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Our Focus programme brings you exclusive reports from around the world. From Monday to Friday at 7.45 am Paris time.

Latest update : 2011-03-23

The beginning of the end for press freedom?

Hungary has only just taken over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, but Budapest's leadership has already been overshadowed by doubts over Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself. He's introduced a new media law with tough penalties for vaguely-worded offences such as "unbalanced coverage". Hungarian newspapers have said it signals the end of freedom of the press.

Hungary holds the EU's rotating presidency until 1 July 2011, with the euro on the ropes and such hefty items on the agenda as the amendment of the Lisbon treaty. But all that has so far been overshadowed by doubts over Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself: is he just a little too power-hungry?

What drew international attention to Orbán's mode of governance was a new media law that came into force on January 1st. It provides tough penalties for vaguely-worded offences such as "unbalanced coverage", and is to be administered by a body whose members are appointed by the government for whopping nine-year tenures.

As Hungarian newspapers decried the "end of freedom of the press", European politicians and leading lights of the anti-communist movement such as former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Poland's Adam Michnik also raised the alarm.

And the media law is just one of the worries. Since taking office last spring, Orbán's coalition has used its two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution ten times, limiting the powers of the constitutional court to challenge the unorthodox economic policies Hungary is pushing through (another source of controversy at the EU level) and stuffing almost all key positions, from the national president on down, with party loyalists.

It prompted distinguished economist János Kornai to write, in the left-leaning daily Népszabadság, that Hungary is no longer a democracy, but an autocracy.

Orbán takes offence at such allegations. After all, he too was a leading light of the movement for freedom and democracy in Central Europe, twenty years ago. Yet former companions such as Peter Molnar say he's changed. As an MP from 1990 to 1998, Molnar co-wrote post-communist Hungary's first ever media law. More recently, he's stepped back from politics and written a play entitled "Anxiety Ltd.": a title he says reflects the mood of the times in two ways: because of the anxiety Hungarian intellectuals feel about Fidesz's authoritarian drift, and because of the source of that drift in Orbán, and his allies' own anxiety.

For although Molnar unreservedly condemns the media law that replaces the one he worked on, he points out that Hungary's European partners are not blameless in this area either. Orbán has said that if the Commission asks Hungary to modify the new law (which it might), other European countries should have to change theirs, too. "This is a tricksy argument", Molnar says, but not entirely a false one, since many of the elements in Hungary's new law can be found in other countries' legislation - just not all of them at once.

What particularly worries him is the fact that the new law covers a substantial portion of internet content. And the groundwork for that, he says, was laid by the EU's 2007 Audiovisual Media Services Directive. "The directive is not an excuse for what the Hungarian government is doing in extending TV regulation to the whole media, but we have to look at the directive critically, because EU regulation can provide a reference point for all sorts of governments to say 'we are just doing the same' when they want to restrict freedom of information".

 

Programme prepared by Kate Williams, Marie Billon and Patrick Lovett

By Gulliver CRAGG

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