The Hungarian government has agreed to a revision of its controversial media laws following pressure from European Union critics. The laws, which entered into being at the beginning of the year, have continued to come under criticism by those who believe they violate the principles of a free press.
The government of Viktor Orban have agreed to amend the laws so that they are more in line with existing EU legislation. Last month, EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes contacted Budapest, and asked for clarification on certain aspects of the laws, which seek to introduce “balance” into reporting, and which include heavy financial penalties for non-compliance.
The laws have faced a constant stream of criticism sine they entered into law at the beginning of the year, with the domestic press declaring their existence to be the end of a free press in the country; one leading newspaper even printed a blank front page to make its point.
More recently, and speaking after a visit to Budapest, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government to not only ensure the laws conform to EU standards, but also that they fulfil the obligations of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) relating to freedom of expression. He added that the Hungarian authorities should take into account all the relevant recommendations of the CoE's Committee of Ministers and Parliamentary Assembly.
Article 10 of the ECHR safeguards the substance and content of information, and also the means of transmitting that information, while the protection of journalists sources, something which is under threat from the new laws, has been explicitly held up by the Strasbourg court to be “one of the basic conditions for press freedom”.
The Hungarian 'media law package', an amalgam of laws introduced between June and December 2010, and which came into force at the beginning of January, just as Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union, have provoked strong reaction and condemnation from both the domestic and international media, as well as the European Commission and Parliament.
The laws require media organisations, whether audio-visual, print or online, to be pre-registered with the authorities.
They also provide for the setting-up of a Media Council, staffed by political appointees, to regulate content, which should be balanced and which must not be detrimental to “the national interest”.
According to Hammarberg, the “concerns arising from the media legislation and cover several areas”. These include, “content regulation of all media, including print and internet press, to the use of unclear definitions for such regulation that may be subject to misinterpretation, the establishment of a politically unbalanced regulatory machine with disproportionate powers and lack of full judicial supervision, threats to the independence of public service broadcasts media and the erosion of the protection of journalist sources”.
Following his trip to Budapest, Hammarberg called on the government to incorporate CoE standards on freedom of expression and media pluralism into the laws. He called on all stakeholders to engage in a meaningful dialogue and review of the legislation.
According to a Commission spokesperson, the laws should be successfully revised within a matter of weeks. (neurope.eu)