The latest blow to freedom of the press

I have written a lot about the media law since June 18 ("Proposed law on the media"). In August alone I wrote three pieces, the last on the new council that was created to be the watchdog over the media and whose members were suggested by Viktor Orbán and duly voted in by the two-thirds majority. They speedily took the oath of office. Fidesz took care of the supervision of the media as well. At the top of the apex is the prime minister, then follows Annamária Szalai, who is truly one of the least likeable people on the face of the earth–and her appointment is for nine years. (Anyone who would like to have a good chuckle over Annamária Szalai's career can read: "Annamária Szalai: From porn magazine to the defence of family values.") Then comes the five-member council, all closely associated with Fidesz.

At this point we still didn't know all the details of the new law, nicknamed Media Constitution, but given the person of Szalai and the politically one-sided council, one had an idea what was waiting for the Hungarian media. Nothing good. Today György Bolgár had a lengthy conversation with Pál Eötvös, president of the Association of Hungarian Journalists, who acknowledged that the members of the media woke up a little late about the dangers lurking in the background. Most likely, I would suggest, because people are still too naive and simply can't believe what can be done in the middle of Europe. Interestingly enough, it was an English-language article, which appeared in waz.euobserver.com on November 24, that called attention to the media constitution that would become law very soon. The article described the new piece of legislation as something that goes far beyond any changes introduced by previous governments and that threatens the freedom of expression.

It took three days for the Hungarian media to really respond. The first article that dealt with the subject appeared in HVG on November 27: "The Elimination of the Freedom of the Press." According to the author, one cannot find words to describe the reaction of the people affected by the proposed law. The first problem is that the presidents of Magyar Rádió, Duna TV, and MTV will not be able to make too many independent decisions. Even the right to put together their news program will be taken away from them. News broadcasts from here on will be provided by MTI, the official state news agency of Hungary. Another  innovation, again involving MTI, is that from here on the news gathered by MTI will be given out to all organs free of charge. Until now one had to pay for the service. Surely, the aim is to make sure that all news will be filtered through MTI.

The council's powers are vast. If a a TV station says something that the council finds in violation of the media law it will have to pay a very hefty fine, perhaps as much as 500 million forints, but even daily papers and internet online papers might have to pay 25 million forints. Weeklies or periodicals will get away with a mere 10 million forints! Such fines may put an end to small radio stations like KlubRádió, which at the moment is asking for contributions from listeners because lately they have not been able to cover their expenses from advertisements.

László Majtényi, the chairman of ORTT (Országos Rádió és Televízió Tanács) that was replaced by the Media Council, called the proposal "a horror show." Majtényi, who also served as an ombudsman in his long public career and thus knows something about the law, claims that "regulating written, electronic and internet media on the basis of the same principle is by itself unconstitutional."

Until now complaints by individuals against newspapers could be filed only in court. Now Szalai and her five cohorts will take over the role of judges. That by itself will have a chilling effect.

The proposed bill can be read here. The bill is 170 pages long and one suspects that the three MPs who submitted it didn't even read it and certainly didn't write it. One of the three is Antal Rogán, who in the last eight years was often portrayed by the liberal press as a moderate and reasonable man. However, since the elections he has become a lion and lends his name to the most outlandish proposals, including this one.

According to the proposal, if a TV station violates the rules and regulations governing the media it will be forced to close shop, perhaps for as long as a whole week. Not only TV stations can be shut down for a prescribed time but also internet sites. If the owner of an internet site doesn't oblige, the internet provider will be responsible and will have to disconnect the site. Moreover, the editor-in-chief of the internet site can be personally fined 2 million forints in case the Media Council finds the site in violation. Hírszerző mentions two blogs that work like newspapers: Mandiner and Véleményvezér.

One can already see how "well-meaning" citizens will turn to a newly appointed Media Commissioner with their complaints which the commissioner will have to investigate. Hundreds and hundreds of complaints will pour in, I'm sure. The Commissioner will function as an ombudsman. He will be the defender of the interests of the readers and listeners. Each medium must sign a "behavioral code" and stick to it. As media experts pointed, out such a restrictive media law cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. One must go east which, I guess, is fine with Viktor Orbán who said not long ago that, although Hungary belongs to the west, lately the winds come from the east and "our sails must be adjusted accordingly."

It was Ildikó Lendvai who summed up MSZP's reaction to the proposal. She is a master with words and thus comes up with wonderful turns of phrases. When it came to the canned news from MTI, Lendvai recalled an old joke from the 1960s. At least this is when I heard it from a friend of mine who lived in Paris. Kohn visited a western country and stocked up on coffee, which was in short supply in Hungary in those days. In addition, it was very expensive. He had a whole sackful of the stuff. He landed in Ferihegy, the Budapest airport, and the customs official inquired from him what was in the sack. Birdseed for the parrot, answered Kohn. The official opened the sack and said: "But this is coffee, not birdseed." Kohn replied: "Whether he likes it or not, this is what he gets." (Eszi nem eszi, ezt kapja.)

