have a nine-year mandate and its leader is to be appointed by the prime minister - which has Hungarian media and opposition politicians up in arms.

Rare audience

Hungarian parliament

Media representatives met with parliament to discuss the law

It isn't often that journalists are invited to Hungary's neo-gothic parliament building to express their frustration about policy proposals.

On Wednesday, representatives of print, online and broadcasting media assembled for a rare audience with parliament's cultural and press committee.

Yet Pal Eotvos, who leads the Association of Hungarian Journalists, wasn't hopeful the meeting would help win his media battle.

"Regarding the regulations on the operation of public media, the main question is whether the parliamentary majority will have the self-restraint to acknowledge the opinions of others - those outside their sphere of influence," he told a reporter.

'Party media'

Eotvos isn't the only frustrated Hungarian. Among the most vocal politicians opposing the media law is Ildiko Lendvai, who heads the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

"The purpose of this law is to change the public media into the party media," she said.

That's not something the Socialists want. They emerged from the communist party that ruled Hungary for decades and controlled the media. Now, a self-declared mainstream leftist party, the MSZP blames Fidesz for acting like communists, suggested Lendvai.

"Through the years, Fidesz already set a precedent in this regard," she added. "They buy (influence) in the media, and where they can not, they introduce legislation to increase their power over the media."

MSZP president Lendavi Ildiko and Attila Mesterhazy

Ildiko, right, and deputy Attila Mesterhazy oppose the law

Yet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban isn't worried about the controversy. He seemed irritated, when asked about the legislation on an early morning television show.

"Look, public media is the task of the government," he said. "The government must support public media, as they have specific (cultural and political) tasks which commercial stations cannot fulfill."

Orban said he noticed a similar development in Germany, France and Britain, which he described as "Europe's most liberal country."

Balanced reporting

Orban's administration argues that Hungary's current system for regulating public media is widely flawed.

Several efforts have been made by previous governments to update a 1996 law, which critics claim created a large, fragmented and bureaucratic oversight.

But opposition parliamentarians and journalists argue that the supervising structure proposed under the new legislation doesn't represent the interests of Hungarians with different political, cultural and social backgrounds.

They are also concerned about a planned "media constitution" included in the media legislation, which they suggest read like a party manifesto from the old Cold War days.

It forces all media, including news websites, to guarantee "balanced reporting" and the mandatory supply of information deemed necessary for society. And if officials don't like what they read, see or hear, they have the right to react.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Prime Minister Orban said media supervision 'task of the government'

Papers sell

Ironically, the proposed media law helps to fill pages of Hungarian news papers sold at shopping center Budagyongye - the "Pearl of Buda" - in the hilly Buda side of Budapest.

Salesman Sandor Bodacz, who prefers to read about sports rather than politics, said he thought the government's intentions were good.

"I don't think (the law) will limit freedom of the media as we already have so much press freedom in this country," Bodacz said. "If there will indeed be censorship, we will find out later."

Amid mounting pressure, the Fidesz party has postponed until autumn a parliamentary vote on key aspects of the law, and it also agreed to an amendment to the constitution.

In addition to the constitutional right to "free speech," Hungarians will enjoy the right to "freedom of opinion."

Author: Stefan J. Bos, Budapest (acb)
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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