The Hungarian media law is still on the table

I really thought that the Hungarian media law no longer interested the world. The European Commission did as much as it could, which wasn’t much. Hungarians, I figured, will simply have to live with the consequences. Perhaps, but there’s a new wrinkle–the UN.

Let’s first set the stage on the Hungarian side.  During the heady days when everybody was fixated on the media law a new face appeared on the scene: Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of government communications in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. I always find it necessary to explain what this new ministry is all about. Basically, its task is to run the government. It is headed by Tibor Navracsics, the former head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, who was ordained by Viktor Orbán to be the de facto prime minister without the title, while the actual prime minister would be above such mundane matters as managing the everyday affairs of the government. If something goes wrong, one can always blame Navracsics instead of Viktor Orbán himself.

That was the original idea, but I don’t think that the plan fulfilled the expectations that were attached to it. While the Orbán government is as unpopular at the moment as the Gyurcsány government was in the spring of 2007, the disappointed electorate doesn’t blame Tibor Navracsics but Viktor Orbán. Even among Fidesz voters Orbán’s popularity dropped from 92% to about 70% within a few months.

But back to Zoltán Kovács and a brief background. He received a degree in history and geography from the Lajos Kossuth University of Debrecen in 1993. Subsequently he received his M.A. from the Central European University, located in Budapest and financed by George Soros. He spent some time in London and in the United States, but I have no information about the details. He speaks English well and German tolerably. His last job was as assistant professor of history at the University of Miskolc. But it seems that Kovács was always more interested in politics than in history. As an undergraduate he was very involved with the student union. The nationwide network of student unions seems to be a breeding ground for future Fidesz and Jobbik politicians. He was also involved in local politics and became a Fidesz member of the Debrecen City Council, a good launch pad for someone interested in nationwide politics. After all, Lajos Kósa is the mayor of Debrecen. He also represented the Association of County Seats on the board of the Hungarian Television. I hope you all remember how Fidesz used these board members to make sure that no president of MTV would ever be elected while the party was still in opposition.

Zoltán Kovács is the government’s point man on the Hungarian media law. So when a foreign visitor from some official organization visits Hungary to discuss the media law, his official contact is Kovács. Kovács is not a negotiator, as is evident from his conversations with Olga Kálmán on Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) on ATV. Here is one example from today.

Kovács is the classic slippery government “communicator” that we encounter worldwide. In this particular interview he repeats at least three times that the latest nosy visitors from the High Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations were actually invited by the Hungarian government. But that is not the whole truth. The two rapporteurs first wrote to the Hungarian government in January expressing their desire to visit Budapest to have a chat about the controversial media law. When they received no answer, they wrote again. After a while the Hungarian government had to extend an invitation.

Meetings between representatives of the Hungarian government and visitors from international organizations are normally described in such understated diplomatic terms that one has to read between the lines in order to find out what actually happened behind closed doors. But Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion expression, was a great deal less diplomatic. As he said, he was “a bit shocked, to say it politely, at some of the positions I heard…. Different government officials were speaking with full honesty and speaking their mind, but it does seem to me that there is a framework of control. I think this is very dangerous.” In brief, members of this government don’t realize how unacceptable the Hungarian government’s position is on certain issues–for example, control of the media. Something that sounds perfectly reasonable to them sounds horrific to foreign observers.

Just to highlight the gravity of the situation, these rapporteurs normally don’t visit European countries. Not long ago La Rue visited Egypt, Algeria, South Korea, South Africa, and from Budapest he is traveling to Kenya.

Today La Rue and Zoltán Kovács gave a joint press conference. Kovács made it clear at the beginning that the UN representatives didn’t come to Budapest “to investigate” but “because we invited them.” Kovács repeated as he does time and again that there is absolutely no reason to change anything in the media law. The fault always lies with the other side which is ignorant of either the law or the particular Hungarian situation or both.

Kovács wasn’t impressed by La Rue’s strong warnings about limiting the freedom of the press by appealing to morality or hate speech. Not surprisingly, La Rue was somewhat taken aback by the fact that the members of the media council were appointed solely by the government, initially for nine years and renewable for another nine. “This is eighteen years, practically a whole generation.”