Indeed, Fidesz propaganda is what the listeners of MR and the public television stations will get. As for the independent stations, they will have to be very careful to follow the behavioral code and will get their news, free of charge, from the same MTI that will put together the news for the public televison stations and radio. A lovely arrangement, don't you think?

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Jo Peattie
Guest

A very sad state of affairs. Is discussion about the “news” allowed? What next, blogs ?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Jo Peatttie: “A very sad state of affairs. Is discussion about the “news” allowed? What next, blogs ?”
To tell you, I don’t have any idea. I remember a discussion about blogs and the example the Fidesz politician gave was some blog on food. Certainly, he said, there will be no problem there. The question is whether blogs about politics will be a problem or not. I assume, yes.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Jo Peatttie: “A very sad state of affairs. Is discussion about the “news” allowed? What next, blogs ?”
To tell you I don’t have any idea. I remember a discussion about the blogs and the example the Fidesz politician gave was some blog about food. Certainly, he said, there will be no problem there. The question is whether blogs about politics will be allowed or not.

Minusio
Guest

Fidesz is slow. The nazis needed less than four months for this type of “Gleichschaltung” (as “bringing into line”). But basically Orbán’s aparatshiks do what they promised to do – like Hitler did. So I don’t understand the surprised exaltation now. Even before Orbán came to power he said that they had blueprints ready in the drawer for all they wanted to do. Now they are pulling the blueprints out, one after the other.
I ended my comment on the Poland vs. Hungary post with the expectation that Hungary would soon rather be compared to Belarus than to Poland. Regarding the freedom of the media this comparison is now already more appropriate.
“But that’s not the end, that’s not even the beginning of the end, it is just the end of the beginning.” (Churchill, born November 30, 136 years ago.)

GDF
Guest

‘One must go east which, I guess, is fine with Viktor Orbán who said not long ago that, although Hungary belongs to the west, lately the winds come from the east and “our sails must be adjusted accordingly.” ‘
This reminds me the times when Ceausescu returned from his trip to North Korea and started implementing what he had experienced there. It is not the first time that Orban makes me think of the Romanian dictator.
By the way, I think the joke with the parrot is even older than the 1960s. It used to be about a small bag of diamonds…

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest
Why oh why do not those people who are opposed to the Fidesz nonsense do something about it? Instead of the ‘woe woe, misery me and lackaday’ get on and use the tools that Europe has given you. I know that all of the EU sites are in English and some of the Hungarian contributors to this site speak very good English. They can read and understand them. There were some of which were in Hungarian but these now seem to have vanished. Use these rights, petition the European Parliament to review the new Hungarian media laws to see if they (or any part of them) breech Article 10 of the European Charter of Human Rights . You can do it online. All you need is to go to http://www.europarl.europa.eu/parliament/public/staticDisplay.do?id=49 You will find all you need to submit your petition, which can be in Hungarian or any other official European language. You will get a reply which will tell you what is happening. Oh it takes a few months but then ‘The mills of God (and Europe) grind slow but grind exceeding fine’. The longer this nonsense is allowed to go on the bigger trouble Hungary will find its self… Read more »
Kevin Moore
Guest

Oh yes, the freedom of press is gone, evidence to it is this blog, or weeklies as Magyar Narancs, 168 Óra, Élet és Irodalom, HVG, Rubicon, Szombat, Hetek, or Figyelő, all of these avid Fidesz-hater papers just exist as a coincidence…
LOL

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kevin Moore: “the freedom of press is gone, evidence to it is this blog, or weeklies as Magyar Narancs, 168 Óra, Élet és Irodalom, HVG, Rubicon, Szombat, Hetek, or Figyelő, all of these avid Fidesz-hater papers just exist as a coincidence… LOL”
May I remind you that the law hasn’t been passed yet?

John T
Guest

Kevin – I wish you’d just take a step back and think. No one who supports the principles of democracy or freedom of expression can feel comfortable with this law. If the MSZP had introduced it, you would no doubt have protested bitterly. And you know what, you’d have been right to protest. But you don’t seem to care about the principles that are being threatened here.
Of course, if Orban had more confidence in his programme, he wouldn’t need to have a law like this.
Quite frankly, the events of the last few weeks has been like watching an episode of The Apprentice. Trouble is, there isn’t a Lord Sugar on hand to say “you’re fired”.

kormos
Guest

” then follows Annamária Szalai, who is truly one of the least likeable people on the face of the earth”
“It was Ildikó Lendvai who summed up MSZP’s reaction to the proposal. She is a master with words and thus comes up with wonderful turns of phrases”
Ms. Balogh…ROFL Ha.ha.ha
Your taste is unique.

