No free and plural media in Hungary? The government’s answer to Neelie Kroes

The reaction to Viktor Orbán’s speech a week ago has been uniformly negative. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal agreed with the liberal New York Times that Orbán’s vision of the future of Hungary is incompatible with western values, specifically the values of the European Union of which Hungary is a member.

This speech and its aftermath necessarily turned attention away from other developments, among which one of the most important is an article by Neelie Kroes, European commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. In the last four years there were two female members of the European Commission who especially irritated Viktor Orbán. One was Neelie Kroes and the other Viviane Reding, Commissioner of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. The latter is one of the two Luxembourgians who dared to raise their voices against Viktor Orbán’s policies and therefore incurred the ire of Hungary’s “pocket dictator.”

The article appeared simultaneously on the website of the European Commission in English and in Hungarian in NépszabadságThe original title of the piece is “Media Freedom remains under threat in Hungary,” while the Hungarian title is shorter and therefore somewhat stronger: “Media freedom is in danger.”  Let me republish this short article here:

A free and plural media is the foundation of a free society, and a safeguard of democratic tradition. The new “advertising tax” in Hungary shows it is still very much under threat.

This new tax was introduced in Parliament in just a few days, without significant debate or consultation. Ostensibly an “advertising tax” to raise revenue, in fact it disproportionately affects on single media company, RTL. Indeed, according to their own calculations, they are the only single company that would face the highest rate of the tax; imposing significant losses and putting in jeopardy their ability to operate.

The conclusion is obvious. RTL is one of the few channels in Hungary not simply promoting a pro-Fidesz line; it is hard to see that the goal is anything other than to drive them out of Hungary. The Hungarian Government does not want a neutral, foreign-owned broadcaster in Hungary; it is using an unfair tax to wipe out democratic safeguards, and see off a perceived challenge to its power.

The freedom of establishment is a fundamental principle of the single market.

But it is about more than just one tax or just one company: it is part of a pattern that is deeply worrying; a pattern contrary to the EU’s values. Taxation cannot be an instrument for discrimination, and tax policy should not be a political weapon.

A new media law introduced in 2010 put huge powers over the Hungarian media into a body subject to political interference: breaching the Hungarian constitution and EU law and jeopardizing fundamental rights. Later on, opposition radio station Klubrádió lost its licence; they eventually got it back, after a complex and costly fight, but the episode revealed (in the words of the European Parliament) “biased and opaque tendering practices.” In 2013, new laws placed restrictions on political advertising. Meanwhile, just last month, the editor of oneline newspaper ORIGO was dismissed after it uncovered a political scandal; many ink his dismissal to political pressure.

Some of these criticisms and concerns have been addressed, under pressure from the EU and the international community. Others remain a very real worry.

A recent report from the OSCE shows that the impact this is having. It found that, in the run-up to recent elections, the majority of monitored TV channels showed “significant bias” towards ruling party Fidesz; with RTL being one exception. And it highlights an “increasing number of outlets directly owned by business people associated with Fidesz.” The picture it paints is of a media sector that is (at best) uncertain and self-censoring; and at worst partisan if not government-controlled.

In that environment it is deeply damaging that the government would turn a blind eye: they should be engaging positively to manage threats to media pluralism. The fact is, government control, monopoly and censorship belong to a different, darker, period in Hungary’s history: and no one should seek a return to it.

Fair and unbiased coverage is a principal function of a free and plural media. Undermining that, and attempting to silence dynamic debate, is an attack on Hungarian democracy. For the sake of that democracy, and of the Hungarian people who have fought so hard to enjoy its benefits, we cannot stand by as idle spectators.

Hungary is not the only EU country where such concerns and debates exist; these are also issues raised, with different emphases and in different contexts, in Bulgaria, Italy, the UK and others. Europe needs to get its own house in order to ensure a free and plural media. There are many proposals out there for how to achieve that–including those set out in the Report of the High Level Group chaired by Vaire Viķe -Freiberga. It’s time we started taking those ideas seriously, for the sake of our freedom and democratic values.

An answer came immediately from Gergely Gulyás, who was recently elevated to a new parliamentary position. He became deputy-president of parliament responsible for the legislative work of the House. In brief, all pieces of legislation that come before parliament will have Gulyás’s approval. Quite a position for a thirty-three year old. The tone of the letter is typical of this political leadership: arrogant and sermonizing.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

“We agree with Neelie Kroes that ‘a free and plural media is the foundation of a free society’ and we are happy to report that the Hungarian media is free and plural. And as far as Hungarian society is concerned it is also free.”

According to Gulyás, everything is in order with the advertisement tax. It has been in the works for years. RTL Klub is not being discriminated against, because the tax depends on advertising revenues. RTL just happens to receive the largest share of ad revenues. Every segment of society must bear its fair share of the tax burden. RTL is no exception. Political revenge on the part of the government is out of the question because RTL Klub until now spent little time on politics. However, since the passage of the tax law the station “has been one-sidedly slandering the government and its politicians.” It seems that for Gulyás reporting on political scandals is nothing but slander.

