by Edward Pittman*
In December 2010, whilst Hungary held the EU presidency, a new media law went into effect. With this, and the passage and revisions of other recent legislation, the space for debate and free expression significantly shrank in country with a population famous for rising up against authoritarian rule.
These legislative changes have seen the establishment of a National Communications and Media Authority and by extension, the registration and monitoring of all forms of news media; newspapers, television, radio and even space on the internet. This Authority has the power to impose high fines on coverage it deems unbalanced or “offensive to human dignity,” seize reporters’ notes, search editorial offices and demand confidential business information. And yet, it offers scant practicality for how the law is to be enforced, leaving much to judicial (and political) discretion, a problem belied by a series of amendments.
Concerns were raised about the law as incompliant with European Standards at an EU level: however, the amendments that were made by the Hungarian government on the back of that criticism were cosmetic and piecemeal despite being endorsed by the European Commissioner in charge of media affairs. The law is enforced by a powerful Media Council which has wide and far reaching powers to influence the already beleaguered Hungarian media.
An International Mission
A year on an international freedom of expression mission visited the Hungary to meet with representatives of the government, journalists and media workers. The group, led by Aidan White of the Media Diversity Institute and the Global Editors Forum, comprised experts and representatives from 11 leading freedom of expression organizations. This was the first of such a mission to an EU member state by this loose network of independent organizations (the International Partnership Group) which selectively visit countries where freedom of expression is of concern. Its aim was to assess the media freedom situation and to reinforce the commitment of the international community to see that Hungary observes its binding commitments to upholding freedom of expression as both an EU member state and signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.
A Chilling Effect
The regulatory framework which the legislation imposed on the media environment was found to be “broad, uncertain and inconsistent with European standards of media freedom”. The group was keen to point out to both government and media representatives alike that the absence of cases where fines had been imposed on journalists and outlets was not indicative of there being no problems. On the contrary in fact: the existence of such a legislative environment is having a chilling effect on the media in the country. The mission learned of a move by media owners to have their employees sign disclaimers absolving the outlet of culpability for any ‘inflammatory’ content and liability for any fines.
A lack of solidarity amongst the media community was observed by the mission as evidenced by its failure to establish a self-regulatory framework. However, this was found to be no reason to introduce the co-regulatory framework prescribed through the new laws. In its ideal form, a system of co-regulation involves shared responsibility for the regulation of the media by both the media industry and the government. It was observed that the media which signed up to the co-regulatory agreement in the case of the Hungarian system did so under duress and the fear that otherwise they may be exposed to the whim of the Media Council. Furthermore, far from a co-regulatory framework the scope of what the law imposes does not delegate responsibility to the media to regulate itself as a co-regulatory framework should, but rather imposes a narrow system of regulation upon the media under a thin veil of autonomy for the media outlets. Through co-regulation the Media Council is “effectively outsourcing censorship with the co-operation of national and international media owners alike.”
Not a model for export
Perhaps the most worrying observation that the mission made was the suggestion that the law is a model which should be exported to other jurisdictions within the EU and beyond. Far from be compliant with European media freedom standards, the mission noted a series of incorrectly cited or redundant elements of media laws from EU jurisdictions that the Hungarian government claimed the new media laws to be drawn from (see http://cmcs.ceu.hu/news/2011-01-07/controversial-new-hungarian-media-legislation-a-cmcs-info-resource for forthcoming report). However, given the debate raging throughout the EU over the role of the media and its regulation it should be recognized that this law is simply not fit for purpose. Rather than promote a free and fair media “it is creating a chilling effect and its export to other countries will undermine free expression”.
Excerpts from the press conference held by the mission and an interview with Aidan White may be found here.
*Edward Pittman is program coordinator of the Open Society Media Program. He represented the Program on the recent International Press Freedom Mission to Hungary.