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Freedom House this week released its yearly rankings on Freedom of the Press, in which Hungary was downgraded from “free” to “partly free”. While there is room for improvement in the current Hungarian media law, Freedom House’s published report on Hungary is factually incorrect on several counts:
- “Hungary declined from Free to Partly Free to reflect the general decline of the Hungarian media environment due to….the evidence of a politically motivated licensing procedure resulting in the loss of Klubradio’s frequencies.” In fact, as this blog and other sources have pointed previously, Klubradio is still on the air. Klubradio has not yet lost its frequency, as a final decision, per court ruling, has not yet been made by the media authority.
- “[Klubradio] has been waiting for the renewal of its broadcasting license since it expired in February 2010.” In fact, according to the Media Act (Article 48, para (5)) as well as the previous media law, frequency renewal may occur only once, which Klubradio already did in 2005. Therefore, Klubradio had no legal basis–neither under the current law nor under previous regulations–to expect that its license will be automatically renewed.
- “[Hungary’s Media Council] is called to levy fines or suspend outlets for ‘unbalanced’ or ‘immoral’ reporting.” The law explicitly says that violations of the balanced television and radio news reporting requirement cannot be penalized with fines or license suspension (See Article 181 para (1)-(6) of the Act CLXXXV of 2010 on Media Services and Mass Media). The Media Council can only require the media outlet to publish or broadcast the Council’s decision or provide the petitioner with an opportunity to publish its viewpoint to balance out the reporting.
- “[The Media Council is a] Fidesz-controlled media regulation authority.” Ostensibly this is so because its members were appointed by a Parliamentary majority dominated by Fidesz and the Council’s head was appointed by the Prime Minister. In fact, the current Media Act prohibits direct party influence on the members and provides the same legal safeguards regarding the authority’s independence which the Constitutional Court previously found constitutional and acceptable (See decision No. 46/2007 (VI 27) AB). The lengthier terms (9 years) of the members of the Council which do not overlap with the Parliamentary cycle, the fact that they cannot be recalled or instructed, and the possibility of judicial review of their decision provide legal guarantees of their political independence. By the same token, who would argue that the United States’ FCC is a Democratic Party-controlled because it has a Democratic majority and it is headed by a former Obama campaign advisor?
In other parts, the report seems to contradict itself. Freedom House critically mentions that “the government amended the constitution, removing a passage on the government’s obligation to prevent media monopolies” but later it also criticizes the Media Council for ruling against a merger of Axel Springer and Ringier to defend media diversity, i.e. prevent the creation of a monopoly.
The report also cites the “worsening economic conditions for independent media entrepreneurship” but at the same time notes that “there has been an increase in domestically owned electronic media outlets” and that “diversity is on the rise in the electronic media”.
Elsewhere, the report simply omits evidence in support of its claim. It names the new “National Agency for Data Protection” as a reason for the decline in Hungary’s media freedom but provides no explanation as to why this is so. Following a similar logic, does the newly established Federal Consumer Protection Bureau, headed by Democratic politician Richard Cordray who was appointed during recess by the Obama administration weaken U.S. media freedom?
While Freedom House certainly has the freedom to interpret and rate recent changes in Hungary’s media laws based on its own standards, it should not take the liberty to disseminate factually incorrect information.
—Vera Molnár is a political analyst residing in Budapest, Hungary. She holds a degree in political science and international affairs.