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Hungary v the Economist

This half-year's Hungarian presidency of the EU has got off to a duff start: a new law on state regulation of the media has caused a great deal of controversy, perceived by many people as falling well short of the EU's human rights standards. I confess I hadn't been paying a lot of attention up to yesterday, concentrating on enjoying my winter vacation and then mopping up backlogs when I returned to work. I don't much like the Hungarian PM, Victor Orbán, who I met once a long time ago and whose career I have since been following with a gloomy fascination; but I have a great deal of respect for the Hungarian diplomats and other officials who I deal with on external affairs issues in Brussels, who tend to be helpful, well-informed and realistic. On several issues that I care about, Hungary has been, is and will be an important player in the internal EU debate.

But a couple of interesting pieces came my way yesterday about the situation. One is an opinion piece by my old friend Mátyás Eörsi, who used to be a Hungarian MP (until his party lost all its seats in the last election). His starting position is, of course, hostile to Orbán, but I think he provides a useful backgrounder:
The head of the new National Media and Communications Authority (NMHH) and concurrently established Media Council was unilaterally appointed by the Prime Minister. The four members of the body were all nominated by the governing Fidesz party. The Council has wide regulatory authority over public and private media, TV and radio stations, printed and online newspapers – even blogs. All have to register with the Council as a prerequisite to operate. The authorities have wide-ranging power to impose penalties if they deem media content to infringe on “public morality” or “constitutional order.” They can fine media they find guilty of “offending” any minority as well as any “community” or “group,” including “the majority.”

Most ominously for freedom of the press, this ruling party-controlled body has the power to impose fines for “imbalanced news coverage.” Since January 1, when the media law entered into force, legal proceedings have been initiated against a minor radio station that broadcast music deemed to be obscene and against a major private TV station for airing a reality show. Penalties can be so severe that they have the potential to bankrupt some print and electronic media outlets. If the Council deems the issue “grave” enough – and no definition of “grave” can be found in the law – the “culpable” company and its owners’ companies will be denied the right to apply for licenses in the future. And under the law, the fundamental principle that the media can protect its sources is now dead on arrival.
There's more gloomy analysis form Anne Applebaum at the Washington Post. "Charlemagne" (Anton La Guardia), the Economist's EU correspondent, has been providing much the best coverage of the issue, with a piece posted on Thursday, his column in the Economist print edition yesterday and two more blog pieces later on (here and here). In the second piece, Charlemagne tries to get inside the internal Hungarian story fo the affair, and ends with this paragraph:
Over a long dinner assisted by the expertise of the specially-appointed “EU presidency sommelier” one minister first claimed the media law was no different from other European countries. He later admitted that it was, indeed, more stringent than similar laws elsewhere. “You have to understand, this is central Europe, where there is anti-Semitism and anti-gypsy sentiment. The government has to protect people.” By the time the sweet Tokaji dessert wine was poured he conceded: “OK, we fucked it up.”
In the feverish central European media environment, this last paragraph itself has become a story, with Charlemagne posting a clarification this morning:
I will not identify the minister unless he chooses to put up his hand. However I should clarify two points. Firstly, the reference to Tokaji wine was intended to give a sense of the flow of time and of argument over an extended conversation, not to imply that the minister's tongue was loosened by the flowing alcohol. My interlocutor was sober; which makes his admission all the more brave and interesting.

The second point is: what precisely was the minister referring to when he acknowledged that the government had “fucked it up”? He has called me to explain that he was only talking about the government's presentation of its case: the timing of the law (on the eve of Hungary's EU presidency) and the failure to appreciate quite what a row it would provoke in the rest of Europe. He still stands by the need for the legislation and its substance. I accept his clarification.
It didn't take much googling of Hungarian news sources to identify the minster as Tamás Fellegi (here, if you can penetrate the Magyar), the minister for National Development (listed as non-party rather than as a member of the majority Fidesz), himself a media tycoon.

As I said at the top, I like the Hungarians in general, and where their foreign policy agenda intersects with my own interests they seem to be doing the right thing. I would like to think that they can sort this one out, and cannot but agree with the Economist's conclusion:
Mr Orbán could do himself a world of good if he, like my ministerial interlocutor, were to admit that the media law had been a mistake and, even better, pledge to review it...

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