It’s been a bad month for media freedom in Hungary.
It started with a May 25 Constitutional Court decision that website operators are responsible for any comments to blog posts or news commentary that may violate the media law. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, a leading human rights organization, said the court decision has serious implications for free speech, public debate and internet freedom in the country. Blogs and online news portals may decide to restrict public comment for fear of being hit with high fines by a politically appointed Media Council.
In early June, the Supreme Court held that ATV, a TV station critical of the government, had violated the 2010 media law’s restrictions on commentary by describing the far-right party Jobbik as “far-right” in a news cast. The court’s rationale was that as Jobbik doesn’t call itself a “far-right party,” referring to it as such expresses an opinion and may leave viewers with a negative impression. Given Jobbik’s blatant anti-Roma and anti-Semitic agenda, “far right” seems like fair comment that courts ought to protect.
In early June, journalists and media freedom activists took to the streets to protest the sacking of the editor-in-chief of Origo, an online news-site critical of the government. Origo cited restructuring and reorganisation as the reason for the firing. But the dismissal followed Origo’s publication of a story on the alleged misuse of public funds by the state secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office. Concerns that the sacking might be linked to the story were heightened by the close links between Magyar Telekom, the owner of Origo, and the government. Another 30 journalists resigned from Origo to protest the dismissal.
Then on June 11 the government used its supermajority in Hungary’s single-chamber parliament to pass a controversial advertising tax on media. The law provides for progressive taxation in relation to ad revenue, with a 40 percent tax on revenue above 20 billion HUF. It will primarily hit the German-owned commercial broadcaster RTL Klub, viewed as one of the last remaining big independent TV channels in Hungary. In an unprecedented move, media companies from all sides of the political spectrum condemned the legislation, running blank newspaper pages and halting broadcasts in protest.
It’s not the first time the media have come under attack in Hungary. Soon after being elected for its first term in 2010, the Fidesz administration amended media laws to ensure it controlled appointments to the main media regulator, the Media Council, and introduced vague content restrictions with the possibility of high fines, all of which have had a chilling effect on press freedom and triggered self-censorship.
In the past four years, the government has made a sport of creating a hostile and difficult environment for journalists. In 2011 and 2012,in three waves of dismissals, the head of the state broadcaster, closely linked to the government, fired over 1,000 people at the state broadcaster MTVA after a merger. While the stated justification was the merger, at least some of those who lost their jobs were people who were unwilling to toe the party line.
From 2011 to 2013, the Media Council stubbornly refused to renew the frequency of a critical independent radio station, Klubradio, despite six court rulings in its favor. Current and former journalists employed by media outlets close to the government have complained of editorial interference.
As an EU member state, Hungary is obliged to respect the union’s core values of democracy, freedom, and respect for human rights, in addition to other relevant standards, such as those set by the European Convention on Human Rights to which it is a party. While both Strasbourg and Brussels did make some limited interventions during the Hungarian government's previous term, it appears that the institutional resolve of both the EU and the Council of Europe has since faltered, with both opting to regard matters as solved.
Well they clearly aren’t. It’s high time for the EU and the Council of Europe to wake up and recognise that allowing Hungary to flout fundamental principles undermines not only the rights of Hungarian citizens but also risks bringing into question the credibility of these institutions themselves.
Lydia Gall is the Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.