He also addressed the issue of balanced coverage. La Rue said attempts by governments to dictate balanced media coverage often lead to censorship. “Every time we hear about balanced coverage or objectivity of the press … it inevitably becomes, with time, a form of censorship regardless of what the initial motivation was. The press is accountable … to the public and never to the state and much less to the government.”

The UN investigators came and went, but apparently they will return. For what? I have no idea. Meanwhile Zoltán Kovács keeps repeating that the Orbán government will not change a thing. Mind you, we’ve heard that earlier straight from the horse’s mouth and a few months later, behold, under pressure changes were made. We will see.

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Ron
Guest

I am pretty sure that the EU continue to work on the media law as well, but behind doors. France, Germany and Italy have some problems with their media law and this need to be adjusted. I am pretty sure that Hungary will be included in these adjustments.
http://www.euractiv.com/en/future-eu/hungarian-media-law-triggers-eu-debate-press-freedom-news-502438

Odin's lost eye
Guest
For once ‘Little Hungary’ has stirred up a ‘Hornets nest’ with its media law. ‘His Mightiness’ (OV) thought that all he needed was the ‘super majority’ and he could do anything. He (and FIdesz) has found they cannot. Quite apart from the EU commissioners an obscure department of the UN has trotted out of its offices to come and join in the fun. All of these people are working quietly dissecting the media laws. Their discussions are or the moment held behind closed and I suspect that they are talking to each other. Hungary, in its arguments supporting its own law, has brought to the notice of the EU commissioners little ‘Oh Nastys’ in the media laws of other member states. These will have to be rectified. In the end I suspect that there will be a European media directive which will effectively put ‘paid’ to all of the ‘fun and games’. This will take time as the mills of God and the EU grind slow but grind exceeding fine. But some good will come of it, Lajos Kósa or no Lajos Kósa. The Hungarian Government is by now, well aware of a central principle of European Justice. This principle,… Read more »
late night
Guest

Honestly, we cannot say, O.V. has hit any hard obstacle, just feeble resistance. I consider his grabbing of the pension funds and his crusade against the foreign investors as worst, a bona fide communist coup, and there is no reaction from the E.U. This is because the bailout of the banks in Europe is the same thing, so O.V. is among pals, at least for now. Free speech and free market come and go hand in hand.

Member

late night: ” his crusade against the foreign investors as worst, a bona fide communist coup, and there is no reaction from the E.U. ” Yes there is. At this moment the extra levy is in front of the EU.

Johnny Boy
Guest

When I saw the picture I thought this article would be on how a bad man this Zoltán Kovács is. For once I’d probably have agreed with that. He is, in my opinion, a completely unfit man for the job. The best proof for it is that we haven’t heard of him until the end of January when the media scandal was already raging for weeks. And when we heard of him, it became even worse.
But to comment one statement here:
“The press is accountable … to the public and never to the state and much less to the government”
This is double crap.
1. How is the press accountable to the public? Obviously in no way.
2. the media is very much accountable to the state/government as while the government is at least elected by the majority of the population, the media is elected by NOBODY and it is against the basic rule of democracy to have an uncontrollable power above the elected supreme power. As long as basic human rights are granted, the media is and should be very much accountable.

Jim
Guest

Johnny me Boy,
In a democracy the press, in its role as the Fourth Estate, is accountable to the public to provide information and oversight relating to society and government.
Your concept — that the press is accountable to the state — is true of dictatorships only.

Member
Kovacs seems actually smart compared to most of the prominent FIDESZ politicians. He actually has a Dr. title. I wonder what was his dissertation about .. In this interview he was smooth and calm and dominating but polite. Of course his job as a spokesman is to BS the public and so he did … Szabo: “Who’s going to protect the reputation of the individuals?” [if not the state that is the media council] Kalman: “The courts.” Szabo: “Aren’t the courts part of the State?” Bingo. What Johnny is saying is essentially the same thing. The press should be accountable to the government (in a cute way blurring the difference between the state and the government). They are trying to make a case for censorship. As Red/Green Danny put in the EU parliament: the press’ job is constantly challenge the government actions with no control. A newspaper is actually independent business Johnny. They are not elected or created by elected individuals. They are just there. They print stuff and we buy it. They just say things on paper as you would in, say, a pub. But if you allege in a pub that I am serial rapist I’ll sue your… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Johnny, in a free country the press is “elected” by those people who read it. You simply have “elections” more often.

