Hungary's new media watchdog, barely created, is already scrutinising a small, independent radio. Two Hungarian dailies and a German newspaper published front-page protests at this infringement of press freedom. France and Germany officially call for a change in Hungary's law.
“The freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end,” screamed the front page of the largest Hungarian daily, Nepszabadsag. Beneath, it was translated in the 23 official languages of the European Union, the rotating presidency of which Hungary has just taken up for the next six months. In its op-ed, the centre-left newspaper attacked the new media law voted by the Hungarian Parliament where Prime Minister Viktor Orban's party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority:
The new media law only serves the Fidesz government's authoritarian ends; it allows those who express contrary opinions to be quieted, punished and eventually ruined.
Another left-wing Hungarian daily, Nepszava, demands freedom of the press on its front page, in Hungarian and in English, adding “we must defend our democratic rights!” “We hope that Europe realises that these measures are anti-democratic,” even if “a majority of the Hungarian people do not realise it.”
In December, two weeklies, Magyar Narancs and ES, had already protested with blank pages for the same reason.
A moral watchdog
Are the newspapers crying wolf? Maybe not. While the law came into for on 1 January 2011, the new National Media and Communications Authority (known by the acronym NMHH in Hungarian), dominated by members of the ruling party, is already investigating a broadcast from four months ago. On 2 September 2010, the independent community radio station Tilos played the tracks “Warning” and “It's on,” by Ice-T, around 5.50 pm local time, and the explicit lyrics of these two songs “could have an adverse effect on the moral development of children under 16”, according to NMHH, therefore they should have been broadcast between 9 pm and 5 am.
The radio station Tilos fought back with a statement published on its website (here), arguing that only a tiny proportion of its listeners are under 16. It also pointed out that the American rapper's strong accent and specific slang renders the lyrics “hardly comprehensible” for a vast majority of young Hungarians, even those who speak reasonable English.
The stakes are high for the radio station as for the Hungarian press in general, since the NMHH, the new media watchdog, may impose fines as high as 89,000 to 730,000 euros in case of very vaguely defined violations of rules on coverage. The media regulation authority was created by a law passed by Parliament on 21 December with 256 votes and 87 against.
A “Hungarian disaster”
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel had been one of the most outspoken critics of the press control rules decided by Viktor Orban's government, the daily Die Tageszeitung reprinted Nepszabadsag's front page and added a column by the Hungarian philosopher and former Green member of Parliament Gaspar Miklos Tamas. He criticised the government's decision, denouncing a "Hungarian disaster" and a return to media control practices from before the Republic. "Nobody wants to return to that world, into chaos, poverty, corruption, servility, bribery, dishonesty, contempt for the lower classes, where inequality and hypocrisy began to spread, until the legendary year of our hopes – 1989," he wrote.
Several governments are worried about Viktor Orban's government tightening of media scrutiny, but for now the European Commission has done nothing more than express “doubts” about the new Hungarian law, while waiting for explanations from Budapest. While France initially had not taken position, government spokesman François Barouin said that the law was “not compatible with our ideal of freedom of the press as stated in European treaties.” Alongside Germany, France has requested that Hungary revises its law.