Proposed law on the media

As one might suspect, anything that involves the media creates big political waves. After all, the people affected by a legislative proposal involving the state of the media are the same ones who must report on the pros and cons of the legislation itself. Thus one shouldn't be surprised that for at least for a week now many reports and opinions have appeared on the subject. It is hard to judge what the journalists of the right-wing media think of it because an admittedly cursory look at Magyar Nemzet and Heti Válasz unearthed no opinion piece. The articles simply recount the proposed law's main points without commenting on their effect on the work of reporters.

Although this is a very important piece of legislation, it was proposed by only two Fidesz members: András Cser-Palkovics and Antal Rogán. I mentioned earlier that these two people have not been involved in any way with questions of the media and that I suspect that legislative proposals are distributed almost at random among some of the better known Fidesz politicians.

Historians of the press are struck by the similarities between the press law (1914) of Prime Minister of István Tisza and the proposal under discussion. That law basically reintroduced censorship; if a journalist was found guilty of not obeying the law, he could even end up in jail. Surely, the Cser-Palkovics-Rogán bill doesn't go that far, but it can be seen as a restrictive measure that limits freedom of opinion and freedom of speech. Just to give one example. If a journalist writes a piece and if a politician mentioned in the article finds it not to his liking, even if the article is factually correct, he will be able to answer in writing and the paper must publish his response. Also, it seems that Fidesz would take away the freedom of an editor in the sense that some central authority would decide what piece of news is important and what is not, and every publication would be obliged to include the "important" items on its pages. As some people pointed out, it will be mighty funny if Playboy will have to carry the same news as Népszabadság.

One of course doesn't have to go all the way back to István Tisza. Some people think that the closest example is the media law introduced by the Fico government in April 2008. The reaction in Slovakia was quite violent. Another media law that caused an upheaval lately was the Italian law that can actually send a journalist to jail if he uses material that was leaked from the police, the prosecutor's office, or the courts. At the moment the Italian editors are organizing an appropriate answer to this piece of legislation.

One part of the proposed law deals with state supervision of the public media organs: Magyar Televízió, Magyar Rádió, Duna Televízó, and Magyar Távírati Iroda. The plan to bring all four under one umbrella organization is accepted by almost everybody. People don't see any harm in that. However, that the president of this new body will be appointed for nine years by a three-member panel named by the prime minister is really unacceptable. With that the independence of these important carriers of news would be lost. They would be organs of one party, the government party.

LMP called the proposed law outrageous. Gergely Karácsony, the deputy leader of the LMP delegation, said that it reminded him of the "agitprop age." (Agitprop was the abbreviation for "agitation and propaganda," an important function of the party under Kádár.) Professional organizations such as the Association of Newspaper Publishers, the Association of Journalists, and the Union of Journalists raised their voices and demanded consultation.

HVG's lead story this week was the media law and the article begins: "After Fidesz considerately allowed God to be the Lord of History it decided to take the role of the Almighty in the media." László Lengyel in 168 Óra claimed "such a law is enacted only in dictatorships."

Fidesz knows full well that the media bill cannot become law without significant pruning. For instance, the requirement to publish every complaint will simply not float in the Constitutional Court. During the first Orbán government there was such a proposal, later known as Lex Répássy because it was Representative Róbert Répássy who proposed it. At that time the Constitutional Court found the proposal to be unconstitutional. And here comes an interesting turn of events. Yesterday Cser-Palkovics and Rogán announced that only certain parts of the proposed law will be discussed this time around; the rest, including the compulsory publication of an answer to every "offending" remark, will be postponed to the fall. The explanation for this delay is quite obvious. László Sólyom wouldn't sign the bill and would instead send it on to the Constitutional Court. After all, he was chief justice of the court when Lex Répássy got the axe. But by the fall there will be someone else in Sándor Palota who will sign everything that is put in front of him.