Gulyás also objected to Kroes’s contention that the Hungarian government wants to drive out foreign companies. In this connection she reminded the Hungarian political leadership of “the freedom of establishment [which] is a fundamental principle of the single market.” Foreign companies have a large share of the Hungarian media market and this will most likely be the case for a long time to come, he said. As for “democratic values,” Gulyás would like to know exactly what kinds of values Neelie Kroes has in mind. After all, in 2013 the secretary-general of the Council of Europe found everything in order with the 2010 media law that Kroes is now criticizing.

Gergely must have been happy to find a factual error in Kroes’s letter in connection with Klubrádió. Indeed, Kroes wasn’t precise enough. Although Klubrádió valiantly fought for its survival for more than three years, it did not lose its license in Budapest. But what Gergely neglected to mention was that it did lose eleven other frequencies throughout the country. By now Klubrádió can be heard only in Budapest.

Gulyás was equally at a loss to know what Kroes could possibly mean by “biased and opaque tendering practices” in allotting radio frequencies. Gulyás “would like to inform the Madame Commissioner” that all the rules and regulations are constitutional and transparent; all applicants are treated equally, and there is the possibility of legal appeal.

As far as restricting political advertisement, Gulyás finds nothing wrong with the current practice. Every country in the Union has some restrictions. As does Hungary. And the current practice is fair because it gives the same chance to all parties regardless of their financial strength. It is in fact a highly democratic practice.  With respect to the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, allegedly for political reasons, there is no proof of it and “it is irresponsible of the commissioner to bring it up without any proof.”

As for the OSCE report which Kroes claims found bias in television news coverage in favor of the government, this allegation is also incorrect. If there had been such a bias, the liberal-socialist opposition parties would have gone to the Media Authority to protest, but with the exception of far-right Jobbik no party did.

Finally, Gulyás complained about the political pressure coming from the European Union every time the Hungarian parliament passes laws affecting foreign banks and companies.

This last accusation leads me back to Viktor Orbán’s speech. It looks as if the simultaneous appearance of two very strongly worded editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal surprised the right-wing political analysts. They can’t imagine that these two papers would independently call for strong sanctions against the Orbán government because they were genuinely shocked by the message delivered by Viktor Orbán on the virtues of “illiberal states.” Instead, they pulled out a favorite from the Hungarian right playbook, a conspiracy theory.

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz of Nézőpont Institute, a right-wing think tank with large orders from the government, believes that “foreign interest groups may be behind the attack [on Viktor Orbán] which will be deprived of considerable revenues because of the reduction of utility prices, taxes on the banks and advertisement.” Csaba Lentner, an economist who currently teaches at the newly established Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (National University of Civil Service)  thinks that The New York Times editorial might in fact be against international law because a newspaper from the United States is urging action by the EU against Hungary. A bizarre contention. I might add that Lenter, who is currently a great supporter of Fidesz, was a MIÉP member of parliament between 1998 and 2002. MIÉP was an openly anti-Semitic, far-right party.

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Minusio
Guest

Gergely Gulyás’ reply is the usual Fidesz reflex clap-trap.

What is embarrassing is the poor English and the typos in Kroes’ article.

buddy
Guest

A bit OT: I’m not sure this has been posted here yet, at least I haven’t seen it, but Fareed Zakaria responds to OV’s Tusnadfurdo speech:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fareed-zakaria-the-rise-of-putinism/2014/07/31/2c9711d6-18e7-11e4-9e3b-7f2f110c6265_story.html

LwiiH
Guest
petofi
Guest

@LwiiH

Thank you for the Fareed link: an excellent encapsulation of what’s happening in wretched Hungary.

Slowly the world is waking to the creeping KGB-ism in Eastern Europe and its most disgusting
foot-soldier–Hungary.

petofi
Guest
Hungary today: Yesterday, I had a yen for “Dobos Torta” and anyone who knows this pastry knows that only Gerbaud makes it right. So, on a Sunday afternoon, I took my car and parked in a lot ‘behind’ Gerbaud. I checked carefully for any parking signs. There were none. So now I walked to the newspaper kiosk at the other end but found it closed. I had to walk another block and a half down Vaci utca to buy my Newsweek at the Inmedia shop. Back to Gerbaud now. Took my table outside and innocently ordered my dobos and a coffee. In the meantime, a French couple sat a table away and ordered two sundaes. They ate it without a care for calories. When the bill came, the fellow had a 20 euro bill in hand. I was curious to see what would happen. The waitress came, showed a bill in forints and declared that the bill in euros was “27 euros”. How could that be, I thought. But the fellow paid without a murmur. Had they objected, I would’ve offered assistance. Some minutes later, my bill arrived: the dobos was 1950 forints!! That’s ridiculous, I thought. What a ripoff.… Read more »
Member

Hold your tin foil hats! The international Anti-Hungarian conspiracy of Big Mammon and left-wing liberals is controlling not only the NYT and the WSJ but also Oxford University, which has just removed Orbán from its list of famous alumni: http://www.borsonline.hu/20140804_toroltek_orbant_az_oxfordi_egyetem_dicsosegfalarol .

