The Position of LMP/Politics can be Different on the New Hungarian Media Law
Ratified by the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition, the new Hungarian Media Law seriously threatens the freedom of the press and will throttle diversity in the media. The new legislation slackens regulations where it should do the opposite and tightens them where it makes no sense to do so. The regulation of public media and the oversight of the entire media sector, including print and online journalism, will be subjected to party control. Consisting exclusively of the delegates of the leading party in government, the Media Council is entitled to impose excessive fines on media outlets, justified by reference to loosely defined notions such as public morals or the defence of the constitutional order. The new regulation fosters the creation of media monopolies by slowing the process of the digital transition while practically setting no bounds to the cross-ownership of media enterprises. This mostly benefits a single Fidesz-affiliated company which has already started acquiring and creating newspapers, television and radio channels.
Garnering 53 percent of the votes and 68 percent of seats in Parliament meant that Fidesz had the two-thirds Parliamentary majority required to modify fundamental laws. Relying on this majority, Fidesz in fact took a series of steps to introduce regulatory modifications regarding the media. The new Media Law passed on 21 December was but the last stage of this legislative process. According to LMP/Politics can be different, this piece of legislation, together with other modifications of law, poses a serious threat to the freedom of the press and will throttle diversity in the world of Hungarian media.
The new regulation creates a convergent authority with extraordinary powers overseeing public broadcasting and the news media. Embedded in this authority, the Media Council is an autonomous body of state administration acting as the final arbiter on all media-related issues. The members of the Media Council are elected by parliament for an exceedingly long mandate of 9 years. The majority in Parliament declined to elect any of the professionals recommended by the opposition parties, or indeed the delegate of the minor party in the government coalition, the Christian Democrats, as members of the Media Council. The president of the Media Council, Annamária Szalai had formerly been a Fidesz MP. The Council has been granted the power to pass legally binding decrees.
The Media Council enjoys exceedingly wide competences, and so does its president. It has a decisive influence in the selection of the leaders of the public media as well as the power to determine the policy of public media broadcasting. The public television and radio channels, along with the national news agency, have been merged into a single body. The freedom of their editorial boards has been abolished, given that from now on they can only rely on the news created by the central news manufacturing unit. In the public television programmes, there is little room for the parties of the opposition, with speakers on behalf of the government enjoying 75 to 80 percent of airtime on average. In the public radio, more balanced in nature, it was exactly on the day the new legislation was passed that a news editor and a leading broadcaster were suspended from their positions for airing their concern about it. Public media outlets will receive an unprecedented support from the budget even though the number of viewers is continuously decreasing.
The Media Council oversees the whole of the media: not only the television and radio channels, but, practically without parallel in Europe, the printed press and the internet as well. One of the most critical provisions of the new legislation is that the Media Council can impose severe fines ranging from HUF 10 to 200 Million (roughly, EUR 36,000 to 720,000) on the media outlets breaching the media law, based on vague regulations giving rise to a wide range of interpretations. The new regulation restricts the freedom of the press in a severe and unjustified manner, continuously subjecting the activities of journalists and editors to unpredictable threats. The amount of the fines is clearly enough to throttle particular media outlets.
The Media Council is entitled to access and duplicate the documents of the editorial offices it deems in breach of regulations, including their classified files. This is the most sweeping right-to-access-files provision in the entire Hungarian legal corpus. Furthermore, the Media Council enjoys unconstrained sovereignty in the field spectrum allocation: it can declare any application for spectrum use void, or it may even decide to forego calling for applications. There are no clear criteria on determining the fee on spectrum use either. In practice, the Media Council has the right to take action against any radio, newspaper or online media outlet, domestic or global, if its product is distributed in Hungary, while it is also entitled to compel Internet access and hosting providers to block illicit content.
The new law abolishes the rules against media monopolies. As a first step, the obligation to actively stand up against media monopolies was rescinded, followed by removing the provisions designed to limit cross ownership. This is especially worrisome in the light of the fact that a Fidesz-affiliated company (Infocenter Kft.), the former director and owner of which is presently a member of government, has started out on an acquisition spree, purchasing a number of media outlets, while it is on the threshold of acquiring a major share in one of the most viewed television channels.
The same channel is one of the beneficiaries of Fidesz prolonging the process of digital transition until the end of 2014, by means of a proposal for modification MPs received only a few hours before passing the final vote, a move by which the two terrestrial TV broadcasters were secured a serious competitive advantage. This in spite of the fact that the digital transition would greatly contribute to creating a more diverse media environment in Hungary, a country where the two terrestrial TV broadcasters are watched by an extremely high number of people in an international comparison.