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Media law: one year after the uproar

December 5th, 2011

Pro-government journalists look back on the year since the introduction of the new media law in 2010. They contend that the dark predictions of the left – inside and outside Hungary – about possible censorship have proven unfounded.

“A year ago … the new media law stirred up an unprecedented international storm of indignation. … The fearmongers, scared of the right-wing government … declared the freedom of the press dead, well before the new regulation came into force,” writes János Csontos in Magyar Nemzet, in his report on a Media Conference held in Balatonalmádi in late November.

In 2010 December, the Hungarian opposition parties and the left-leaning media harshly criticized the new media law introduced by the Fidesz government. Leading left-wing dailies and weeklies were published with blank covers in protest against the new regulations.  Foreign media outlets also picked up on the issue and voiced their concern over the new law. According to the critics, the new regulations  provide the Hungarian Media Authority with enough power to curb freedom of speech as well as to effectively censor media outlets (electronic, print and online) critical of the government, through administrative measures and excessive fines.

The statistics suggest that the fearmongering has been proven unfounded, Csontos believes. As far as fines are concerned, the Hungarian Media Authority has issued only one third of the number its predecessor imposed on media outlets a year before. “Even the representatives of commercial television channels have had to admit that their fears were unfounded,” Csontos writes.

The right-wing commentator also believes that the restructuring of the public media (see BudaPost July 9) has proven mostly successful. Despite the significant lay-offs and rationalization, the ratings of Hungarian Public Television in October increased by a third.

“The fears of the left have proven to be wrong, but the hopes of the right have also  proven to be illusory. The media law passed a year ago does not empower the Media Council to ban newspapers, but it is not an effective tool for cleaning up the mess in the tabloid media either,” writes András Stumpf in his own assessment of the impact of the legislation in Heti Válasz.

Stumpf remarks that the Media Council in 2011 signed an agreement with representatives of the Association of Hungarian Content Providers. According to this agreement, the representatives of the media should themselves apply the new regulations and decide if any media outlets violate the principles outlined in the Media Law. This practically means that the Media Council, whose members are elected by Parliament, cannot exercise direct political influence over the media.

It is no surprise that there has been just one single case in which the Association of Hungarian Content Providers found that the media law was violated, Stumpf notes. An e-mail provider popular among underage Hungarians was criticised for posting a link to an article discussing adult content, without a warning. But even in this case no fine was imposed.

There are, however, some worrying issues related to the media, Stumpf adds. He finds it highly problematic that in one case the police ordered Tamás Bodoky, the editor-in-chief of the atlatszo.hu investigative reporting site, to name some of its sources, or face criminal charges. But even this unacceptable situation is not directly related to the media law, since in Bodoky’s case the criminal code is being applied.

The real shortcoming of the media regulation lies in its inability to stand up to the all-pervasive tabloid and celebrity culture, Stumpf believes. The Media Council tries to penalize commercial TV-channels for obscene content, but the commercial channels turn to the courts for legal redress, and by doing so they successfully delay the payment of fines to the distant future.

As BudaPost reported on Friday, in another article Stumpf did express doubts about the independence of public broadcasting, but the structures and appointments in that sphere are regulated by a separate law.

The left-leaning papers have not yet commented on the Media Conference.