Rollo
Guest

Petofi: one should not buy anything close to Váci utca or Vörösmarty tér, almost everything is a rip off, including the money exchange booths with 10%+ margins.

By the way Szamos conditorei-bakers have an outlet more or less overlooking Gerbaud, in the same building as Hard Rock Cafe is in. It is a very decent brand with 6-8 outlets all over Budapest.

teriyaki
Guest

http://index.hu/gazdasag/2014/08/04/strategiai_szovetseg/

The companies which concluded the so-called Strategic Agreements with the government in aggregate actually decreased employment, that’s how much they are enthusiastic about Hungary. These companies in aggregate are also a good unofficial sampling of the state of the economy: the market-based, full-time, in Hungary located jobs have been stagnating at best. Any increase in employment came from statistical massaging of the numbers.

By the way, I heard that the most important section of any such agreement is always the provision which says that the agreement is non-binding. I mean, what did you think?

tappanch
Guest

The Economics University is going to comply with the Orban government’s demand and will remove Karl Marx’s sculpture from its main building.

The university was originally named after Marx. I am not sure whether “Corvinus” was a better economist.

http://eduline.hu/felsooktatas/2014/8/4/Eltunik_a_Kozgaz_aulajabol_a_Marxszobor_PEFAA2

tappanch
Guest

The Economics University of Budapest is going to comply with the Orban government’s demand and will remove Karl Marx’s sculpture from its main building.

The university was originally named after Marx. I am not sure whether “Corvinus” [King Matthias] was a better economist.

http://eduline.hu/felsooktatas/2014/8/4/Eltunik_a_Kozgaz_aulajabol_a_Marxszobor_PEFAA2

Lothbrok
Guest

The most infuriating thing is that opposition politicians continue their thievery even from opposition. When they have very little opportunity yet they continue to steal public money defaming themselves for little gain. For example the new MSZP chief Tobias claimed travel expenses as if he was living in Szabolcs, hundreds of KM from the capital when he really was not living there. He was living at a place where you would get little to no “travel expenses” from so he fudged his address to gain more money. It is a small matter but exactly because it is small it is so stupid to do it.

Another politician Laszlo Varju, (DK, Gyurcsany’s Party) took a full severance package (for being “fired” as MP) and then he sits right back into parliament essentially stealing the money from the public. Of course it is all “legal” but that will not stop the public to look at this as simple thievery and starts to hurt support right before the important municipal elections. Read this article everything is in here:

http://http://nol.hu/velemeny/nem-mult-el-a-nyolc-ev-1477981

D7 Democrat
Guest

“Some of these criticisms and concerns have been addressed, under pressure from the EU and the international community. Others remain a very real worry.”

To quote an Orbanist thug, somewhat out of the context,:
“Yeah, and what are you going to do about it?”

A distinct deja vu has arisen with Ms Kroes’ “demands”.

We heard the same “demands” almost 4 years ago and they stopped the fascist regime in its tracks for all of about 5 minutes. Brussels uses language that you would normally use when scolding civilized people and seem shocked when the Orbanist primitives respond with the equivalent of an ignorant grunt.

It is a pariah government that will only respond to cutting off its financial lifeline. Until you do that, you will have zero success at any attempt at trying to re-democratize Hungary.

HiBoM
Guest

Removing him externally as you suggest, however desirable the end result, would backfire and it would also spell the end of the EU. So it won’t happen, nor, when you think what it implies, should it. No, there has to be civil disobedience within Hungary to start exerting pressure and as Paul often says, that will not happen because most people either like Orbán or are indifferent.

koromos
Guest
D7 democrat
Guest

“Removing him externally as you suggest, however desirable the end result, would backfire and it would also spell the end of the EU”

The fact that countries can still receive the benefits (ie financial) of EU membership while openly flaunting its rules whilst building a dictatorship defeats its whole purpose surely?

Also, imo, not a question of the EU removing Orban, more simply a case of these are our rules, if you don’t like them, then “bye” and your unlimited EU bonuses are now cancelled

The posturing of Kroes is completely pointless unless there is weight behind it.

Thomas
Guest

“@D7 Democrat. I agree with you. They should bluntly tell him: no money until he is gone. Gone completely. Out of political life.”

