EU confronts Hungary over media freedom
José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said yesterday (5 January) that he would be using the traditional launch meeting between the college of European commissioners and the government holding the presidency to raise questions about the law, which came into effect on 1 January.
An official ceremony to mark the handover of the presidency from Belgium to Hungary takes place in Budapest today (6 January). Barroso and his commissioners will meet Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, and his ministers in Budapest on Friday (7 January).
Barroso said: “We have expressed some concerns…and what I would like to have from the Hungarian authorities is a clarification of the situation and the lifting of doubts.”
Critics of the law both inside Hungary and across Europe warn that it gives Orbán and his centre-right Fidesz party too much power over the media.
On Tuesday (4 January), France joined Germany, the United Kingdom and other member states that have already openly criticised the law, saying that it is “incompatible” with European press freedoms.
It is unusual for member states to criticise domestic legislation in another member state. But a spokesman for Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, said that the law was a “profound alteration of the freedom of the press” and that France along with other EU member states wanted it changed.
Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, said: “The plans clearly violate the spirit and letter of the EU treaties. It raises the question of whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU.” The Luxembourg-based, German-owned media company RTL has clashed with Orbán in the past.
Werner Hoyer, Germany’s deputy foreign minister, said: “It is a reason for serious concern if there’s only the smallest suspicion that media freedom in a member state of the EU is subject to a control of its content.”
Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, called his Hungarian counterpart, János Martonyi, before Christmas to discuss possible changes to the law.
Speaking in Budapest yesterday, Martonyi rejected the criticisms. “Do you seriously think that this country is on the road to becoming an authoritarian country? I mean this is ridiculous,” he said. He described his country as a “very vibrant, sometimes very aggressive democracy”. In a letter sent to Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for the digital agenda, Hungary said the law was fully in line with EU rules and norms.
Kroes had sent a letter on 23 December expressing concerns that the law, which includes measures to implement the EU’s audiovisual services directive, might be incompatible with EU law and might violate press freedoms under the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The Commission has started a legal analysis of an official translation of the law, which it received from the Hungarian authorities on Tuesday. The review is expected to take weeks.
Wilfried Martens, president of the European People’s Party, who has been a mentor to Orbán, defended the law, saying that it aimed to “strengthen” press freedoms in Hungary. He said criticism should not be based on misinterpretations of the text.
Werner Langen and Bernd Posselt, two German centre-right MEPs, have accused the Socialists of trying to discredit Hungary.
The law gives wide new powers to a single body, the Media Council of the National Media and Info-Communications Authority, to regulate and monitor the output of television, radio, newspapers and online media.
The five members of the council are to be elected by the parliament, and critics complain that since Fidesz has two-thirds of the seats in parliament it can control the Media Council.
Francine Cunningham, the executive director of the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA), said the wording of the law “creates a lot of ambiguity” and “casts a big cloud” over Hungary’s presidency. “It is strange that a fully democratic country should take such a reckless approach to a democratic press.”
György Schöpflin, a Hungarian centre-right MEP from Orbán’s party, said the media controversy had been damaging to the presidency but would blow over.
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“Fidesz has been very slow to recognise how much damage has been done,” Schöpflin said.
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