The new Hungarian Media Law
A manipulated scandal
Cello taped mouths, crowds with taunting smiles, larking battle of wards that shake up the whole room: the Hungarian Media law brought to surface the “Peevish kid-within” from many European left-wing politicians. However, the new law is in keeping with European democratic norms.
Hungary assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in January 2011. Conform to protocol; the Hungarian Prime Minister introduced the program for the next six months of the presidency to the European Deputies in a short speech, in Brussels. However, during the debate following the speech, barely any European issues were discussed. The emphasis was put on the internal affairs of Hungary, more precisely on the freshly voted law on the Media. The questioning was expectable: the national opposition had been campaigning against it for long. Their calls were probably heard by their foreign colleagues because a number of them waited for the Hungarian Prime Minister in the European Parliament with their mouths cello taped, protesting this way against what they thought to be an antidemocratic new regulation, one which brings back the era of past dictatorships.
Those who are more proficient in law wisely refused to comment rapidly on the more than 100 page document in which the reformed law on Medias is described. Unlike dozens of Deputies of the European Parliament who were merrily quoting voted and not voted paragraphs of the new law. Many of them did not have the time to get the updated version because the law was passed by the Hungarian Parliament shortly before the European meeting. The Spanish, French and German Deputies could probably not follow the sometimes significant changes and got a mendacious picture of the finalized text. It also makes one wonder how the European Deputies, who probably do not speak any Hungarian, got proof of the accuracy of the content of the long and complex law. Even if they did succeed in using a dictionary did they have the time to make a comparative study not only in between the old and new Media laws of Hungary but also the rest of the European countries? Without the slightest doubt, the governing party’s argument, which is stating that the left-wing European Deputies attacked the Media law - intruding unusually harshly in the internal affairs of a member state - without knowing what they judged, must be valid.
Empty cover page, hollow scandal
Of course not only the politicians but also the Media mourned free press. The existence of newspapers with covers stating “Free press is dead in Hungary” in itself is contradictory. Is it possible to speak about censorship without consequences in a country where there is censorship? - is the logical question. Those who are aware of the realities of life in Hungary know that the different sources of Media continuously pass the line of logical argumentation when they talk about the government in place or the person of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán.
Export of internal politics
The politicians attacking the Media law in Brussels clearly want to discredit the Hungarian government, opposing the Hungarian Prime Minister and democratic principles, which are the founding stones of Europe. Behind the curtains, as it later turned out, was no other than the Hungarian left-wing opposition who, before the European meeting, misinformed their fellow deputies in a multilingual newsletter. Explanation for this is simple: after more than eight years of unsuccessful governance, the socialists and the liberals were defeated in the 2010 elections. The electors gave them so few votes that ever since they cannot carry through with any of their politics against the Fidesz-KDNP, central-right coalition. Their popularity did not grow significantly ever since. Their demonstrations and protests do not mobilize big crowds and cannot achieve anything at all. Their last hope was to export the Hungarian internal affairs and hope that foreigners would believe them, because their compatriots didn’t.
The European Commission also approved
There are few European countries whose Media law was not only approved by itsown national Parliament but also by the European Commission. Hungary is amongst them. To avoid further attacks the Hungarian Prime Minister asked the European Commission, led by José Manuel Barroso, to examine the law. The result after several weeks of long examination is crystal clear: the Hungarian Media Law conforms to the principles of the European Union. The fact that press is still free and flourishes proves that the European jurists working on the case were right.
This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.
A new needle in the coffin of Hungarian democracy
Hungary has a lot to thank to the new law on Medias. Although there weren’t many articles written about the successful European Presidency, at least we made it to the international press with the new law: almost all major European and American daily and weekly papers published harsh critics on the new Media law, which was passed by the governing party having a majority on the parliament (Fidesz-KDNP), a law that has upset not only the opposition.
All against one, one against all!
Criticism coming from different directions - which were mostly pinned on the fact that the law breaches several democratic principles (freedom of press, pluralism) – were, in its majority, unheard by the governing party. Fidesz, sticking to the law, has phrased its objections on several occasions, claiming the accusation to be unfounded because foreign press has reacted so quickly that they must not have had the time to read the text of the law thoroughly. With this statement the government has put in jeopardy the professionalism of papers like Le Monde, The New York Times and The Economist. Fidesz’s second objection was that the law has just come into force so its practical effects on the Medias cannot yet be judged by anyone. Hearing this argument the alarm in our head went off, even without the thorough knowledge of the text, because the rule of law is about creating laws in a way that their outcome in the regulated area is predictable before they become operative. It has to be assured preliminary with checks and balances that a measure is not contradicting any constitutional or European norms so that its practical use or the decision of certain individuals would not be pointing afterwards to the fault of the lawmaker.
Wide range of interpretations and flexible paragraphs
So what is this law about and why has it stirred so much controversy in and outside of Hungary? There has already been a law on Medias before 2010, which was to supervise and to control to a certain extent the different areas of the Media while at the same time preserving the freedom of the press and pluralism. Two principles that, according to critics, are endangered with the enforcement of the new measure. The new law regulates the Media much more than the previous one did. Besides, the text of the law can be interpreted extensively and its phrasing can lead to its political abuse. It is not clear for example what is considered to be against “collective morality” and “human dignity” in the Media.
An unbalanced composition of the Media supervising authorities for outbalanced information
Parallel to the birth of the new Media law a new authority was created. It is not a coincidence that the Media supervising authority’s power was also very controversial. The law does not draw clear lines and boundaries because the exact interpretation is left by the lawmaker to the executor of the law. However, most of the criticism is not about their power but about the composition of the supervising authorities. The five members of the Media Supervising Authorities are exclusively composed of the governing party’s people by the governing Fidesz-KDNP coalition. Despite the fact that the essence of the regulation of the Media would be to inform the public in an outbalanced way, it is precisely the Supervising Authorities’ body where this balance is absent and where all opposing views are excluded.
Criticism from the EU
The controversy about the new Hungarian Media Law reached the European Committee too. The Commissioner responsible for the Media, Neelie Kroes expressed her disapproval on three technical points, all of which breached the principle of proportionality. Those were, since then, corrected in the law. It is true that Neelie Kroes does not mention in her letter that the composition of the Media Supervising Authorities would breach democratic principles. This can be explained by a simple fact: the composition of such authority is not regulated by European law, since nobody thought of creating a measure in Europe clearly stating that the regulation of the Media should not be determined by party politics.
For this reason, instead of the European Committee it was a number of European Deputies that expressed their criticism during the Hungarian Prime Minister’s, Viktor Orbán’s visit to Brussels. The harshest critics came from Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Green Party Deputy: he drew Viktor Orban’s attention to the fact that in a democracy the Media should be supervising politics and not the other way around.
Many say that the fuss about the Media law is excessive and that the whole issue was only treated so exhaustively because it intersected with Hungary taking over the European Presidency. It is well possible that if Hungary does not take on the Presidency at that exact time then foreign press and the EU overlook the questionable law. Also, since the opposition in Hungary is at its weakest now, there would have been no one to object. However, due to the timing a number of flaws came to surface, few of which have been corrected by the national Parliament.
It is a fact that some of the criticism has later on been proven wrong but the grand majority were very constructive. It is possible that the European Presidency also influenced the scale of the scandal. But it could be that along other measures of the Orbán government - such as the retroactively enforced bank taxation, or the reduction of the power of the Constitutional Court - , the new law on Media was the last drop and it was expectable that foreign democracies admonish Hungary to respect democratic principles.