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Hungary at Road's End

Published in: Public Service Europe

The Hungarian government is busy whipping up nationalistic sentiments among the population having commemorated June 4 as a national day of mourning of the territorial and population losses from the Trianon Peace treaty in 1920. But Hungarians – and Europeans – should keep a close watch on immediate concerns – such as the country’s constantly deteriorating human rights record.

The widely criticized Hungarian media laws need immediate EU action. When the Press Freedom Act and the Media Act, known as the media law package, were introduced, they were highly controversial. But a wave of international criticism by the EU, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and civil society organizations didn’t stop  parliament from passing the media law package in December 2010, just days before Hungary assumed the EU presidency on January 1, 2011.

The media laws are just one example of Hungary’s repressive actions in recent months.Other new laws have also had a devastating effect in curbing a number of fundamental rights such as the independence of the judiciary, freedom of religion, women’s rights, and LGBT rights, to name a few.

The Constitutional Court intervened in the media law situation in December 2011, finding substantial parts of the media laws unconstitutional and giving the government until May 31 to bring the media law package in line with its ruling.

The government also came under pressure from the EU commissioner on digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, who on February 9 spoke out, claiming that unless Hungary complied with the Council of Europe’s recommendations, she will call on the European Council to initiate Article 7 proceedings. Article 7 states that 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. Until now, Kroes has not called on the European Council to act.

The deadline for complying with the Constitutional Court’s ruling has passed, but the problematic media laws remain in place. The Hungarian parliament – its role as an effective watchdog stymied by the supermajority for the ruling Fidesz party – has failed yet again to act as a guarantor of Hungary’s international obligations. On May 24, the parliament rubberstamped the media laws as amended by the government, largely ignoring the Council of Europe’s critical assessment and its recommendations submitted on May 16.

Not only did the new amendments fall short of complying with both the domestic court judgment and the Council of Europe recommendations, but new problematic provisions were introduced that further impede media freedom. In just one example, the Media Council – the main media regulator - would no longer be required to conclude contracts for public tenders in broadcasting if it chooses not to.    

In other words, Hungary has refuted all criticism and recommendations, clearly showing that it has no intention of complying with European human rights standards or safeguarding the freedom of independent media.

For those who have followed the Hungarian media law controversies, this comes as no surprise. In response to whether he would consider changing the media laws, Prime Minister Viktor Orban already made it clear in a December 23, 2010, domestic TV interview when he said, “We don’t even dream of such a thing.” Some cosmetic changes to the laws have been made, perhaps to take the edge of the growing criticism, although the key problematic media provisions are left untouched.

The twists and turns of a frequency bid by Klubradio, Hungary’s last independent radio station,  have been domestic and international news since 2011, much to the government’s distress. The new provisions directly affect media outlets such as Klubradio, which in 2011 won a frequency bid that the Media Council never concluded. While a Budapest metropolitan court ruled that the Media Council may not refuse to conclude the contract, the new provision included in the media law applies retroactively to pending cases such as Klubradio’s.  

This is an unfortunate and worrying effect of a ruling party with a supermajority in parliament which uses its powers to adopt new laws, even a new constitution, at whim and without any prior consultation – some cunningly designed to have retroactive effect, such as certain provisions of the media laws.

Hungary is at road’s end. It’s high time for the EU to take resolute action to protect the common values and foundations of the union. It’s high time to put words into action and implement the strongest tool at its disposal to bring Hungary into line – to initiate action under Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Hungary due to the clear risk of breaching the common values of the union.

If the chilling effect on independent media, the politicization of the judiciary, the stripping of denomination status of hundreds of religious groups, the potential limitations on reproductive rights and discrimination of LGBT people combined does not amount to such a risk, then one is left to wonder what does? How many more human rights violations will it take before the EU finally acts?   

Lydia Gall is the Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch

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