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Repressive media law muzzles press; thousands protest

Thirty-thousand people hit the streets of Budapest yesterday in support of press freedom after Hungary's parliament amended a controversial media law on 7 March. The law has the power to issue a fine of 100,000 Euros, ban media outlets and dictate content - and is controlled by a media council made up of political appointees of the ruling party, report the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM), the International Press Institute (IPI)'s affiliate the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Panoramic view of 15 March protest in Budapest
Szigeti Àdàm / www.szigetiadam.hu

The law came into force on 1 January, the same day Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union. That day, prominent Hungarian daily "Népszabadság" published only one sentence on its cover in the 22 official languages of the European Union: "The freedom of press in Hungary ceased to exist," writes Péter Zilahy in "The Guardian". On 14 January about 10,000 protesters came out against the media law, say news reports.

Although amendments were made to the law to respond to criticisms made by the European Union, the changes do not meet Hungary's press freedom commitments as a member of the EU, Council of Europe, and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), say IFEX members.

Changes were made so that Hungarian authorities' restrictive rights over international media working in Hungary have been narrowed. The law has erased a requirement that on-demand services such as Internet sites and blogs provide balanced news coverage; but this requirement remains for print and broadcast media. And a ban on offensive content was softened - but not eliminated.

"Despite the changes, elements of the legislation that remain in place continue to loom large over press freedom," says IPI-SEEMO. Over the past year, IPI-SEEMO and SEENPM have been monitoring successive measures to restrict media freedom.

"The legislation can still be misused to curb alternative and differing voices despite modifications adopted following a request from the European Commission," said Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

CPJ analysis found that the law holds ambiguous language meant to be interpreted and applied by Hungary's Media Authority. The law states that journalists must respect "public morality" and "human dignity" or face punishing fines, reports RSF.

Covering print, broadcast and print media, the law stipulates massive fines and penalties (up to suspension of programming) for various media outlets found in violation of the law, and imposes excessive registration requirements, says CPJ. It regulates domestic media content, and is also directed at content "aimed at the territory of Hungary."

RSF points out that the amendments made to the law still do not ensure that journalists' sources will be protected, and media can be banned for breaking the law.

The Media Authority is made up of appointees of the Hungarian parliament, which is currently two-thirds filled with members of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party. Under the law, this body has a right to demand from media organisations any number of confidential documents - and if they are not handed over they face a fine of 100,000 Euros, reports RSF.

A coalition of groups including IPI-SEEMO and SEENPM has set up a website to provide relevant information on the Hungarian media situation with a list of events related to media law. Please see:
Hungary press freedom

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