Paul
Guest

“the media is elected by NOBODY and it is against the basic rule of democracy to have an uncontrollable power above the elected supreme power. As long as basic human rights are granted, the media is and should be very much accountable”
Understand the ‘logic’ behind this and you understand how the OV/Fidesz mind works. I hear this sort of back-to-front stuff all the time from my wife and out-laws, and they appear to be entirely unaware that it just doesn’t make sense.

Member

The logic you refer to Paul is the type of logic you get in communism or a cult: the leader tells you what to think and you think it.
When it comes to OV’s anti-communism methinks he doth protest too much…

Kirsten
Guest

But what I do not understand is why it is so much stressed that the press is not elected, in communism nearly nothing is freely elected and Fidesz does not seem to be eager to have a referendum on the constitution. There are certainly many people working for the Fidesz administration that were not personally elected, including Zoltan Kovacs in his function as undersecretary.

Member

This is so bizarre that I’m not even sure the JB really meant it. Re-reading it, it seems the keyword is “power”: the press being an “uncontrollable power”. They are so afraid of the free press that they devised this battle against it with the media law. They are convinced that the vicious press lied to the people that is why they lost the 2002 elections and they don’t want to take chances again.

Paul
Guest

Mutt – I think his spittle sometimes flies with such volume and velocity that it obscures parts of the screen and he doesn’t actually realise what he’s written.

Paul
Guest

Ron – thanks for the link. A very interesting article that otherwise I would never have come across.
I can only assume ‘Kenny’ hasn’t read it or he’d be ramming it down our throats!
I urge anyone else who hasn’t followed the link to read it, it gives a very intersting and thought provoking different perspective on the whole ‘media law’ issue.
And it doesn’t even mention the UK – we have plenty of skeletons in cupboards where ‘freedom’ of the press is concerned!

Johnny Boy
Guest

Kirsten: the ‘public’ doesn’t have any means to hold the media accountable. This is the key point.
They either watch/read some channels or papers or not, but as for media that operates on political grounds and has the necessary funds to stay alive, there are no means for the public to regulate them.

Johnny Boy
Guest
Mutt. “But if you allege in a pub that I am serial rapist I’ll sue your ass off. Same goes for the news media. No government required.” Yes government is required. I’ll tell why. If I allege in a popular TV channel that you look like a cockroach and smell like a horny sow (even if I’m right), you can sue me for violating your rights on personal dignity. (I intentionally changed the example of your serial rapist lifestyle because that’d be a charge of crime from my part and belongs to a different legal category for which, if my charge is untrue, you can counter-charge me to put me in jail.) So sue me if you’d like, then a fw years later you won the lawsuit and the court will oblige me to pay you let’s say a few hundreds of thousands of forints as compensation. Yet for years you will have to live with the public maybe thinking you look like a cockroach. In the end the damage done to you is much more than you get your compensation for. The new media law merely raises the possible fee to so high amounts that any medium has to… Read more »
Paul
Guest

OK, ‘Kenny’, here’s your argument – why should there be any means (beyond basic laws of defamation, race hate, etc)”for the public to regulate them”?
Which bit of ‘free press’ don’t you understand?
I’ve lived most of my life in a country where the press/TV/radio is at best in favour of a right of centre ‘status quo’ and at worst is overwhelmingly, radically, and often unfairly, opposed to my personal politics. But I would rather have that than a regulated press. That only ever ends up as one thing – a heavilly controlled and censored state propaganda machine.
Mind you, I guess that’s my answer – that’s exactly what OV (and you) would want.

Member

@Johnny Paul is right. Why do we need a comittee to impose higher fines? Why can’t stronger defamation laws take care of the roach-o-phobia by handing out even prison terms?

Member

@Johnny I forgot. Here it is how it works: In the US Fox News is pulling the plug on Glenn Beck. If you don’t know him his a conservative, fear-monger fruitcake, a sensationalist, conspiracy theory maniac. You would love him if you lived here 🙂 Well, his ratings fell from 3 millions to below 2 millions and hundreds of advertisers signalled that they don’t want their ads on his show. This how viewers regulate the media.

