Despite Orbán’s Retreat, Net Freedom in Hungary Still Under Threat
Last week, the Orbán government’s proposed tax on the internet sparked the largest protest in Hungary since 2010, as upwards of 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Budapest. Faced with a massive backlash, Orbán withdrew the proposal rather quickly. However, while the internet tax has been shelved for now, the government hinted at reintroducing the proposal in early 2015. If the tax is put in place, it could negatively affect access to online content in a country that has already seen a steady erosion of internet and media freedoms.
Since coming to power in 2010, the Orbán government has implemented a series of legislative changes that have been criticized for undermining media freedom. They include the consolidation of media regulation into one government body, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), whose members are elected by the Fidesz-controlled parliament. The NMHH has the authority to issue broadcasting licenses, nominate the executive directors of public media outlets, and levy hefty fines on “objectionable” content. For these reasons and others, Hungary’s press freedom status, as determined by Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press survey, has declined steadily since 2010, moving from the “Free” to “Partly Free” category.
In addition to these policies, the Fidesz government has imposed a series of telecommunications taxes, such as fees on phone calls and text messages, which have been challenged by the European Commission. In June 2014, the parliament passed a law that would increase taxes on news media's advertising revenue. Media outlets criticized the new law, which some believe was meant to target the most popular TV Channel— RTL Klub—while allowing concessions to the Fidesz-friendly station TV2. Nearly 70 percent of media outlets joined the campaign, with some protesting the new tax by broadcasting blank screens or printing blank pages.
In countries with restrictive or partisan media environments, the internet can offer a platform for freedom of expression and freedom of information free of many of normal state regulations. However, Hungary’s environment for internet freedom—categorized as “free” in Freedom on the Net—has also seen steady declines in the past few years, largely due to economic constraints on online outlets and prosecutions for content posted online. Although the government does not currently block or filter online content in Hungary, a policy such as the proposed internet tax, which would levy charges per gigabyte of data, could significantly shape Hungarians’ internet use by creating disincentives for the use of certain platforms, such as those that feature video-streaming or others that require large data transfers.
The huge protests last week were at least partially successful, given Orbán’s backpedaling on the tax. However, in his statement withdrawing the proposed tax, Orbán noted the government would launch a “national consultation” on regulation of the internet in January, leaving open the possibility of a renewed effort to impose the tax or even more worrisome measures. Sustained opposition to such proposals could go a long way in keeping Hungary’s internet as a relatively free space amid growing government influence over print and broadcast media.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
Last week I joined a delegation of leading freedom of expression organizations in Hungary to assess the impact of much criticized media legislation that went into effect in January. Discussions with dozens of journalists, media officials, regulation authorities, and government representatives validated the serious concerns expressed by international press freedom experts since the law was passed last December.
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