Media law in Hungary

Hungary – my home country – has received quite a bit of media attention lately. A new media law came into effect with the 1st of January, which, critiques claim, abolishes, or at the very least seriously threatens the freedom of press. Is that really so?

In order to get the full picture, I think it’s necessary to mention the piece of legislation this new law (law nr. CLXXXV in the year 2010, to be precise) supersedes. The old media law has come to life in 1996, as a kind of compromise after a nasty power struggle between the various parties. Its sole focus was on radio and TV broadcasters; essentially it tried to create a stable legal environment in which commercial broadcasters could safely operate, and reconfiguring the role and mode of operation of state-owned electronic media.

It was, to a general understanding, a not really good piece of legislation, and one that totally failed to guarantee the independence of the state owned media from the will of the government that happened to be in power at a given time. Unsurprisingly, the law also left then-fledgeling online media completely unregulated. It also created a supervisory body (ORTT, the National Radio and Television Authority), which also was tied in an unfortunate way to political interests, and consequently, it ended up being not the most competent of organizations.

In fact, so far as I can tell, nobody was really happy with the first media law. There was, definitely, need for a better piece of legislation, but prospects of accepting a new one seemed distant, since a 1990 amendment to the constitution defined media law as one that can only be passed or altered with a two-thirds majority support of the parliament.

Last year’s parliamentary elections resulted in the centre-right Fidesz party winning two-thirds of the seats, and promptly forming a government (with extreme-right Jobbik, socialist MSZP and green/liberal LMP (“Lehet Más a Politika” – “Politics Can Be Different”) in opposition.) Passing a new media law was now only a minor practical question; and Fidesz could be sure that the president will sign it as well – until his appointment by the parliament in August, Mr. Pál Schmitt held the position of vice president of Fidesz. He did as he was expected to do.

The new media law is different to the old one from the outset: it aims at regulating print, as well as electronic and online media. It is not only wider than its predecessor, it also goes further into defining rules about publishable contents. For instance, it forbids national broadcasters from dedicating more than 20% of their time in news programs to crime-related news. It also defines an expanded set of rules about advertising.

Perhaps most importantly, it establishes a new authority to monitor and supervise all media organs in the country: the so-called Media Council of the (so-called) National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH). Members of the Council have a mandate spanning 9 years, and as the government is keen to point out, members of the Media Council have all been elected by the parliament – this will supposedly rectify the previous situation in which various parties have considered the ORTT as a kind of battlefield to advance political interests.

What the government is perhaps less likely to point out is that, as it happens, each current member of the Media Council has been nominated by either the ruling Fidesz party, or prime minister Orban Viktor. Thanks to the party’s majority, all nominated members have been duly elected as well. In other words, thanks to the way in which members of the Council have been elected, the two-thirds majority of the ruling party was translated into a Council without opposition. Still in other words: although it was technically the parliament that elected the Council members, the final composition of the Council does not reflect the actual share of political power in the parliament. Still in other words: the five people in charge of supervising and regulating media in Hungary have all been nominated – not to say hand-picked – by the party that happens to be in power.

To call this arrangement democratic is quite a bit of a stretch of truth at best. Formal democracy perhaps, without substance.

Unfortunately though, there is more to the point. As I mentioned, the new media law tries to cover an area much wider than before – but it seems to leave important details undefined or unclear. The Authority has the right to levy hefty fines at media organs, but the range of possible subjects of the media law are ill-defined to begin with (when talking about online contents, the law can be interpreted so that it refers not only to professional media organs, but also to personal websites and blogs), and in some of the cases it is also unclear what could constitute a breach of terms. The law stipulates what contents media organs mustn’t publish (e.g. anything that “could be used for inciting hatred” against any given minority or majority), and prescribes what they must cover (e.g. news about events which “are significant for Hungarian citizens and the Hungarian nation,” but it doesn’t go into details about the precise scope of these contents.

Certainly, the aims of the law, on paper, are commendable. The problem is that they give quite a bit of leeway for interpretation; and what worries me is that the authority in charge of filling the definitions of the law with actual content and practice – i.e. the Media Council of the NMHH – seems to be tied closely to the currently ruling political party.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far.

To sum it up: in my view, there definitely was need for a new piece of legislation about the media in Hungary, but the new law has gone too far with the establishment of a supervisory body which could, if it wanted to, abuse the imprecise wording of the law and exert a strict(er) control over media organs, in perfect alignment with the interests of a particular political party.

I hope I’ll be wrong about this. There’s another aspect of the law about which I’d like to write in the near future though; namely its attempts to prescribe the contents of news programs.

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