Hungary grapples with free-press issues

August 12, 2010

When my editorial assistant, Mirjam Donath, traveled to her native Hungary recently, I asked her to look into some of the ethical issues faced by journalists there.

In a coincidental piece of timing, Hungary’s president this week signed into a law controversial media legislation that has drawn criticism from constitutional law experts and press freedom advocates. So Mirjam’s interviews in Hungary are all the more newsworthy now.

Over to Mirjam.

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If the man who introduced the ombudsman institution to Hungary says that the freedom of the Hungarian press is in danger, a journalist takes notice. And Laszlo Majtenyi, the first Freedom of Information Commissioner of Hungary and former president of the media supervisory authority (ORTT), warned me of just that during my recent visit to Budapest.

Following the first round of the Hungarian elections, analysts predicted that the two-thirds majority of the center-right party, Fidesz, which formed Hungary’s new government in April, was to have a slightly positive impact on financial markets. This unprecedented mandate, which gives the government the power to make even constitutional changes without the consent of the opposition, promised relatively quick implementation of economic reforms.

But as soon as the government came into power, first the Hungarian currency, the Forint, tumbled in early June. Then, the IMF suspended negotiations on Hungary’s funding program in July. And this week, President Pal Schmitt signed the most controversial part of the new media law package, which was condemned by constitutional experts in Hungary and press freedom watchdogs abroad.

…the law was prepared in full secrecy, a circumstance that would alone make it unacceptable, even if its elements were otherwise correct. “Which they are not,” Majtenyi says.

Proponents of the act, drafted to be appropriate for the new digital media environment and for the renewal of the media supervisory authority that had faced corruption scandals, say it is designed to promote the freedom of information. But Majtenyi, who quit the authority presidency in protest over a frequency auction scandal in 2009, says that the law was prepared in full secrecy, a circumstance that would alone make it unacceptable to him, even if its elements were otherwise correct. “Which they are not,” Majtenyi says.

The main controversy is over the new law that merges the national media supervisory authority (ORTT) with the telecommunications authority (NHH) into a  “Media Council.” The Council, which will supervise both public and private broadcasting, will be presided over by an appointee of the prime minister – the most influential political leader in Hungary, Viktor Orban at present – for a nine-year term, and cannot be dismissed unless he or she refuses to do the job.

The members of the Council will be nominated by the parliament so that its composition will roughly mirror the influence of the parties in the parliament, which was not the case with the old authority. Since the Council is responsible for nominating the directors of Hungary’s public service media positions, which had formerly been subject to open competition, critics warn of the prime minister’s direct influence on the future leaders of the public media.

Dunja Mijatovic, the representative on freedom of the media of the UN Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) appealed for modifications in the draft laws in June.

“Their [the proposed laws’] adoption could lead to all broadcasting being subordinated to political decisions,” wrote Mijatovic to Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi in an open letter.

“The offensive against the new media law is organized by people abroad who are hurt and dissatisfied with the changes”

Annamaria Szalai, the Fidesz delegate at the current media authority ORTT, and freshly appointed president of the new supervisory authority, said the international criticism was baseless. “The offensive against the new media law is organized by people abroad who are hurt and dissatisfied with the changes,” she said in a statement  Wednesday.

Zoltan Kovacs, the secretary in charge of government communication,  said the new laws would improve the Hungarian public media, which he characterized as “lavish, professionally and financially uncontrolled and non-functional” during the eight-year reign of the previous government.

“By becoming an independent state administrative body, the [media supervisory] authority’s legitimacy and controllability are indeed growing from now as it will need to report to the parliament that is elected by the people,” Kovacs said. “This will be guaranteed by the Media Council that is elected by the parliament.”

Answering criticism that the president of the Council is unavoidably the prime minister’s man or woman, Kovacs said that it is general international practice in democratic countries for the prime minister, head of state or president to appoint the president of the media supervisory authority. Kovacs listed France, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark as examples.

…the lawmakers do not and cannot aim to eliminate the freedom of the press. They do aim, however, to extend their political authority.

The question may well be if the Hungarian democracy, like its older European counterparts, is ready to put all the media control mechanisms into the hands of a government that has a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

Financial control is among those mechanisms, too. The new media law will put the assets of Hungary’s public television, radio and news agency under the ownership of the Media Council, which is, for the time being, under the direct control of the government.

Majtenyi doesn’t agree with critics who say that the Fidesz media proposition is similar to those of the communist state control of media. His team of constitutional experts at the Eotvos Karoly Institute, a watchdog NGO created by the George Soros Foundation, published an analysis on Hungary’s press freedom in August, which states that the lawmakers do not and cannot aim to eliminate the freedom of the press. They do aim however, according to the report, to extend their political authority, which could weaken the constitution and endanger Hungary’s international trust.

According to Political Capital, a private research institute that specializes in risk forecast in Central Europe, press freedom is threatened by the increasing market power of private news organizations close to Fidesz, rather than stronger government influence on public media.

“The past eight years have seen a proliferation of private media groups that are linked to Fidesz. They exercise substantial influence over advertisers, which may mean less ad revenue for news outlets that are not allied with the government,” states Political Capital in its 2010 Political Risk Index.

RTL Klub, one of the most popular private television stations, and the conservative weekly Heti Valasz are both owned by a media company where the majority stakeholder was Hungary’s present minister of national development, Tamas Fellegi. Before becoming a minister in April, Fellegi, a businessman, sold his stake. The buyers were Zsolt Nyerges, one of his former business partners, and Istvan Stumpf, former minister in Orban Viktor’s first Prime Minister Office.

“Professionalism is still secondary. Some very bad bias rules our profession”

The Hungarian media market is not doing any better than other markets across the world, but it is significantly smaller. In a country of 10 million, even the leading tabloid Blikk could only sell 203,000 issues in the second quarter of 2010, according to MATESZ, the Hungarian Audit Bureau of Circulation. Journalists say that there is not yet a demand for unbiased journalism in Hungary.

“Our basic problem is that the country lacks a strong middle-class who would want and have the money to spend on information about the workings of the government. Until there is demand for it, it’s difficult to expect professionalism from journalists,” said Andras Stumpf, a correspondent of Heti Valasz.

Providing a service that supports a clear political agenda also builds loyal readership, which helps a media outlet survive, said Ferenc M. Laszlo, a correspondent of Hungary’s leading news portal Origo.

“We still want to sort of advise people on what and how to think,” he said. Laszlo recently left Magyar Narancs (Hungarian Orange), a liberal weekly for Origo, a German company, as he finds it one of the most professional media organizations in Hungary, “a representative of the Anglo-Saxon type of press,” where he doesn’t worry about possible editorial pressure to produce biased news reports.

“Professionalism is still secondary. Some very bad bias rules our profession,” Laszlo said.

Majtenyi, who served as Hungary’s first news ombudsman at the daily Magyar Hirlap until the paper refused to publish his criticism, refuses to blame Hungary’s 20-year-old “young” democracy for press problems.

“In 1848, when Hungary declared independence from the Habsburg Monarchy, the first public demand of the modern Hungary was, ‘We wish the freedom of the press and the abolishing of censure’,” he said. “Ironically, the only era when our press was unlimitedly free according to international standards is these last 20 years. Citing our young democracy is not a valid excuse. That would be fake reality.”

Mirjam Donath is editorial assistant to Dean Wright, Reuters global editor for ethics, innovation and news standards.

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