Draconian press laws in the EU’s new Presidency…

“”Reporting on crime that “doesn’t serve the interest of the democratic public” must be restricted to 20% of the time devoted to news.””

That would be nice wouldn’t it, simply removing the inconvenient news by not reporting it. Believe it or not, that is one of the planks of an authoritarian new media law recently introduced by a European Union country, a country that takes up the EU’s Presidency as of today.

And it gets worse.

A “media council has been created, with its chairperson being appointed for a nine-year term by the Prime-Minister, currently Fidesz (a conservative-nationalist party) leader Viktor Orban. The council consists solely of members belonging to or favourable to that ruling party and will have the power to fine television and radio stations as much as 200 million forints (about 700,000 euros) for coverage deemed in their opinion as “politically” “out of balance”. Maximum fines for national newspapers and websites were set at 25 million forints and for weeklies at 10 million.

The media council also has the right to access documents before publication. Journalists will have to disclose their sources on matters of “national security”, that is “national security” as defined by the party apparatchiks on the media council.

Another paragraph of the law reads: “any statement in the media which is qualified as an overt or covert insult of persons, nations, communities, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities or any majority, in addition to any church or religious groups is punishable.”

The definition of “overt” or “covert” and “insult” again being “qualified” by the National Media Council, obviously. Theoretically then if you criticize the government, it will be easy in the future to “qualify” this criticism as an “incitement against the majority”.   All depending, once again, on that National Media Council, a National Media comprised, remember, completely of the governing party’s functionaries.

There have been various protests within Hungary itself; newspapers and magazines have run blank covers, several radio presenters and commentators have already been removed from their previous positions; even the rapper Ice T has been metaphorically banished for singing (in a foreign language!) “obscenities harmful to youthful morals

So what’s the relevance to readers of Slugger O’Toole?

Firstly, the dangerous precedent it sets. Both the UK and the Republic have fairly robust and independent media but we are kidding ourselves that this is a state of affairs welcomed by our respective political elites.

Imagine a BBC having to report to and justify itself to a Media Council composed entirely of Cameronian Placemen; the Guardian having to balance each liberal piece in Comment is Free with a mirror-imaged conservative article; every criticism of the “Brits” online (yep, online “newpapers”, i.e. sites with more than 2 contributors, just like Slugger, are also covered by this law) being met with a hefty fine.

And tell me that there aren’t those of an authoritarian bent within all the political parties here who wouldn’t welcome the kind of political control that their counterparts in Hungary now wield. And if such power is now apparently acceptable in one EU country, then why shouldn’t it be acceptable elsewhere?

Secondly, as I mentioned at the start, Hungary is for the next 6 months, the “face” of the European Union, the country holding its presidency. That fact doesn’t put the European Union on the strongest of moral foundations the next time it wishes to complain about press freedom in Belarus, China, Russia, the list unfortunately goes on and on.

In other words, what’s the point of us preaching the worth of our democratic values when we don’t practise them ourselves?

Thirdly and more abstractly, especially in the modern age, the concept of free press doesn’t begin and end at a nation’s border; an attack on the right to freely give and receive opinion anywhere in the world is an attack on our very own personal right to freely give and receive opinion.

If you’re interested in the democratic fightback which is taking place in Hungary and further afield in the EU, then these links may be of interest:

Facebook page “Million for Hungarian Media Freedom” (scroll down for the English translation and links to press articles:

World Association of Newspapers statement:

German government’s reaction.

The government spokesman on their EU site attempting to defend the law.

And finally, “European blog action against censorship in Hungary”.

, , , ,

  • edgeoftheunion

    Thanks oneill

    This is an absolutely fascinating topic, and it is no surprise whatsoever that it appears on Slugger rather than on MSM. To be honest I know absolutely nothing about the politics of Hungary which probably puts me in the top 5% for N.I.

    Make an instant judgement on “Quality Journalism”

    http://news.google.co.uk/news/more?pz=1&cf=all&cf=all&ncl=dh4AYm8qAx9qSwMGfBXKNhKO4CtkM

    Kudos to an unlikely source

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1341165/Hungary-gags-media-throws-EU-presidency-doubt.html

  • JAH

    Now wouldn’t the far right love this! (and T.Blair if he had’ve had the nerve)

    And how on earth has the EU no policy on freedom of speech as it seems to have a policy on everything else down to screw sizes?

  • Eurogoblin

    @JAH – Yup, the EU is investigating this one. See the FT article here.

  • pippakin

    This has been mentioned a couple of times. It is a bit worrying. One of the few things the EU has had to recommend it has been the value it places on human rights. I would say freedom of speech is a human right and should be defended.

    I hope the EU will remind Hungary of its commitments.

  • It is actually the Council of Europe that develops policy on freedom of speech. Pretty well every country in Europe (except Belarus, of course) has signed up the the Council of Europe.

  • joeCanuck

    Apart from anything else, trying to suppress news in today’s internet is a waste of time and those that try it are incredibly stupid.

  • Eurogoblin,

    “Yup, the EU is investigating this one”

    They should have started putting on the pressure much earlier, it’s a topic which has been on the boil since early summer.

    The government has played the EU very well, passing the law (with the very same details they outlined in June) 2 days before Xmas, 7 days before taking up the Presidency.Also the only reason the Eurocracy panicked and we started belatedly hearing about “investigations” was, despite the time of year, the massive international press condemnation.

    From what I’ve heard, the investigation will (conveniently for both parties) finish in the second half of the year (ie after Hungary’s 6 month stint), meaning that a government attempting to suppress the free media will be permitted to hold the EU Presidency- that’s the scandalous bottom line.

  • Joe,

    The government is working on the principle that there is more than one way to skin the right to free expression cat. All newspapers, magazines, online news sites must register with the Media Council, the intention being that the state knows exactly who is writing what and can punish accordingly. The “traditional” media flow of information is thus quite easily stopped.

    Online, you are, of course, right. Theoretically it will work the same way although practically it’s technically impossible to regulate everything flowing into and around the country.

    However, you must also remember that you are dealing with a population that a generation ago lived under a communist regime, one where the free flow of information was highly restricted.

    Even the intention of the present state attempting to operate a similar totalitarian media system is enough to trigger off memories and will probably be enough to frighten people off from expressing their democratic right online

  • It’s interesting to note that the president of the European People’s Party (Sarkozy & Merkel’s party – and that of the ruling Fidesz in Hungary), Wilfried Martins, has defended it, while the Liberals and Greens in the European Parliament have been critical, with the Greens even calling for Hungary to be sanctioned under article 7 TEU for contravening the values of the EU.

    The EPP is acting more like a whipped governing party (it’s in the majority in the Council and Parliament, and has a plurality in the EP).

  • It’s disappointing, althought he fact that both Merkel and now the French government have both come out very strongly against it (German link in original post, French one here:http://tinyurl.com/36ayt2c) makes you think that perhaps Martins has gone on a solo run with this.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Hmmmm

    Reporting on crime that “doesn’t serve the interest of the democratic public” must be restricted to 20% of the time devoted to news.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jan/05/chris-jefferies-media

  • andnowwhat

    If 20% of bad news was alloowed would Cher have gone instead of Mary Burn on X Factor(y)?

    On another level, our media is massively controlled and manipulated. This is a blog and the point of blogs IMHO is that the users do not trust the media. Why would one need them otherwise?