Freedom of the Press
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Hungary’s constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press, but complex and extensive media legislation adopted in 2010 is widely seen as undermining these guarantees. A ruling by the Constitutional Court in December 2011 and amendments adopted during 2011 and 2012 to meet objections from the European Commission did little to limit the power of a new media regulation authority, which is currently controlled by the ruling Fidesz party.
In 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party used its parliamentary supermajority to pass numerous mutually reinforcing legislative changes, tightening government control of the broadcast sector and extending regulation to print and online media. In July of that year, it amended the constitution, removing a passage on the government’s obligation to prevent media monopolies. It then consolidated media regulation under the supervision of a single entity, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), whose members are elected by a two-thirds majority in the parliament and whose leader also chairs a five-person Media Council tasked with content regulation. The law gives the head of the NMHH the right to nominate the executive directors of all public media. The first president of the NMHH, Annamária Szalai, a former Fidesz politician, was appointed by Orbán for a nine-year term, initially without limits on reelection. The structure and broadly defined competencies of the new regulatory bodies were outlined in subsequent legislation, including the Press and Media Act of November 2010 and the so-called Hungarian Media Law, which was adopted in December 2010 and came into effect on January 1, 2011. Though they share a leader and consist entirely of Fidesz nominees, the NMHH and Media Council are theoretically autonomous, both from the government and from each other.
The composition of the two bodies raised significant concerns among Hungarian media employees, opposition parties, and civil society activists. The expansion of regulatory oversight from broadcast to print and internet-based media also drew a wave of criticism from the international community, including the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the media representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and various press freedom and human rights organizations.
By late February 2011, negotiations between Hungarian government officials, European Union (EU) media monitoring bodies, and Hungarian media experts had yielded amendments to a number of provisions identified by the European Commission as violations of EU law. Rules on registration and authorization of media service providers were amended to comply with the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive, allowing print, ancillary, and on-demand media to register with the NMHH within 60 days of launching their services, rather than prior to doing so. However, all media outlets, including online services, still must register. An additional amendment protects audiovisual media service providers based in other EU member states from being fined for breaching certain provisions of the Hungarian Media Law, such as a ban on incitement of hatred. In general, the amendments resulted in a few improvements, but also yielded a new restriction: Media service providers can be fined for failing to register with the NMHH.
On December 19, 2011, Hungary’s Constitutional Court annulled several pieces of legislation from 2010 and 2011, including provisions of the Press and Media Act and some sections of the Media Law. The ruling excluded print and online media from the scope of the sanctioning powers of the NMHH; revoked the media authority’s right to demand data from media service providers, publishers, and program distributors; deleted a provision limiting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources to stories serving the public interest; and eliminated the position of media commissioner, an appointee of the NMHH president with the authority to initiate proceedings that do not involve violations of the law and whose decisions can be enforced by NMHH-issued fines and sanctions. The revisions were approved by the parliament in May 2012. However, in an interview published on June 7 in the Budapest weekly Figyelő, Neelie Kroes, the EU commissioner for the digital agenda and vice president of the European Commission, said the recent changes “failed to address the concerns of the EU and of the Council of Europe.” Kroes called the Media Law “embarrassing,” noting that the revisions addressed just 11 of 66 recommendations made by the Council of Europe.
The unamended provisions of the law still allow the Media Council to fine the media for “inciting hatred” against individuals, nations, communities, minorities, or even majorities. If found to be in violation of the law, radio and television stations may receive fines proportional to the “market power” of the outlet in question. These fines must then be paid before an appeals process can be initiated. Under the Media Law, the NMHH can initiate a regulatory procedure in the case of “unbalanced reporting” and, ultimately, it can also suspend the right to broadcast. Another controversial component of the Media Law is the system of co-regulation. In July 2011, the NMHH concluded public administration agreements on media co-regulation with four Hungarian media self-regulatory bodies: the Association of Hungarian Content Providers (MTE), the Advertising Self-Regulatory Body (ÖRT), the Association of Hungarian Publishers (MLE), and the Association of Hungarian Electronic Broadcasters (MEME). These formerly independent bodies are now responsible for ensuring compliance with NMHH content rules and risk becoming instruments of censorship.
