March 21, 2012 4:54 pm

Europe criticises Hungary’s media watchdog

Hungary’s media watchdog lacks transparency, has excessive powers and is staffed on a political rather than a professional basis, according to Europe’s main human rights body.

The preliminary report by the Council of Europe adds to the growing criticism of legislation passed by the centre-right government of Viktor Orbán, prime minister, since his election almost two years ago.

“It is equally important to safeguard the independence of the media and freedom of expression as it is to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and religious freedom,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, the council’s secretary-general, during a visit to Budapest on Wednesday.

Mr Jagland was in Hungary to to discuss with Mr Orbán and other cabinet members two other controversial laws – on the judiciary and recognition of churches, both passed at the end of last year – which the Council criticised sharply in a report on Monday.

The European Commission would take the council’s findings into account in its assessment of how Hungary’s laws matched up to European standards, Mr Jagland stressed.

The European Union has stated that Hungary must address the commission’s concerns about its laws on the central bank, judiciary and data protection before talks can begin on a joint credit facility from the EU and International Monetary Fund.

Hungary requested an EU-IMF “safety net” in November. However, the latest analysis appears to raise even higher the bar that Budapest needs to clear.

While the Council of Europe accepts that it has yet to fully evaluate the effects of amendments to the country’s media laws, it warns that, given its powerful role, Hungary’s media council “must be independent – and be seen to be independent – from all political influence”.

It stresses that “there are aspects of the appointments procedure for the members and chairperson of the council which are not transparent and do not go far enough to preserve its independence, as required by Council of Europe standards”, in particular since the chairperson is “directly and discretionarily” appointed by the prime minister for a term of nine years and can then be re-elected.

Among the criticisms, the analysis says Hungary’s media law uses “unclear definitions” and erodes the protection of journalists’ sources. The council notes that the media council can impose “severe sanctions” against media outlets deemed to have infringed regulations, including fines of up to €680,000 for some media.

“There is an issue of proportionality between the importance of the infringement and the severity of the sanction imposed,” the report says.

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