OpenDog
Guest

@Kev You maybe right. Nothing will happen to the freedom of speech in Hungary … then why on earth are the FIDESZ folks making a fool of themselves with such a stupid threatening law ?? Aren’t there more important things they can do?

Paul
Guest

Several questions come to mind:
1) Can the Hungarian authorities do anything to prevent/restict access to external internet sources (like this blog)?
2)Assuming the answer to 1) is ‘no’, what’s to stop Hungarian internet newspapers, etc just ‘moving’ abroad (i.e. using foriegn ISPs or storage/bandwidth(?) providers)?
3) What is the situation re EU or international law if the newspaper/blog refuses to pay the fine and the government then attemmpt to fine the ISP? I can’t imagine ISPs just paying up.

OpenDog
Guest

@Paul
1. In theory they can build an infrastructure to block internet access (see, Iran or China) but I doubt they will. Expensive, easy to get around and well not best PR …
2. You can move the hosting abroad but if you live at home you still can be arrested.
3. I don’t think anybody would care about personal blogs. Some sites maybe if it’s indecent or extremist propaganda.
In reality our porn queen probably will only go after indecency. Like the internet sites that publish pictures from the Miami Press (her bathroom periodical).

Jo Peattie
Guest

I looked on the NUJ site in the UK to see if there was any mention of this but there was not. I was not too impressed by this as the coverage on the European Federation of Journalists site was limited too. Is everyone asleep? I think that a campaign or prtition to the European Parliament is the only way to go, care to join me?

Kevin Moore
Guest

Eva: the “freedom of press” was sooo threatened from the moment the Orbán government took office in 1998, right until they lost power in 2002. Now, from the very first minute they took office again, the freedom of press is instantly something you and your kin must be so worried for.
This is a very old and obsolete record spinning over and over again, and there’s no molecule in the Universe to where your apocalyptic message hasn’t been delivered. I never manage to count how many domestic and international channels your kin has always been able to use to spread misinformation on how ‘weak’ the non-right media is which, actually, still makes up the vast majority of media in Hungary.

Kevin Moore
Guest

John T: the problem is that however right you might be, people don’t believe those who have gratuitously cried wolf for two decades.

Sandor
Guest

Well, Kevin, those cries of wolf was more than justified, if the events on the ground are any indication. And fidesz have done this once already during their first term. They expropriated and closed down news papers and bent to their own service Magyar Nemzet, the traditionally liberal and respectable paper of a good 60 years standing.
The messing around with the media is particularly galling, because it was working fine and was not at all in need of fixing. And because there just wasn’t any cause the fidesz could point at as a reason for the interference, the suspicion cannot be avoided that it is the fidesz’s political interest and nothing else.
That being the case, what is it exactly you are defending?

Hank
Guest

Interestingly enough, Magyar Nemzet is also more and more turning against at least some of the anti-democratic behaviour of Orbán c.s. Earlier, the paper roundly said that limiting the power of the Constitutional Court was not wise. And if I read today’s lead article correctly (I must admit, my Hungarian is far from faultless), they speak out clearly against these latest media proposals (saying they mean the end of freedom of the press), against the all-powerful media council and against the way the public media have been put under party control.
I think this signals a very important development, namely that at least some of the decent conservatives on the right are getting fed up with Orbán c.s. This coincides with the fact that, of the record, even some Fidesz parliamentarians are saying they are worried by developments.
So for the time being, my bet would be not on the opposition (which, as Gyurcsány himself says, needs at least four if not eight years to recover and rebuild) but on a power struggle within Fidesz.

Hank
Guest

Or am I mistaken, and is this Nemzet comment written in irony?

John T
Guest

“John T: the problem is that however right you might be, people don’t believe those who have gratuitously cried wolf for two decades.”
Kevin – Well, maybe people did in the past. I wasn’t one of them anyway. But shortly, these proposals are due to become law. From your comments, you don’t seem that fussed. But hey, you live in Hungary, I don’t. So I’d be interested to see what your view of the law will be in 12 months time, once it has had a chance to bed in.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Sandor: I have no doubt that you consider a media with an approx. 9 to 1 imbalance towards the left as ‘doing good’.
But my opinion differs from yours and I’m moderate at saying that.
And your argument about Orbán’s offensive media strategy is weaker than ridiculous, given what the MSZP sponsored Heti Hetes and both terrestrial commercial TV channels were doing for 4 years. Talk about 9:1 again.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Hank: you are not mistaken. MN is criticizing the new government’s steps, sometimes harshly.
Here fails your ever-persistent view on MN being Fidesz propaganda only.
The problem is that you can’t detach yourself from how your own, interest-oriented press (the ‘left’) works and impose the same behavior on the value-oriented press of the right.

wpDiscuz