The Hungarian presidency of the European Union has been thrown under an aggressive global media spotlight, in the wake of a recently-enacted Media Law, which threatens censorship of all media, traditional and Internet.
It really is not the sort of PR that the Hungarian government would have hoped for when it takes over the EU Presidency this Saturday. But a barrage of attacks in the foreign media, including being accused by the UK's Daily Mail of bringing in a "communist-style measure" to gag the media, and by al Jazeera English of its ‘unsuitability' to hold the EU presidency, sets it up for a rocky ride over the next 6 months.
The anger of the world's media against the Hungarian government has been prompted by a new Media Law which threatens freedom of speech. The law will affect material published on the Internet, although its scope is much wider.
The Hungarian Media Law regulates all media, both traditional print, radio and television, as well as the Internet. It imposes fines for failure to comply with government-defined criteria not to offend "public morality, churches, nationalities or minorities."
The story appears to have leaped into the global media following a European Commission
press briefing just before Christmas on 22 December, when questions were asked about the law.
According to a Hungarian civil liberties group, all media providers will have be registered, and they may be shut down temporarily or permanently for non-compliance with new criteria. The group also claims that ISPs will be made liable for content. Media organisations which breach the law can be fined up to €730,000. Lower-level fines have been defined for small publishers, which could include websites. Journalists sources will also lose legal protection.
The law took effect on Saturday 1 January, and according to an AFP report, already one radio station has received a letter saying that it is under investigation for broadcasting a song which ‘could infuence the development of minors in a negative way'.
The implementation will be be overseen by a Media Council, whose composition and appointment is being questioned as the appointees to date are all apparently from the ruling government Fidesz party.
Following elections earlier this year, the centre-right Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament, which enabled it to bring in the law easily. The three opposition parties in the Hungarian Parliament have taken to the law to the country's Constitutional Court, but there is scepticism as to their chances of success.
The Hungarian Media Law has caused outrage internationally.
On Christmas Eve, it emerged that the European Commissioner for Information Society, Neelie Kroes, has concerns about whether the law breaches European law on media freedom. The Financial Times reported that she has written to the Hungarian government outling complaints that she has received and asking it to defend the law.
According to the Wall Street Journal,the Hungarian media law will have the power to monitor and penalise private media, and to fine journalists if coverage is deemed to be ‘unbalanced'.
According to Al Jazeera English, the new law will give the government sweeping powers to inspect journalists equipment and force them to disclose their sources. The new law will apply to all media formats, including Internet as well as traditional print, radio and television.
The BBC reports that Germany's foreign Minister has been on the phone to his Hungarian counterpart to discuss the law.
The prospect of sanctions against Hungary has also been raised. According to the Daily Mail , Germany's deputy foreign minister has said that sanctions should not be ruled out, and that any hint of media censorship by an EU Member State was a matter for concern. The Mail also quotes Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Green Group in the European Parliament, in support of sanctions.
The Hungarian government does not yet appear to be sensitive to the seriousness of the allegations.
EU law, among other things, protects media pluralism and the right to free speech, which is enshrined in the Treaties. Protection of sources is a necessary foundation for a free media in a democratic society. If the law is determined by the European Commission to be a threat to media freedom as the reports suggest, then it may well find that its Presidency is tarnished.
It also remains to be seen which opponent is to be feared the most - the European Commission or the Daily Mail? I wouldn't place a bet on it!
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial-Share Alike 2.5 UK:England and Wales License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/ It may be used for non-commercial purposes only, and the author's name should be attributed. The correct attribution for this article is: Monica Horten (2011) Media storm as EU targets Hungary over censorship law http://www.iptegrity.com 3 January 2011