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IFEX members protest new media laws

Hungary's parliament approved a contentious new media law on 21 December that grants the government strong influence over key media outlets, thereby returning the former Soviet satellite to the "dark days of free media repression," says the International Press Institute (IPI). IPI and its affiliate, the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), have just returned from a two-day press freedom mission to Hungary.

Among the most controversial measures is giving the recently created Media Council the power to levy sizeable fines on media outlets for, among other reasons, failing to "provide balanced coverage" or "respect the institution of marriage and family", reports the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the European arm of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Newspapers can be fined up to 25 million forints (US$118,500), news websites US$47,400, and TV and radio stations US$472,300, says EFJ.

Such penalties may be imposed even without litigation in the courts, and must be paid before they can be appealed. As a result, "some media outlets could face financial threats to their existence," said IPI and SEEMO.

According to the Associated Press, the law, passed on 21 December and slated to take effect on 1 January, also creates a new institution under the supervision of the Media Council that will formally take over almost all employees of Hungary's state-run television channels, radio stations, as well as state newswire MTI. News production will also be centralised across public media.

The legislation also grants the Media Council the right to monitor the media's compliance with the recently-passed Media Constitution, according to which the media cannot "offend" a variety of entities, including "majorities" and "minorities", "nations" and "the Church". "What exactly 'offends' means in this context is not spelled out," said IPI.

Opposition party Politics Can Be Different, whose members taped their mouths shut in a symbolic gesture during the final vote, said the law would merely cement the ruling party's "media monopoly."

During parliamentary elections in April, the centre-right populist party Fidesz gained control of more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. In that short time, a media legislation package - described by Fidesz as necessary media reform - has been rushed through Parliament without consultation with key stakeholders and journalists.

For instance, in August, President Pál Schmitt approved legislation which restructured supervision over Hungary's public media and created a new National Media and Communications Authority (NMHH) that oversees all forms of media, reports Freedom House. NMHH established the controversial Media Council, which has a nine-year mandate and is dominated by the Fidesz party.

In November, Hungary's parliament passed legislation that allows for journalists to be forced to give up their confidential sources in cases involving vaguely-defined "national security" issues, report IPI and SEEMO.

IFEX members have joined civil society activists and Members of European Parliament in opposing the laws. Several Hungarian newspapers published blank front pages this month to protest against the legislation package. A peaceful demonstration outside Parliament on 20 December featured a performance where speakers put their hands on each other's mouths mid-sentence. Leaders of the Media Intergroup of the European Parliament sent a letter to the President of the European Parliament to express their concerns over the media situation in Hungary.

And Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, appealed to the Hungarian government to halt the legislation. In September, she presented the Hungarian government with an expert legal analysis of the laws, and reiterated that the proposed laws "can easily be misused for political purposes" and that "public service media are especially at risk of direct political control."

Hungary is due to take over the presidency of the European Union on 1 January 2011. SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said, "The country should be a positive example of developments in all areas, including media. The fact that the new law was passed very fast, without a wide, open discussion between media professionals, and that some elements of the new regulation have been criticised by media professionals, is a cause for concern."

SEEMO and IPI are planning a follow-up mission to Hungary. For now, they are closely monitoring other media developments and how the new regulations work in practice. "Corrections are always possible, which means that there may be amendments to the new law after some months," said a hopeful Vujovic.

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