Yes, it is July 1 and in case anyone forgot, today is the day that the media law's regulations governing the written media, including the Internet newspapers, came into force. Everybody suspected that the government decided to postpone the date by six months because it didn't want to become the subject of countless articles in the foreign press about the draconian laws affecting the Hungarian press while Hungary was holding the presidency of the European Union.
It seems, though, that Annamária Szalai and her crew in the Media Council were busy getting ready for the day because this morning we heard that Népszava, a left-liberal organ, received a stern letter from Jenő Bodonovich, who seems to be the commissioner in charge of media and telecommunication. From the letter, which is available online, one learns that an unnamed person denounced Népszava because of a comment that appeared in the Internet edition of the paper. The article that inspired the comments was "Pál Schmitt: Ferenc Mádl was a man of firm convictions." It appeared on June 8 on the occasion of the former president's sudden death.
The man who wasn't brave enough to reveal his name wrote straight to Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of communications in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, on June 13. He was offended by one of the comments written in connection with the article. He neglected to be specific. Because there were about twenty comments that accompanied the Internet edition of the article we can only guess which one offended our brave man.
Why he didn't write to the Media Council? Most likely because he was familiar with the name of the fiery undersecretary who defended the media law with such gusto at every international forum ever since January when the international outcry began. Zoltán Kovács found this denunciation of Népszava so terribly important and urgent that he immediately sent the letter over to the "proper authority"–that is, the Media Council. One wishes that government officials were always so prompt in answering letters and acting upon them.
The indignant citizen found "the comments to be profane [kegyeletsértők]." He claimed that he wrote a letter to Népszava complaining but received no answer. (Népszava claims that they know nothing about any such letter.)
It took the Office of the Commissioner of the Media and Telecommunications a little longer to write a letter to Péter Németh, editor-in-chief, but it arrived in time to make a big splash on July 1, the D-Day of the Hungarian Media Law. In the letter Németh was informed that the commissioner is beginning an investigation because the comments to the article "are insulting concerning the persons of Ferenc Mádl and President Pál Schmitt." So, the charge is no longer profanity but simply insulting language.
So, let's see what might have offended our man who complained to Zoltán Kovács. Well, someone called Schmitt a clown; someone else thought that Mádl was a man of conviction as opposed to Schmitt. Someone actually took pity on Schmitt and thought that to use the occasion of Mádl's death to badmouth Schmitt is not fair. Someone remarked that to be a man of conviction in comparison to Schmitt is not much to say. Interestingly enough, the only tasteless remark among the twenty or so comments was one about Viktor Orbán. Someone said that he will rejoice when "the fellow from Alcsút will join him [Mádl, I presume] in the other world."
All these comments are simply opinions. Someone might think that Schmitt is a clown or not a man of conviction, but surely even the Hungarian media law couldn't find this opinion punishable. As for "the fellow from Alcsút," it is a tasteless reference. But, interestingly, the letter makes no mention of that particular comment. In fact, I found these comments quite mild in comparison to the usual fare on the Internet.
The reaction to this letter to Népszava was total panic in the media community. The first was Index, the popular Internet site, which announced that there will be no more opportunity from here on to write comments. The editors admitted that this move is not a very nice or brave act but "because of the changed legal environment" they cannot do anything else. They cannot hire three people to monitor the comments 24/7; instead, "we have to play safe."
The last time I looked, one can no longer comment on hvg.hu, hirszerzo.hu, and hetivalasz.hu. Mandiner.hu, a site run by young conservatives, took the whole thing in stride and made fun of it. The article that appeared on the topic was entitled "Down with comment crime!" The author expressed his astonishment that Zoltán Kovács gets involved in such a petty affair and that the Media Council actually takes this whole thing seriously. He ended the article on a sarcastic note: "Long live our beloved leader, Viktor Orbán, who shows us the way in the war against the wicked imperialists, multinationals, sovereign debt, and the IMF in which our Chinese brothers are helping us! Will I get into trouble over this? I hope not."
The fact is that there is huge confusion in the minds of the authorities themselves over what the Media Law covers and what it doesn't. Just today the spokeswoman of the Media Council, Karola Kiricsi, specifically mentioned that the Media Council has no jurisdiction over blogs, Internet forums, and comments. She blamed the media itself for spreading false information which she has been trying to dispel.
However, the panic that set in shows that Kiricis wasn't successful at calming the fear that is spreading in the media community. Moreover, the confusion exists not only in journalistic circles but also within the Media Council itself. After all, the Office of the Commissioner for the Media and Telecommunication is under the jurisdiction of the Media Council.
I'm happy to say that one still can comment on Népszava.