After content providers and advertisers, MLE the association of Hungarian publishers, has followed suit and signed a declaration of self-regulation with the National Infocommunications Authority (NMHH). Among other provisions, MLE made a commitment to take action against any of its 65 members should they violate human rights, harm the sound development of minors or incite against constitutional order.
The agreement comes as part of an – officially unprovoked – sequence of measures taken by publishers to filter out content that might be in breach of Hungary’s controversial media law. The regulatory scheme that took effect on July 1 envisions fines of up to HUF 25 million that can be levied on violating publishers, with the possibility of completely shutting them down if repeated serious offenses occur.
The government received furious criticism internationally that even soured the beginning of the country’s EU presidency. Heeding to international pressure, it eventually made some concessions and amended the regulations – although civil liberties groups still have concerns – but it remained to be seen how the activation of the new framework would play out.
To date, no publication has been penalized for offensive content, but the new law has moved leading publications to self-regulate. It all started on the website of left-leaning daily Népszava, when state secretary in charge of communication Zoltán Kovács filed a complaint, not against editorial content, but against something someone saw in the comments section.
An article was posted by President Pál Schmitt commemorating the merits of one of his predecessors, the late Ferenc Mádl. Apparently, one of the comments was insulting to the active President Schmitt and compelled a reader to advise Kovács, who promptly took the matter to media commissioner Jenő Bodonovich. In turn, the commissioner sought out the paper’s editor-in-chief to remove the offensive content and also notified NMHH of the situation.
At that point, online discussions proclaimed the end of the freedom of speech, when a publication could be targeted for giving readers the option to comment and thus express their views on public figures.
NMHH quickly responded to state that is not the case. The authority’s jurisdiction does not extend to comments, blogs and forum entries, and as such, NMHH is not investigating the case, the watchdog’s spokesperson Karola Kiricsi said. As she explained, Bodonovich initiated what is called “mediation” after his attention was called to content that was seriously offensive. However, no matter what the outcome of the mediation is, it is not mandatory, she added.
But websites are by no means convinced their comments sections would be in the clear. Popular news portal index.hu was the most notable in its reaction. The site simply terminated altogether the comments section on Velvet, its celebrity/tabloid section. As the site informed readers, its “moderation would pose an insurmountable and financially astronomical task for the editor’s office.”
Also, the blogs operating within the index.hu domain now display disclaimers stating that comments express the views of the readers and are in no way controlled by the operator of the site.
Some sites, like delmagyar.hu, decided to keep the comments section open, but introduced premoderation to filter out statements that could prove problematic before they appear in the public domain. “Our goal is to assure quality, pure content and to keep away those who would ‘litter’ the comments section,” the site informed its readers. Why was this necessary? “As of late, a rising number of comments posted below our articles were personal and insulting and had little to do with the content matter,” goes the explanation.
What will be interesting to see is how and if media will attempt to give their readers the same experience as before. One alternative is social media. Velvet actively encourages its readers to visit its Facebook page, where they can comment without fear of retribution. Of course, unless they bother to set up an alias, they cannot do it anonymously.
The state media support fund MTVA has started much-trailed headcount reductions at national public broadcasters, laying off 550 employees. The employees were reportedly called into short group sessions with none of them having any idea beforehand whether they would still have a job at the end of the discussion. The measure affected well known reporters and editors as well.
The government instantly received criticism for what is widely perceived to be a political cleansing maneuver to remove anyone from public media not loyal to the ruling political side’s agenda.
Fidesz does have a bad track record from its previous term in how it handled public media. But state-owned broadcasters are also known to be highly inefficient. Whereas state television MTV had 1,315 workers, its market-leading peer, commercial station RTL Klub, gets by with just 380 people – and reaches a far broader audience.