Legal opinions in Hungary: The case of MTV and Nap-kelte

It was about two weeks ago that Tamás Gyárfás, the producer of Nap-kelte, an early morning political program on MTV (the public television station of Hungary), was told in no uncertain terms by the acting president of MTV, Balázs Medveczky, that in spite of the fact that he had a valid contract with MTV until the end of 2010 by the next day the staff of Nap-kelte wouldn't have to worry about their program. Their services were no longer required.

The relationship between Nap-kelte, an independently produced program, and MTV hasn't been the smoothest, mostly because of political interference from Fidesz. In fact, during the Orbán period Nap-kelte was booted out of MTV and ended up for a while at ATV, a commercial station. ATV has a much smaller audience because it is available only to certain cable subscribers while MTV can be watched in the whole country and beyond. Therefore it is not terribly surprising that the producer was eager to return to MTV after Orbán lost the elections in 2002. I remember that at the time I was rather angry at Gyárfás. I said to myself that if I had been treated that way I sure wouldn't be crawling back. Well, he did.

Now it seems that Fidesz doesn't have to be running the country. Orbán can, even in opposition, wield enough power to influence MTV's leadership if he thinks that he needs yet more media exposure than he already has. First he convinced the then president, Zoltán Rudi, to put pressure on the producer to sack four reporters who were in charge of the program once a week. Gyárfás agreed. Now he says that perhaps he made a mistake then. He should have quit. Let's put it this way, letting Nap-kelte's four best journalists go didn't satisfy Fidesz. Soon enough they began boycotting the program. Once MTV broke its contract with Nap-kelte and began a program of its own (mind you, with the same cast of characters) all the Fidesz bigwigs returned to the new program, Ma Reggel.

One more bit of background information is necessary, I'm afraid. For almost two years MTV has had no legitimate president. The vice president has been acting as the CEO of this very large organization (1,700 employees). How did that happen and why? Simple. Fidesz doesn't want to have a bona fide, legitimately elected president of Hungary's public television station until Viktor Orbán is the prime minister and therefore has a greater say in personnel questions.

All the elections for president of MTV in the last two years ended in failure, the product of a complicated, distorted electoral procedure. There is a "small board of directors" made up of parliamentary delegates. The chairman is a delegate of the government party and the government party or parties are in the majority on that body. Normally, this "kiskuratórium," as it is called in Hungarian, comes up with a compromise candidate. But the procedure doesn't stop there. The final nod comes from the "nagykuratórium" which is made up of delegates of "civic organizations" who are chosen by lottery. This larger board is packed with right-wing civic organizations that often exist only on paper. Time and again this "nagykuratórium" refuses to give its blessing to the candidate chosen by the small board.

Now that all this background is out of the way, let me say a few things about the various legal opinions that have appeared in the Hungarian media over the last couple of weeks. The small board's argument and subsequent action was based on the fact that any contract that MTV signs with an outside supplier and that is valued at more than 300 million forints must be approved by the small board. Nap-kelte's contract was one of these. The board therefore took the position that it should also have a say in the dissolution of that contract. The members duly voted and by an overwhelming majority came out in favor of Nap-kelte.

My first surprise was the argument of certain media "experts" that although the board approved the contract it had no say in the breaking of the same. After all, the law governing the functioning of the board talks only about making a contract, not breaking a contract. One doesn't have to finish law school to know that this is nonsense. This is, by the way, the position of the Fidesz-KDNP delegates currently in the minority on the board.

But then came even more fanciful "legal opinions." One of these appeared in Népszabadság. Attila Pintér wrote an article on September 29 in which he commented on the fact that suddenly all those politicians who had boycotted Nap-kelte showed up on MTV's new morning program. And then he intoned his legal voodoo. According to Pintér the current acting president can disregard the board's decisions because "his employer is not the board." His employer is the president of MTV, and only the president of MTV could override his decision. But, of course, there is no president of MTV at the moment. Well, again, you don't have to be a legal expert to know that this is nonsense.

In cases when I'm at my wit's end trying to make sense of Hungarian legal thinking, I usually turn Vera Lánczos, a lawyer and one of the founders of Joggal a jogállamiságért, an organization established in early 2006 by legal experts and media personalities. This time I didn't have to bother her because she wrote a piece about this exact problem in Élet és Irodalom (October 9, 2009) under the title "MTV kontra Nap-kelte." In this article she explains in appropriate legal terms why all those arguments I read in the Hungarian papers are as ridiculous as I instinctively thought.

Lánczos demolishes other so-called legal arguments as well. One that is held by the vice-president of MTV is that the board had no legal right to demand the reinstatement of Nap-kelte because that would constitute interference with programming over which the board has no control. This is also a fallacious argument because the board's decision had nothing to do with programming. It had only to do with the state of a contract that needed its approval to put in place and surely needed its approval to void.

Our legal expert considers all these "false legal arguments" a dangerous practice because, in her opinion, it reinforces the common perception that the law is only good for playing games and advancing unsavory ends.

The article goes into a legal analysis of the law governing the functioning of radio and television (1996). The upshot is that according to a competent legal expert breaking the contract with Nap-kelte was illegal and so is the refusal of MTV's vice-president to obey the board of director's decision to reinstate it. Thus the vice-president is flaunting the law. It seems that he can do that with impunity. But what's new about this in Hungary?