Eva I don’t think you mean that. That would be pure Fascism: the collective punishment of all Hungarian citizens because of how they voted in the democratic elections. If such “plan” were to realize it would lead to impoverishment and cutting back on spending in many areas.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Eva S. Balogh@D7 Democrat. I agree with you. They should bluntly tell him: no money until he is gone. Gone completely. Out of political life.

No, they shouldn’t. Fortunately, the Commission mandate is about facts, law, and due process.

The EP could ask the EC to act, in their next session. But will they, and how? I’m not under the impression that the strategy used 14 years ago against the Haider-led coalition in Austria left such a good taste in everyone’s mouth.

tappanch
Guest

Falsification of history by the Orban government is going ahead at full speed:

Orban’s minister denies that Gypsies were also deported in 1944. “Hungarian Gypsies were taken away only from Austria”

http://www.hvg.hu/itthon/20140804_Este_jottek_a_nyilasok__holokauszt_tulel

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Tappanch, you were quicker than me. Shame on Balog Zoltán!

tappanch
Guest

Here is a comparison of the persecution of the Jews and Gypsies in Hungary in 1944.

http://www.holokausztmagyarorszagon.hu/index.php?section=1&chapter=9_1_4&type=content

THe article estimates the number of Hungarian Gypsy victims at 5,000.

They were murdered in Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and also in the “Csillagerőd” in Komárom, Szolgaegyház, Nagyszalonta, Doboz, Várpalota, Lajoskomárom and Lengyel.

Pangasius
Guest

Now that it turns out that LMP does not have enough candidates for the municipal elections it decided to work together with 4K! (“the party of the fourth republic”), which is a strange entity. I always felt something uncanny about this 4K bunch, that they were a pseudo organization run or controlled by spooks. This may be paranoia, but they just don’t seem legit or ‘real’ like any other party does.

Gellért
Guest

@petofi

30.000 Ft for not having bought a parking ticket, or for an expired parking ticket, is not acceptable by Hungarian law. The fine they can charge is in relation to the hourly parking fee and cannot be higher than 6600 Ft if you pay within 15 days, in the area you mentioned. See this table: http://www.bkk.hu/parkolas/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/parkolasi_dijak.pdf

Maybe you got booked for something else? Otherwise check who issued the ticket for I think you fell victim the local district municipality that has strangely enough also got rights to fine people. Find out what to do. Probably not paying the 30.000 and finding out which law enforcing body will come after you when you don’t pay (which I think is not the municipality) is likely the way to proceed, but please find out yourself.

And don’t say “And I’ve yet to hear of anyone who has won a case in court.” because you only underline your out-of-touch-with-reality that you already showed by paying 1950 forints for a dobos 😉

Guest

OT re parking:

Of course all European Capitals (and bigger cities in general) have strict parking rules – usually only at night or on Sundays you can park for free – in selected areas, not in the centre! Maybe the place where petofi parked was a “no car zone”?

In Munich you pay up to 5€ an hour for a parking site on the street – a garage might be even more expensive. So I would have been very surprised if it were different in Budapest.

And even more OT – something positive (surely not Orbán’s fault):

In Hévíz and Keszthely the big central parking lots have a very customer friendly rule – the first hour is free! So if you want to do some quick shopping like we did today …

It’s a good idea because it brings back customers to the city centre (and into the markets and shops there) instead of sending them to the big malls on the periphery.

Ron
Guest

@petofi About two years ago a similar thing happened to me. As it turned out, I parked were I was not allowed to park (a stretch of 15 meters), but I did not see the sign, as it was blocked by a small truck. Btw the truck did not get the fine, only me, despite the fact it was there before me. I assume they made a special arrangement.

As for Gerbeaud, I left them for Daubner, they are better, have tastier tortas and are cheaper. And have their own parking place behind their shop.

http://daubnercukraszda.hu/content/nosztalgia-dobostorta

Member
To some extent, F. Zakaria might be right in his assessment but he is reinventing the wheel. Copenhagen criteria are known at least since 1993 and the State Department accepted this approach for many years. It means democracy, rule of law and a functioning market economy, among others. (NATO is contented with considerably less.) http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/policy/glossary/terms/accession-criteria_en.htm During the last two decades or so, the Commission kept evaluating the performance of new member states while some remained under monitoring process. Based on this experience the criteria to join the EU were defined further and they became more rigorous than ever. Informal requirements are going well beyond the EU Acquis communautaire now. Juncker said there would be no enlargement at least for the next five years. Who is to blame I wonder. By the way, formally Turkey is also a contender. Today’s Hungary would definitely fail the accession. However, Hungary is inside now that makes a huge difference. Personally, I believe that instead of pursuing probably false hopes we should concentrate on the job and the person of the new Hungarian Commissioner. The story will be indicative on how far the COM is ready to go with this issue. Invoking Article 7 of… Read more »
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