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Hungary: Concerns Mount Over Media Freedom Ahead Of April Election

Hungarian and foreign journalists have recently voiced concern over media freedom in Hungary ahead of the April general election. Hungarian media associations say the government is controlling public radio and television, while foreign correspondents in Hungary say they have been accused in the local media of allegedly presenting a "negative image" of Hungary abroad. But Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative government denies any attempt to control public media and says it condemns attacks on foreign correspondents.

Prague, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungarian journalists and Hungary-based foreign correspondents are increasingly concerned about what they perceive as attempts to stifle media criticism aimed at the government ahead of general elections scheduled for April.

Despite Hungary's economic success and its front-runner status for European Union membership, conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban's governing coalition is facing a serious challenge in this spring's election from the ex-communist Socialist Party, whom he ousted in the 1998 poll.

While Orban's economic strategy won him widespread international acclaim from economists and journalists alike, his media policies have repeatedly stirred criticism at home and abroad.

Foreign correspondents in Hungary recently expressed concern after repeated attacks on their work in the pro-government and ultraconservative media, while Hungarian journalists organizations, as well as international press watchdogs, accuse the authorities of attempting to take over public radio and television.

Attacks against foreign journalists began after an article was published earlier this month in the pro-government "Magyar Nemzet" daily. The article ranked international media correspondents according to how negative their reporting on Hungary had been.

The ranking, based on several hundred news reports appearing in the foreign media over the past 18 months, was signed by a student organization calling itself "Kontroll Csoport," or Control Group.

While apparently based on a comprehensive analysis, the article caused alarm because it ranked correspondents by name depending on how many "negative" articles they had written about the government and its policies.

A spate of media attacks followed against the people at the top the list, prompting the Hungarian International Press Association (HIPA), which groups foreign reporters in Hungary, to send a letter of protest to Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi.

Runa Hellinga, head of HIPA, told RFE/RL that the media attacks on her colleagues were conducted in a rude and intimidating manner: "The content of this article was used for some quite vicious attacks on foreign journalists on 'Sajtoklub' (Press Club) [a show on private TV station ATV], which is a kind of discussion between journalists. But they are more from the conservative media. And then later on the Hungarian state radio, on the program 'Vasarnapi Ujsag' (Sunday Journal). And in these two programs and then later also in the 'Magyar Nemzet' again, foreign journalists were attacked quite viciously, with language which was abusing them, really."

Hellinga says she suspects the attacks, which went so far as to intrude into the personal lives of the reporters, were connected to the upcoming election, even though she says she doesn't have any proof the government is tied either to the authors of the report or to the media attacks themselves.

The Hungarian government itself denies involvement in the attacks and says it does not have any connection with Kontroll Csoport.

Furthermore, deputy government spokesman Tamas Kubinyi told RFE/RL that the attacks on foreign journalists are harming Hungary's image abroad: "The government wants a good image about Hungary, not only inside the borders but outside the borders also. And what happened in this [case] was [of] no good for the Hungarian government. I think these people just do what they want because press freedom is [a fact] in Hungary."

Concerns about the freedom of the Hungarian public media have also escalated lately, with independent journalists accusing Orban's government of imposing control over public radio and television.

Istvan Wisinger, head of the Association of Hungarian Journalists (MUOSZ) -- Hungary's largest media workers' organization -- tells RFE/RL that during the current election campaign, prime-time political shows on both public radio and television have maintained a deep pro-government tone.

"If you see, for example, the Sunday evening political [TV] program 'The Week' (A Het) or the Monday morning radio program, these are, of course, biased programs in favor of the government. Thank goodness there are the commercial channels, and they balance it."

Wisinger also says the 1994 media law is flawed and should be changed. The law provides a public broadcasting managing board -- or "curatorium" -- to be equally formed of members appointed by the government and the opposition.

Such efforts are also supported by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), whose mission to Hungary last year (February 2001) found that the country's public broadcasting was "weakened to the point of destruction because of political manipulation and willful neglect by political authorities."

Marc Gruber, the IFJ's coordinator for public broadcasting, says the IFJ sent its mission to Hungary last year because of a prolonged crisis in the public broadcasting's managing board.

"First in 1999, then in 2000, there was a very important crisis in the public broadcasting system in Hungary, because the managing board of the public broadcaster was not fully nominated. It was only in an incomplete way. That means that the political coalition of the government had much more influence on the decision making and on the editorial line of the broadcaster than the opposition."

The government-appointed members now have control of the public broadcasting managing board, since the Socialists -- the largest opposition party -- and the Free Democrats (liberals) have refused to join it. The only opposition party present in the board is the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP).

But MIEP members in the curatorium are unlikely to voice any discontent with decisions made by the government-appointed members before the election, since MIEP leader Istvan Csurka last week indicated he might join Orban's Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ) in a future governing coalition after the April poll.

The government maintains it only has limited control over the public media, which still is, as spokesman Kubinyi puts it, "infested" with journalists educated under communism.

"I think it is not control. The government just tries [to achieve] the same level as the opposition. And as I see it today, still, the positions of former communists and the government are not level. More former communists are working in [the public] media and the number of new people is smaller."

Kubinyi argues that as long as the Socialists were in power they saw nothing wrong with the media law, but that after losing power in 1998, they suddenly said the legislation was flawed. He says the Socialist opposition is actually refusing to cooperate with the government under the legal framework.

Kubinyi also points to the fact that only 10 percent of the Hungarian media is under public control, while the rest is in private hands and largely against the government.

But analysts say success in the upcoming election campaign may largely depend on the ease with which voters can access the media. And Hungarian public broadcasting holds an overwhelming advantage in this respect.