Hungarian Media Law Doomed

19 January 2011

By Tamás Bodoky

The widely criticised new Hungarian media law could affect my work badly, because it regulates both print and online media in the same restrictive way it regulates electronic mass media. As an investigative journalist working for print and online publications, my work is already subject of a wide variety of pressures and restrictions, starting with political and economic pressures on media companies publishing investigative reporting, excessive self-censorship due the business interests of media owners, the lack of courage and political precautions of public service media, and legal threats from people whose wrongdoings I highlight in my work.

Until now, the state has not interfered directly with print and online media allowing the press to be controlled by existing privacy and libel and defamation legislation.  This legislation is onerous in itself.  Libel and slander is still a criminal offense in Hungary punishable by up to two years in prison, and prominent persons often use lawsuits to intimidate journalists whose work hurts their interests. The threat of a lawsuit is often enough for Hungarian media companies to publish demanded corrections immediately, without trying to defend their work in court.

The new Hungarian media law does not remedy this situation but adds additional barriers to muckracking. Under the new law, the powerful Media Authority can demand to see or copy any data collected by journalists and media companies, and if they don’t comply, it may impose a data provision fine which can amount up to HUF 50 million (€180.000). The new law also removes the protection of sources.  In the past, general legislation protected journalists and all professions that required confidentiality from testifying in court. The Media Authority now may require journalists to reveal their sources in the interest of protecting national security and public order, or preventing crimes.

Media companies violating poorly or completely undefined concepts like „public morals” or „hate speach” face high fines as well -- electronic mass media (tv and radio) up to HUF 200 million (€720.000), print and online publications up to HUF 25 million HUF (€90.000). These fines can be imposed repeatedly, and the Media Authority is even authorized to ban the distribution of a media product in the event of repeat violations of the vague new rules.

The Media Authority itself is under direct political influence of the government and the governing parties.  They have the power to appoint the chairperson, currently Annamaria Szalai, a former Fidesz MP, and other officers.  The nine year appointements insure control of the press by a political appointee for nine years or more than two full parliamentary cycles.  The new law will likely not achieve its goal of stopping hate speech since many sites are based in neighboring countries. It is now more likely that even ethical media companies will leave the country or hide ownership and the identity of the editorial staff in fear of financial annihilation through the new media law.

In my opinion this obscure, outdated and anti-democratic piece of legislation is doomed to fail, no matter how hard Fidesz tries to impose it. In the age of the Internet it is no longer possible to stifle critical voices. The digital revolution has liberated journalism from the restrictive oversight of mainstream media owners and the state. Now, the old media has to adapt to this new environment even though right now the old reflexes of control and constraint are being tested.

Judit Bayer, a hungarian expert on media law contributed to this report

Tamás Bodoky is a freelance investigative journalist based in Budapest, Hungary. Bodoky has won several prizes for his investigative stories, among them the Gőbölyös Soma Prize, the Hungarian Pulitzer Memorial Prize and the Iustitia Regnorum Fundamentum Prize.

The opinions included herein are exclusively those of the author.