Odin's lost eye
Guest

Oi vay! The little rubber goods boy has been at the ‘Bunko’ Powders Again!
Mutt you write “@Johnny Paul is right. Why do we need a committee to impose higher fines? Why can’t stronger defamation laws take care of the roach-o-phobia by handing out even prison terms?”
No Mutt “Defamation” is entirely a civil matter.
This is because it is the individual who must decide if what is written defames him and he has to show this “Beyond reasonable doubt”.
If you introduce a custodial sentence, which deprives a person of their liberty, the degree of proof required rises to be “Beyond ALL reasonable doubt”.

Kirsten
Guest
Johnny: “Yet for years you will have to live with the public maybe thinking you look like a cockroach. In the end the damage done to you is much more than you get your compensation for.” Are you actually speaking of press such as Magyar Nemzet ? I see that there is a bit of a problem with their accountability, so what again was it that you exactly proposed how to deal with these? I thought earlier this year that the media council could fine attacks in the press on Jews, Roma etc. but that did not happen. Instead (as far as I remember) they started to criticise some radio stations for broadcasting songs with vulgar words? The difference that we are speaking of is either (I suggest) you can say a lot freely but in a civilised manner (if this is not true you turn to a court) or (probably your approach) you can say some (“politically correct”, i.e. reflecting the ideas of the “eternal majority” otherwise called Orban Viktor) points in whatever way because this is the “truth”. And the truth need not hide behind polite words. These are two different approaches to free speech and I am… Read more »
kis fiu
Guest

@johnny: I dont think people have a problem with beefing up defamation laws or with controlling vulgarities on the radio for that matter. The problem with the media law is simple: the government has complete control over the media council and the media council has complete control over the media.
If the problem is that fines for breaking defamation laws are not big enough, a more reasonable solution is to increase the possible fines but keep the whole process in the courts. A judge or jury should decide these things not a council appointed by one political party.

Jo Peattie
Guest

Maybe if everyone started complaining about the least little thing the Media Authority would get so bogged down that it would not be able to function. Or maybe this is just wishful thinking.

Ron
Guest

Everybody (not part or supporter of FIDESZ) is freaked out of this media law, and with good reason.
However, if the trend continues FIDESZ may not have a large support during the next elections, and therefore, they may loose the elections. I am curious what will happen.
In Holland we have ministrial responsibility and personal responsibility. To a certain extent that is also applicable in Hungary.
I wonder if the next government would attack FIDESZ or Media council for not upholding the media law (balanced information) and how far back they would go. The reason why I am saying that is that they are very quiet about the media law. Is this the silence before the storm?
Will they attack the media or the media council? Or both? Currently, the media does not give balanced information and should receive a warning or worse be penalized, but nothing is happening or at least not to my knowledge.
For easy reference the policy solutions pdf file on their small research on balanced information.
http://www.policysolutions.hu/userfiles/elemzesek/Hungarian%20Politics%20In-Depth_2011_Week10.pdf
Just a thought.

Ron
Guest

Anybody not living in Hungary, but speaks the language you may want to look at Heti Hetes. A few people give comments on the news of last week. Sometimes it is very funny. It became popular under the previous Orban kormany and during the last couple of years it was not so popular. However, since Orban came into power it is popular again.
It is on RTL Klub every Sunday, and for the ones who missed the last couple of programs, please follow the belowmentioned link.
http://www.rtlklub.hu/most/musorok/heti_hetes

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ron: “Anybody not living in Hungary, but speaks the language you may want to look at Heti Hetes.”
Thank you. Just to remind everyone: practically all Hungarian television stations and radios have internet editions and archives.
One day I should collect links useful for understanding Hungarian political events.

Johnny Boy
Guest

Heti Hetes’s “jokes” are born upon political orders. Just for the record.

Johnny Boy
Guest

Kirsten: please show me one medium except for kuckuruc-infó that attacks the Jews and the Roma.
And your insinuation of Magyar Nemzet in such context is outrageous.
It also tells a lot that in your opinion Hungary’s biggest media problem is the attacks on the Jews and the Roma.

Ron
Guest

Johnny Boy: Heti Hetes’s “jokes” are born upon political orders. Just for the record.
At least they are funny.

Ron
Guest

The first penalty is issued. HUF 144 mio. to RTL Klub.
http://www.mediatanacs.hu/hirek.php?hir_id=626
And they are investigating the call games of RTL and TV2 so more penalties are to be expected.