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Last updated: January 6, 2011 10:07 pm
Hungary’s presidency of the European Union has got off to a wobbly start. Instead of smoothly introducing the EU’s agenda for the next six months, the centre-right government is battling a storm of international and domestic criticism of a new media law which threatens to undermine press freedom in Hungary. The law needs rethinking. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are fundamental rights and European values that must not be compromised.
There are two main concerns about Hungary’s new law. The first is that it allows cripplingly high fines to be imposed on media organisations deemed guilty of sketchily defined offences. The vagueness raises the spectre of the law being applied in an intimidatory or partisan manner.
Such fears would be allayed if Hungary’s politicians respected the need for its post-Communist institutions to retain the independence to police the public sphere. Unfortunately, recent events suggest a drift in the opposite direction. Since sweeping to power in April, the ruling party, Fidesz, has missed few opportunities to rein in its critics. The country’s fiscal council has been defanged and the independence of the central bank challenged. So the second concern is that the media council that will enforce the new laws has been filled with Fidesz disciples appointed for nine-year terms.
The Hungarian government counters that the new law is an overhaul of outdated legislation. It is, of course, reasonable for Budapest to revisit laws that have been overtaken by events. Further, the government claims many provisions in the new legislation also appear in the media laws of other EU states. This may be true. But those same European countries do not have spotless records on media freedom: Italy is a case in point. Moreover, provisions that are applied benignly in one country may prove dangerous in Hungary.
Since the fall of Communism, the states of central Europe have at times passed laws which looked bad on paper, but were not enforced in ways that permanently infringed civil liberties. Hungary’s media law may turn out to be another example. However, relying on politicians not to exploit flawed laws is no way to legislate. The new law risks creating a climate of self-censorship, even if the draconian fines are never levied.
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s premier, has said that his government will amend the law if the EU Commission directs it to do so. Budapest should save the Commission time and amend the law itself.
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