As was the case under the previous media regulation authorities, broadcasters with expiring licenses are required to enter a new bid with the NMHH. Even as several radio stations have been forced to stop broadcasting due to a lack of advertising revenue, license fees for Budapest-based frequencies more than doubled in 2011. Klubrádió, a popular station known for its bold, antigovernment political commentary, has been waiting for the renewal of its broadcasting license since it expired in February 2011. It has been granted a series of two-month extensions of its previous license, making it extremely difficult to attract advertisers. The station was denied renewal of eight local frequencies in 2011, and that December it lost the bid for its main frequency to the newly established station Autórádió, which met the new NMHH tender’s requirements by featuring mostly music rather than commentary. The new laws governing broadcast media content are detailed in terms of what type of programming may be played and when. Radio broadcasters must devote at least 25 percent of their airtime to Hungarian music, while 50 percent of television programming must be devoted to European productions. Critics of the Klubrádió frequency tender say it was designed to evict the station from its home of over 10 years. After Autórádió’s bid was disqualified by a court decision in March 2012, several courts ruled in favor of Klubrádió, but the station had yet to regain control of its main frequency at year’s end.
In June 2012, the European Commission referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice over the questionable independence of its new data protection authority, created by a new constitution enacted in April 2011 and in operation since January 2012. The commissioner of the previous data protection body was removed before the end of his term, and the leader of the new authority is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. Originally, this official was subject to dismissal by the prime minister or president on arbitrary grounds, but that provision was revoked by the parliament in April 2012.
The government has made some specific attempts to regulate online media. Under an amendment to the criminal code proposed at the end of 2012, websites deemed by the NMHH to contain criminal content—such as child pornography—or content that incites criminal activity would be placed on a blacklist via court order, and internet service providers (ISPs) would be compelled to block the sites. The amendment allows the government to take action if ISPs fail to heed the blocking orders.
Hungary enjoys a broad array of print, broadcast, and online media. Most outlets appear to identify with one or the other side of the political spectrum. The media landscape is dominated by private companies, with high levels of foreign investment in national and local newspapers. Privately held newspapers include 10 national and 24 local dailies. Hungary has five national public radio stations and two main private stations. Thanks to the activities of a small number of affluent Fidesz-aligned businesspeople, there has been a significant growth in the number of conservative or right-wing media in recent years. With a portfolio that includes print and broadcast elements as well as Hungary’s biggest outdoor advertisement company, four such individuals owning 15 companies saw the aggregate profits of their media empire increase sevenfold in 2011 compared with 2009.
The tabloidization of Hungarian broadcast media remains a major concern and has sometimes been used by the government to justify new restrictions on content. The nongovernmental organization Nyilvánosság Klub (Openness Club) monitored several public and private television and radio stations between November 7 and December 16, 2011, finding that just 23 percent of coverage in this period was devoted to international news, compared with 32 percent in 2007. The study also found that serious political coverage on public television had decreased by 30 percent since 2007. During the six weeks that Nyilvánosság Klub monitored the state-run Hungarian Television (MTV) and Hungarian Radio (MR), they aired only two mentions of foreign criticism of the government. Among all the stations monitored, the only broadcasters that were regularly critical of Fidesz were ATV, a commercial cable television station, and the embattled Klubrádió.
In 2011, the government-funded news agency MTI became the official source for all public media news content. It publishes nearly all of its news and photographs online for free, and offers media service providers the ability to download and republish them. Paid-subscription news agencies and smaller media outlets with limited resources cannot compete with MTI, and the incentive to practice “copy-and-paste journalism” is high. The accuracy and objectivity of MTI reporting has come under criticism since the Orbán government came to power in 2010. State and state-dependent advertisers usually buy space in progovernment media, and many private companies have followed suit.
Under the Media Law, the funding for all public media is centralized under one body, the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), supervised by the Media Council. By creating a central property management and production fund, the government deprived three previously independent institutions—MTV, MR, and Danube Television (Duna Televízió)—of their ﬁnancial and organizational autonomy.
In December 2011, a group of Hungarian journalists, led by then MTV1 foreign news producer Balazs Nagy Navarro, went on a hunger strike to protest alleged manipulation of the state media by the Orbán government. Both Nagy Navarro and another leading figure in the hunger strike, Aranka Szavuly, were dismissed from their jobs at MTV1 late that month for causing a “provocation.” The strike continued throughout 2012. By the end of 2011, MTVA had laid off nearly 1,000 employees as part of a long-anticipated streamlining of the public media. The government claims this was due to budgetary concerns, though the public media received a 10 percent budget increase in 2011 and an increase of approximately 2 percent in 2012. Throughout the year, employees of the public and private media spoke to international media and press freedom watchdog organizations about growing self-censorship by journalists and editors in the face of fines or unemployment.
Diversity is on the rise in online media. Most notably, there has been an increase in domestically owned internet-based outlets. At approximately 72 percent, Hungary’s internet penetration is just below the European average, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Data published by the U.S. State Department show that as of January 2011, there was a significant gap between the usage rates in Budapest and the rest of the country.