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(Brussels) – The shrinking space for media freedom in Hungary requires EU action, Human Rights Watch said in a Memo on Media Freedom in Hungary released today.

The 11-page memo is based on a recent research visit to Budapest by Human Rights Watch. It documents lack of independence by the Media Council, the main body that regulates the media, evidenced by its decision to cancel the license of a leading independent radio station, self-censorship by independent media outlets, and political influence in public television, in violation of international and EU law.

“Media freedom is under real threat in Hungary today, and the ruling party is responsible,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The situation in Hungary represents a clear danger to the EU’s values, and demands action from Brussels.”

The curbs on media freedom in Hungary are part of wider restrictions on human rights under the Fidesz government, including changes in the new constitution, which came into force on January 1, 2012, and related laws that interfere with judicial independence, undermine religious freedom, and enshrine discrimination against women, people with disabilities, and LGBT people. The media laws are the first area in which the negative impact of these recent changes is so clearly demonstrated.

The Human Rights Watch memo calls on the Council of the European Union, with support from the European Parliament and European Commission, to take action against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, on the grounds that deteriorating media freedom in the country constitutes a clear risk of a breach of common EU values. Under that provision, the council may suspend rights of the offending member state, including the voting rights of the representative of the member state in the council.

On February 9, 2012, the European Commissioner with responsibility for the media, Neelie Kroes, told the European Parliament that the Commission would consider Article 7 action if Hungary failed to act on any recommendations from the Council of Europe (a separate inter-governmental organization) on bringing its media regulation into compliance with human rights law. On February 16, a majority in the European Parliament approved a resolution to monitor human rights developments in Hungary, with the possibility of Article 7 action in the future.

The Council of the European Union can pursue this course after a proposal by one third of the member states or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament. The EU has never invoked Article 7 of the EU Treaty against a member state.

The slide in media freedom in Hungary comes in the wake of the enactment of widely criticized media laws – the Mass Media Act and Press Freedom Act – that were adopted in December 2010, and went into effect on July 1, 2011. The laws created the Media Council, a new regulatory body under the National Media Authority. The Media Council, whose members have been appointed by the ruling party for nine-year terms, has wide-ranging powers including granting licenses and assessing content in a way that compromises media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. The Media Council decided in December to strip a leading independent national news radio station, Klub Radio, of its license to broadcast in Budapest, following a tender procedure that appeared to be designed to ensure that it would not retain its license. The tender, for example, required the winning station to broadcast music 60 percent of the time. The license was instead awarded to a new company, Auto Radio, which currently does not operate any stations. Klub Radio remains on the air pending a legal challenge to the decision in the Budapest Court of Appeals. A decision is expected in March.

Human Rights Watch also found that independent media outlets were self-censoring for fear of falling afoul of broad and vague content regulations. Nepszava, a daily newspaper that has been critical of the government,received a letter, in June 2011, from the media and communications commissioner questioning a reader comment on the paper’s website about the country’s former president, invoking a disciplinary procedure that can lead to fines. Although the communications commissioner later issued a clarification following an opinion by the National Media Authority that such comments were exempt, the paper’s lawyer said the incident has had a chilling effect on the paper.

Public television has also been subject to political interference, Human Rights Watch found. Nearly 1,000 journalists have been laid off from the two public television agencies since their merger in January 2011. The dismissals are ostensibly for efficiency reasons but current and former journalists at MTVA, the public television agency, told Human Rights Watch that they believe many of the firings were political.

The journalists said the news director at the time and his deputies began to dictate which stories journalists should and should not cover, what editorial positions needed to appear in news reports, and which journalists could and could not interview for their stories. In the words of a former MTVA journalist: “If things stay like this, there will be no independent journalism. Public media was the only thing left.”

On February 17, Hungary is due to report to the European Commission on the steps it has taken to address three areas in which the commission concluded the country is in breach of EU law – the independence of the central bank and of the data protection body, and changes to judicial appointment processes. The commission started the accelerated infringement proceedings on January 17 and has threatened legal action at the Court of Justice if Hungary fails to act.

In January 2011, the European Commission began separate infringement proceedings against Hungary over the December 2010 media laws. Hungary addressed some of the concerns identified about banned content and balanced reporting requirements, leading the commission to drop proceedings. But the narrow focus of the commission’s intervention left the main problems with media freedom unaddressed, Human Rights Watch said.

“A year ago, the European Commission pulled its punches on the media law, and things have only gotten worse,” Ward said. “If the EU fails to act now, the consequences will be disastrous, not only for media freedom in Hungary but for freedom of expression throughout the EU and its neighboring countries.”

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