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EU President Hungary Says It's Prepared To Change Controversial Media Law

  • Daisy Sindelar

"The freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end," read the headline on the January 3 front page of the largest-circulation Hungarian daily "Nepszabadsag," followed by the same sentence in every official language of the 27-member EU.

"The freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end," read the headline on the January 3 front page of the largest-circulation Hungarian daily "Nepszabadsag," followed by the same sentence in every official language of the 27-member EU.

With anger mounting over its controversial media law, new EU president Hungary appears to have bowed to its critics, saying it will change the law if necessary.

Speaking to a select group of foreign journalists in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his government was willing to cooperate if the European Union deemed the law unacceptable in its current form.

"We are part of the EU, and there are rules to the game," Orban told foreign reporters, just hours before a flag-passing ceremony in Brussels formally hands the EU Presidency from Belgium to Hungary.

But he also lashed out at EU member states like France and Germany, who have been critical of the law, saying it was up to the EU, not individual countries, to weigh in on the issue. If Hungary has to change its laws, he said, then those countries should do so as well.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban: "We are part of the EU, and there are rules to the game."
Orban's comments come amid weeks of defiance, in which the Hungarian prime minister remained determined to protect the new law, which was passed in late December and came into effect on January 1.

Defenders of the law, which puts all print, broadcast, and Internet media under the supervision of a powerful state-run media committee, say it's meant to protect "human dignity" and prevent "unbalanced" news coverage.

Government spokeswoman Anna Nagy, speaking January 5, said the law was in keeping with "European trends" and would not prevent Hungary from presiding over a "very successful" EU Presidency.

"If you take a look at the points -- and I hope that the critics of this law will take the time and check the points one by one -- you will find that every element of this media law can be found in the media regulations of [other] European [countries] -- in the Swedish, in the French, or in the British regulations," she said.

But critics say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to muzzle the media and a throwback to Soviet-style state journalism. Orban's Fidesz party, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, was able to pass the law with little political opposition, and nearly everyone who sits on the powerful new media supervisory council is a Fidesz member as well.

The law has sparked an outpouring of anger among Hungarian journalists like Gabor Csabai, a radio station manager, who say the media should be free to operate without government control.

"Naturally, we accept that to some extent [the government] can intervene, in some major cases, into the freedom of the media when the freedom of the state is endangered," Csabai said. "But in all other cases, I say they should keep their hands off."

Widespread Criticism

The international community has also reacted harshly to the new law.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the new legislation violates basic media-freedom standards and has the power to "silence critical media and public debate."

EU heavyweights Germany, Britain, and France have criticized the new legislation, with German Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer saying this week that Hungary should not be allowed to conduct negotiations on media issues with the EU's Eastern Partnership countries, which are struggling with media repressions of their own.

For many in the EU, Hungary's defiance on the issue was all the more disappointing to those who remembered Orban as a staunch anticommunist who had played a critical role in his country's transition into a young but sturdy democracy. Some officials, like the foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, have gone so far as to openly question whether Hungary was worthy of leading the EU.

The European Commission has opened an investigation into the new law. Speaking on January 5, two days before he holds his first formal meetings with Orban, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said officials had made their concerns known and were waiting for a response from Budapest.

"What, of course, I would like to have from the Hungarian authorities is a clarification of the situation and the possible -- let's say lifting -- of the doubts that exist," Barroso said. "And certainly this issue is going to be in my context with Prime Minister Orban the day after tomorrow."

Almut Moeller, an EU expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, says in fact, the EU is limited in what it can do to force a revision of Hungary's media law. In becoming a new member, Hungary agreed to bring its laws into compliance with those of the EU. But the process of reviewing the Hungarian law -- which was only made available in English for the first time this week -- will be an arduous process that isn't likely to be resolved before the end of its presidency.

In stating his willingness to subject the law to EU scrutiny, Moeller says, Orban may simply have hoped to pacify his European critics and return the focus to the six-month presidency ahead -- a gesture the EU itself is likely to support.

"What it shows to me, politically speaking, is that apparently neither the Commission nor the EU presidency -- Hungary -- is interested in further escalating the whole debate about this law which has already proved to be damaging," Moeller says.

"I think this is a step towards saying, 'OK, we agreed to not let this further damage the presidency.'"

New Europe Pushes Back

The Hungarian controversy has been deeply unsettling for the EU, which is unaccustomed to seeing individual members challenge its common principles on democracy and free speech. The uproar has led several observers to call on the EU to codify free-speech benchmarks in order to make clear what Brussels will and will not accept from its members in the future.

But the standoff has also shown the rising influence of the newer members in EU debate. Both Hungary and Poland -- which will assume the presidency starting in June, making 2011 the first full year of New Europe presidencies -- have been actively pushing issues of national interest onto the EU agenda.

In Poland's case, that has meant agitating for greater attention to be paid to its troubled neighbor, Belarus. For Hungary, it has been an opportunity to remind older members that they should be held to the same strict standards by which new and potential members are measured.

As Moeller points out, media laws in Italy -- where many media outlets fall under the control of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- have never been subjected to EU-wide scrutiny the way Hungary currently is.

"It's about the question, to what extent does the European Union ask new countries that want to accede to the European Union -- does the EU ask things from them that they would not ask as a member state once they enter the union? And that is a sensitive issue at the moment," Moeller says.

Among some observers, there is the sense that it is high time to lay the media controversy aside and concentrate on more pressing issues facing the EU as Hungary assumes the presidency. Chief among these are a raft of new economic measures meant to prevent future debt crises like those that consumed Greece and Ireland this year. Hungary has also said it hopes to close EU accession talks with Croatia and focus on issues related to Europe's Roma population.

Despite the evident opposition by the Hungarian media to the new law, some journalists say the country's robust media climate will survive. Jan Mainka, the German publisher of the English-language "Budapest Times" and German-language "Budapester Zeitung," says while the law may ultimately muzzle far-right news outlets and pornographers, it will have little effect on the work of most mainstream media or Hungary's budding Internet.

"I don't think that it will have a huge impact content-wise or that from now on it will be only 'Orban, Orban, great, great.' I don't think so. We have a very critical and well-formed political Internet scene here in Hungary," Mainka says.

"We have really good, tough journalists. I don't think that if the head of that media board tells them to be quiet that they'll go quiet and stop criticizing what needs to be criticized. I know the Hungarians. They're not that afraid of those things."

with agency reports

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