Depending on political affiliations, the journalist profession gave mixed reactions to the ratification of the new media law. The degrees vary greatly but one thing is common: they’re not happy.
The left is up in arms and even the right, well-known for its loyalty to Fidesz, has raised objections against the new media regulatory package that earned Hungary international notoriety over the past months.
“It is worrying, unacceptable and beyond understanding. It is a slap in the face to everything that has been achieved over the past 20 years of democracy,” said Péter Németh, editor-in-chief of left-wing daily Népszava. His paper, just as market-leading peer Népszabadság, ran cover pages of protest on January 3, the first day of the Hungarian EU presidency. It came after similar demonstrative editorial decisions by weeklies Magyar Narancs, Élet és Irodalom and 168 Óra, which came out with blank covers as a show of objection.
The main concern that the leftist press shares is that the punitive powers now bestowed on the state media regulatory bodies will leave media outlets with no option but to censor themselves, for fear that they might be forced out of business overnight.
“Back in the middle ages, lords had jus prima noctis, the right to spend the first night with a woman wed on their land. They seldom used this right, but the threat was nonetheless there and very real,” said Károly T Vörös, editor-in-chief of Népszabadság. In his view, the new media law represents exactly this type of threat that can be equated with the end to freedom of the press.
“We have clearly stated our outrage over this law seeing that its passage violates the rule of law as such,” Vörös said. The paper stressed that it would take the matter to the Constitutional Court if the law was ratified. He expressed confidence that the contents of the bill violate fundamental human liberties to such an extent that the Court will have to strike it down without a second thought.
Németh is less optimistic about the legal option. “I personally have little faith in the Hungarian legal system given the extent of control the government has over it. Still, we must not accept this new regulation, we must try to oppose it and tear it apart.” In his view, the only genuine solution is to evoke a strong international opposition to the law so that it will compel Orbán and his cabinet to make changes. “The only thing that could serve as an effective tool against the law is the unified outrage of EU public opinion,” he said.
Mild critique from the right
“We believe that the media law is incomplete and still needs a number of amendments,” said László Szentesi Zöldi, deputy editor-in-chief of conservative daily Magyar Hírlap. As such, the paper considers several paragraphs of the bill to be “debatable.” At the same time, he pointed out that Magyar Hírlap is very happy that changes were finally enacted, since the previous regulatory system was outdated and was no longer viable.
Asked whether he shares the concerns voiced by his colleagues on the left of the political aisle, Szentesi Zöldi said it’s too early to tell. “We have to give the system a few months in practice and only then can we judge whether it’s a good solution,” he said.
Magyar Hírlap also stated that the reactions sparked by the law tend to blow the significance of the issue out of proportion. “The international outrage over the bill is completely unfounded,” Szentesi Zöldi concluded.
Anxiety on the left
Independent of the debate on the media bill, the left-wing media is seeing a strategic campaign against itself by the government, with the intent to silence opposing voices.
“We have no advertisers,” Németh complained, attributing his paper’s dire financial situation to government pressure on left-wing media. “Even though there is interest from potential business partners, they step away from appearing in fear of retribution, mostly in the form of a rigorous tax audit.”
Given that the paper is not getting any advertising revenue from the state ever since the Orbán government took office, he conceded that in a short time Népszava, a newspaper with a more than 130-year history, could be a thing of the past. (Gergő Rácz)