(Berlin) – The Hungarian government’s failure to address concerns about media freedom warrants action by the European Union (EU) under the EU treaty, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent yesterday to Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is in charge of media issues.
Hungary’s clampdown on media freedom, through several problematic media laws, has given rise to mounting EU and Council of Europe concern. In February, Kroes urged Hungary to seek advice from the Council of Europe on media reform, which Hungary failed to do. The Council of Europe prepared an analysis nonetheless, highlighting a range of problems that should be addressed for Hungary to comply with European Convention standards. Ignoring the Council of Europe’s advice, the Hungarian government submitted to parliament for vote on May 25, 2012, amendments to its media laws that not only largely failed to address concerns but also introduced additional restrictions on media freedom.
“It is now clear that the Hungarian government isn’t prepared to take the steps necessary to improve its record on media freedom,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time for Commissioner Kroes to put words into action and pursue measures to hold Hungary accountable under the EU Treaty.”
Kroes told the European Parliament in February that she would consider referring Hungary to the Council of the European Union for action under article 7 of the EU Treaty if Hungary ignored the Council of Europe’s advice. Under article 7 of the EU Treaty, a member state can 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.
On June 7, Kroes told the Hungarian weekly newspaper Figyelo that, “Hungary’s changes to its media law failed to address concerns of the European Union and the Council of Europe,” terming the media law “embarrassing.” She said the government “failed to deliver on its promises,” addressing only 11 of 66 recommendations from the Council of Europe, “without guaranteeing the independence of the Media Authority or clarifying all ambiguities.”
In a June 27 speech before the European Parliament, Kroes said, “When [media freedoms] are threatened within the EU’s own borders – as they have been in Hungary – we should indeed protect and defend them.”
Ongoing problems with Hungary’s media laws include a politicized appointments process for the Media Council, the main media regulator, evidenced by the direct appointment of its president by the prime minister and the nine-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.
New amendments to the laws, inserted just before the May 25 vote in the Hungarian Parliament, further curtail media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. One new amendment authorizes the Media Council to approve broadcasting agreements, excluding courts from an oversight role in such agreements. Another amendment gives the Media Council discretion about concluding contracts, effectively enabling it to ignore results of public tenders for broadcasting licenses and award them as it wishes.
The curbs on media freedom are part of a wider pattern of deteriorating human rights in Hungary, along with limitations on the independence of the judiciary, limitations on freedom of religion, potential limitations on women’s reproductive rights, and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender groups, and homeless people.
The curbs on media freedom and the Hungarian government’s defiance of the Council of Europe’s recommendations by themselves warrant article 7 action as a serious risk to the common values of the EU, Human Rights Watch said.
“EU action is the best, if not only, hope at this point to reverse the deeply damaging course taken by the Hungarian government on media freedom,” Gall said. “The EU has a clear role and the tools needed for a robust response – now all it needs is the political will to act.”