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Muzzled media?

December 22, 2010

Chancellor Angela Merkel and prominent EU lawmakers are asking whether the right-wing Hungarian government's new media law impinges on press freedom. Hungary assumes the rotating EU presidency on January 1.

Protestors carrying white boards to represent blank newspapers
The law's passage was accompanied by protestsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Hungary that a controversial new law to control media reporting must adhere to European Union values on freedom of the press.

The chancellor was eager to ensure that the law passed by the Hungarian government did not violate European principles on the rule of law, said Merkel’s deputy spokesman Christoph Steegmans.

Chancellor Angela Merkel
Merkel said the law must not transgress European principlesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Steegmans stressed that such compliance was particularly necessary at present, with Hungary preparing to take up the rotating presidency of the EU in January.

"As a future president of the European Union, Hungary naturally has a special responsibility for the image of the European Union as a whole," he said.

Under plans approved by Hungary's parliament on Monday, a national media authority will oversee public news production and be able to impose sizeable fines on private media that break rules on political reporting.

Representatives voice concern

EU parliamentarians also expressed concern about the Hungarian government's strict new media legislation.

"We shall measure Hungary against the European standards of press freedom precisely," said Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament.

Schulz told the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau that, should those standards not be met, Budapest would face "big problems."

Alexander Alvaro, who represents Germany's Free Democrats (FDP) in Brussels, called it "extremely dubious" that an EU presidency-designate wanted to "silence critical media in their own country."

Martin Schulz
Germany's Martin Schulz heads the European Parliament's second biggest blocImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"The Hungarian government must ask itself if it is absolutely committed to the European Union venture, endorses its values and can assume the EU presidency next week," Alvaro said.

Press under wraps

The Hungarian government has said the legislation is in line with that of other EU countries. It said the law was long overdue, and necessary because of changes in technology and news content.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that regulating online media was technologically impossible and would damage freedom of expression.

"Such concentration of power in regulatory authorities is unprecedented in European democracies, and it harms media freedom," the OSCE's media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, said.

Reporters without Borders criticized the new legislation as vague. "Much too much is left open to interpretation, nothing is clear," Olivier Basille from the press freedom watchdog told EUobserver.com. Basille questioned whether Hungary could be a credible representative for the EU.

Three Hungarian newspapers and magazines are arranged with their front-pages published blank
Publications in Hungary have protested the new lawImage: AP

Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, has called for the European Commission, the EU's executive body, to take swift action against the legislation.

"The plans clearly violate the spirit and the letter of EU treaties," Asselborn told news agency Reuters. "It's a direct danger for democracy. The state will control opinion."

Board controlled by ruling party

The law creates a five-member board to oversee both private and state-run media. The body, which will be controlled by the ruling right-wing conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party, will be able to impose heavy fines on the producers of radio, television, online and newspaper content that is deemed "not politically balanced."

Earlier this month Hungarian newspapers and magazines protested against the law by publishing editions with front pages left blank. The legislation will come into force on January 1, the same day Hungary begins its six-month presidency of the European Council.

Author: Thomas Sheldrick, Richard Connor (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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