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EU comes down on Hungary over media law

Totalitarianism, Putinization, the end to freedom of the press. These are just some of the reactions that Hungary’s new media regulatory regime evoked both at home and virtually around the world.

Viktor Orbán’s government has taken over the EU presidency unable to wake up from what can only be called a PR nightmare. First the crisis taxes and now the media law have put Hungary in the crosshairs of reputable international media as well as senior EU politicians who are calling for limits to Hungary’s jurisdiction during its half-year as president of the bloc.

The law, which gives the Fidesz-only media councils of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) unprecedented investigative and punitive powers, has earned the country and its premier labels such as “Führerstaat” and the “Pinochet of Europe,” respectively.

What’s the problem?

Publishers and critics are concerned that the regulatory regime will essentially function as censorship. The law gives the media councils rights such as searching editorial offices, studying journalists’ notes and research and in cases even legally obliging them to reveal their sources if the medium in question is suspected to have broken the law.

Besides the investigative jurisdiction, NMHH may now also levy significant fines on media content publishers.

Should the targeted medium refuse to cooperate or in any other way obstruct the investigation, it can be forced to pay a penalty of HUF 25 million. In special cases, an additional HUF 3 million may be slapped on the person in charge of the publication, namely the editor-in-chief. Opponents of the bill were quick to point out that a penalty of that magnitude could almost instantaneously bankrupt a smaller publishing firm.

As an additional concern, publishers are worried since those filing the complaints can request to stay anonymous. Some are actually envisioning a world where anyone can file complaints against publishers on a whim, thereby putting them out of business.

Feeble response

Government officials were quick to point out that the reality will be nothing like the totalitarian regime envisioned, particularly in the left-leaning media. While the regulator will certainly have new powers, the extreme penalties would only be levied in the case of serious and repeat offenses. Orbán, his spokesman Péter Szijjártó and Fidesz caucus leader János Lázár all stated repeatedly that the new law is in complete harmony with EU principles and contains no provisions that aren’t present in the legal systems of other member countries.

Since this is the only response the government had for some time, it appeared that Orbán expected the matter to blow over. But it became obvious that the international press and a growing number of other EU states will not let the issue go, especially given Hungary’s assumption of the EU presidency. It took Hungarian diplomacy quite a while to actually throw back a punch.

Taking away our toys

The German government was the first to suggest that Hungary should allow the European Commission to handle talks on media affairs with eastern partner states since it lacks credibility in negotiating media-related issues given the new bill. There were even calls to take the presidency from Hungary altogether.

After weeks of complacency and playing to the home crowd instead of addressing the matter, the Foreign Ministry finally released a strongly-worded statement rejecting any challenges to its competence and right to perform its presidency duties.

But the turmoil is far from being over and Orbán is set to endure several unpleasant negotiations with EU officials during the coming weeks and months.

The bill has placed an unwanted strain on bilateral relations with the leading economic powers of the EU and the European Commission is also demanding answers or “clarification.”

Orbán now has a choice of either persevering amid an international opposition that seems unlikely to abate, and could also make the under-financed Hungarian presidency even more difficult, or yielding under the pressure and accepting the political blow. Whichever way it goes, it won’t be an easy six months. (Gergő Rácz)