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Changes to Hungarian constitution threaten free expression, group says

Hungarians attended a rally after parliament voted for constitutional amendments.
Hungarians attended a rally after parliament voted for constitutional amendments.

REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

(IPI/IFEX) - The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), today expressed deep concern over recent amendments to Hungary's constitution that further threaten media freedom in the country.

On Monday, deputies from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party and its coalition partner approved a 15-page list of amendments. Parliament approved the package by an overwhelming 265-11 vote with 33 abstentions, surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to amend Hungary's one-year-old new constitution.

Despite calls by protesters in Budapest not to approve the measures, Hungarian President János Áder, a former Fidesz official, said yesterday that he would sign the bill.

The amendments' effects on press freedom could turn out to be detrimental, as some of the provisions undermine freedom of expression, both directly and indirectly. Particularly worrying are the provisions that ban political advertisements on commercial media channels during campaign seasons.

Given that the majority of Hungarians – almost two thirds – tune in to private television channels, the ban would severely limit access to alternative political views in the public sphere, the news website reported.

Candidates would be forced to rely on state media channels, which are under the control of institutions in which the Orbán government has strategically positioned its allies since coming to power in 2010. The measure would also undercut the ability of private media, which rely on the revenue from such advertising, to stay afloat.

Adding insult to injury, Hungary's Constitutional Court in January had rejected the advertising ban as an unconstitutional limitation of free political competition, reports said.

Attempts to curb the ambitions of the Orbán government might become more difficult in the future, given that the strongest impact of the amendments might be on the Constitutional Court itself.

According to AP reports, the constitutional overhaul will deny the court the ability to review laws regarding their legal content and will limit judicial review purely to procedural aspects. Furthermore, the amendments dictate that the Constitutional Court can only refer to the current constitution, basically removing any binding effect of previous legal precedent.

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “These amendments are the latest moves in a trend of events in recent years that raise grave concerns about media freedom in Hungary. The disempowerment of the Constitutional Court – one of the few remaining partial checks on government power – is particularly alarming and may add to the erosion of press freedom.”

Monday's vote came despite a wave of international protest, including criticism from EU capitals, Washington and the United Nations.

The European Commission has announced its intention to examine whether the amendments violate EU law and are in conflict with the principles of the Union, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported.

Other news sources said that European Commission President Manuel Barroso had personally appealed to Orbán to delay Monday's vote, an appeal that apparently fell on deaf ears at Fidesz headquarters in Budapest.

In other news, IPI today welcomed a statement by Hungary's Media Council recognising a Budapest court's March 5 ruling in favour of left-wing talk radio station KlubRádió in the station's two-year legal fight to keep its broadcasting licence.

The Media Council yesterday confirmed that KlubRádió would receive a licence to continue broadcasting on the 95.3MHz frequency. Conceding defeat, the Council nevertheless praised the procedures under Hungary's oft-criticised Media Act that led to the protracted dispute and its eventual resolution in a statement headlined: “It Was Worth Going the Legal Route”.

The Council in 2011 denied Klubrádió's request to reallocate its frequency in a move derided by critics as politically motivated, awarding the frequency instead to Autorádió, an unknown entity with no broadcasting history that has since ceased to exist. KlubRádió was directed to surrender its frequency, but the station fought back in court and continued broadcasting under a series of temporary, 60-day licenses that reportedly numbered 14 as of last week's ruling.

Following a number of twists in the case, including a ruling disqualifying Autorádió's bid for technical violations, the Council in December 2012 revoked its 2011 decision that the original tender process – in which KlubRádió was recognised as the runner-up – was valid. Last week's ruling by the Administrative and Labour Court reportedly set aside that revocation, leaving KlubRádió as the sole bidder.

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