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(Berlin) – The Hungarian government has ignored recommendations by the Council of Europe to revise controversial laws that limit media freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament approved government-initiated changes to the laws on May 24, 2012.

“The Hungarian government has now made clear that it is not serious about protecting media freedom,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch.  “The changes to media laws do little to address the serious concerns expressed by the Council of Europe and in some case may make matters worse.”

The legal amendments follow a Constitutional Court ruling in December 2011 obliging the government to revise problematic provisions in two media laws adopted in 2010. The widely criticized laws politicize media regulation, impose so-called balanced reporting requirements and require online and print media to register with the authorities.

The Hungarian parliament went ahead with a final vote on May 24, despite concerns expressed by the Council of Europe in an analysis issued on May 16. The analysis makes clear that despite some positive developments, such as removing most requirements for journalists to reveal sources, the proposed amendments did not adequately address the problems with the laws.

A key concern relates to the politicized appointments process for the Media Council, the main media regulator, including the direct appointment of its president by the prime minister and the 9-year tenure of its members, which can only be ended by a supermajority of parliament. Further concerns include the requirement for “balanced” reporting, which in practice has a chilling effect on investigative journalism and leads to self-censorship.

In addition to the parliament’s failure to address existing problems with the laws, the new amendments pose fresh risks to media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. They include a provision that states that only the Media Council is authorized to approve a broadcasting agreement, excluding courts from playing an oversight role in such agreements. Another amendment states that the Media Council is not obliged to conclude contracts, which means that it could ignore the results of public tenders for broadcasting licenses and award them as it wishes.

This could have a direct impact on Klubradio, an independent radio station, which in 2011 won a bid to operate a frequency – a contract that was never concluded by the Media Council. On February 28, a Budapest Metropolitan Court ruled that the Media Council could not refuse to conclude the contract as the agreement was valid.

The Council of Europe review was carried out by experts on media freedom, following a request by the European Union. Hungary declined to seek assistance from the Council of Europe in reviewing its media laws.

On February 9, Neelie Kroes, the EU Commissioner on Digital Agenda, publicly stated that, if Hungary did not act in accordance with recommendations from the Council of Europe on the media laws, she would approach the Council of the European Union to start Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. Under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, a member state may be stripped of its voting rights if there is a clear risk of a breach of the common values of the European Union, or if a member state is in serious breach of those values.

“Hungary had a chance to engage with the Council of Europe’s recommendations on media freedom, and it blatantly snubbed it,” Gall said. “The time has come for the EU to use its powers under Article 7 to ensure that Hungary guarantees that independent media can work freely and without restrictions.” 

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