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Europe

Hungary ready to alter media law: Barroso

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared his readiness to change the country's controversial media law, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at a meeting between the two on Friday in Budapest.

Man reads Hungarian newspaper

Hungary's new media law was said to threaten press freedom

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said he is ready to alter his country's controversial new media law, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after meeting Orban in Budapest Friday. Orban said he would change the law if the European Commission demanded it.

"We have discussed the issue very openly," Barroso told reporters after the talks. "I am glad the prime minister is prepared to change the law if necessary."

Orban said Hungary would do all it could to prevent "adverse political debate" over the issue from hampering the success of its EU presidency.

The controversial law came into effect on January 1, the same day as Hungary took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. It gives a government body new authority to impose heavy fines on media organizations for content deemed offensive or imbalanced.

The law is currently under review by the European Commission for possible violation of EU regulations.

Tough start

Demonstration against Hungarian media law

The media law has prompted protests from Hungarians and foreigners

Barroso's visit came a day after Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme officially handed over the European Union's rotating presidency to Orban, who admitted that the presidency is having a difficult start.

"I agree this is a bad start, who would want to start like this?" he told foreign reporters in Budapest on Thursday.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called on Barroso to pressure Hungary to change the media law, saying the credibility of the EU was at stake.

"The European Commission has to help assert press freedom and freedom of speech," he told German daily Die Welt Friday. "It is obvious that the Hungarian media law contravenes basic democratic rules, especially Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union."

Watchdog groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Amnesty International have also criticized the new law, saying it could impede freedom of the press and create self-censorship among new organizations afraid of criticizing the government.

Fellow EU countries like Germany and France joined in the condemnation of the law, prompting Orban to go on the defensive.

"I consider it too hasty and unnecessary the way the French and German governments have reacted in this debate," he said, claiming that other EU member states had similar language in their media laws.

Hungarian passport

Hungarian law now gives Hungarians abroad the right to citizenship

However, on Friday Orban modified his tone. "We will follow closely the implementation of the law, and if we see any of the criticisms of it come true, we will remedy it," he said.

Citizenship and taxes

Hungary has also taken flack for recent liberalization of nationality laws, giving the some 3 million ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries the right to Hungarian citizenship. Orban has stated his intention to also give those citizens the right to vote in Hungarian elections.

The move outraged Slovakia, which promptly amended its own law to strip ethnic Hungarians who nationalize as Hungarian of their Slovakian citizenship.

On top of the media and citizenship laws, new crisis taxes meant to balance the struggling budget have gained the ire of several foreign companies.

The taxes single out retail, energy and telecommunications companies and banks, many of which are foreign-based multinationals.

Some 13 leading European firms, including Dutch financial group ING and German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom, signed a letter to Barroso last week urging the European Commission to pressure Budapest to abandon the "unjust" financial measures.

Vicktor Orban

Orban has deflected foreign criticism of his style of governing with cynicism

In the spotlight

The start of any EU presidency, which rotates around the 27 member states every six months, typically puts the incoming administration in the international spotlight. But Hungary has faced particularly tough scrutiny.

When asked what he thought of people comparing his nationalistic style of governing to strongman Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Orban thought back cynically to his last term in office.

"From 1998 to 2002, the Western press said I was reminiscent of Hitler and Il Duce [Benito Mussolini]," he said. "Now they compare me with Putin and the Belarusian president. I will leave it up to you to decide if it is progress or not."

Author: Andrew Bowen, Joanna Impey (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner

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