I have written a lot about the media law since June 18 ("Proposed law on the media"). In August alone I wrote three pieces, the last on the new council that was created to be the watchdog over the media and whose members were suggested by Viktor Orbán and duly voted in by the two-thirds majority. They speedily took the oath of office. Fidesz took care of the supervision of the media as well. At the top of the apex is the prime minister, then follows Annamária Szalai, who is truly one of the least likeable people on the face of the earth–and her appointment is for nine years. (Anyone who would like to have a good chuckle over Annamária Szalai's career can read: "Annamária Szalai: From porn magazine to the defence of family values.") Then comes the five-member council, all closely associated with Fidesz.
At this point we still didn't know all the details of the new law, nicknamed Media Constitution, but given the person of Szalai and the politically one-sided council, one had an idea what was waiting for the Hungarian media. Nothing good. Today György Bolgár had a lengthy conversation with Pál Eötvös, president of the Association of Hungarian Journalists, who acknowledged that the members of the media woke up a little late about the dangers lurking in the background. Most likely, I would suggest, because people are still too naive and simply can't believe what can be done in the middle of Europe. Interestingly enough, it was an English-language article, which appeared in waz.euobserver.com on November 24, that called attention to the media constitution that would become law very soon. The article described the new piece of legislation as something that goes far beyond any changes introduced by previous governments and that threatens the freedom of expression.
It took three days for the Hungarian media to really respond. The first article that dealt with the subject appeared in HVG on November 27: "The Elimination of the Freedom of the Press." According to the author, one cannot find words to describe the reaction of the people affected by the proposed law. The first problem is that the presidents of Magyar Rádió, Duna TV, and MTV will not be able to make too many independent decisions. Even the right to put together their news program will be taken away from them. News broadcasts from here on will be provided by MTI, the official state news agency of Hungary. Another innovation, again involving MTI, is that from here on the news gathered by MTI will be given out to all organs free of charge. Until now one had to pay for the service. Surely, the aim is to make sure that all news will be filtered through MTI.
The council's powers are vast. If a a TV station says something that the council finds in violation of the media law it will have to pay a very hefty fine, perhaps as much as 500 million forints, but even daily papers and internet online papers might have to pay 25 million forints. Weeklies or periodicals will get away with a mere 10 million forints! Such fines may put an end to small radio stations like KlubRádió, which at the moment is asking for contributions from listeners because lately they have not been able to cover their expenses from advertisements.
László Majtényi, the chairman of ORTT (Országos Rádió és Televízió Tanács) that was replaced by the Media Council, called the proposal "a horror show." Majtényi, who also served as an ombudsman in his long public career and thus knows something about the law, claims that "regulating written, electronic and internet media on the basis of the same principle is by itself unconstitutional."
Until now complaints by individuals against newspapers could be filed only in court. Now Szalai and her five cohorts will take over the role of judges. That by itself will have a chilling effect.
The proposed bill can be read here. The bill is 170 pages long and one suspects that the three MPs who submitted it didn't even read it and certainly didn't write it. One of the three is Antal Rogán, who in the last eight years was often portrayed by the liberal press as a moderate and reasonable man. However, since the elections he has become a lion and lends his name to the most outlandish proposals, including this one.
According to the proposal, if a TV station violates the rules and regulations governing the media it will be forced to close shop, perhaps for as long as a whole week. Not only TV stations can be shut down for a prescribed time but also internet sites. If the owner of an internet site doesn't oblige, the internet provider will be responsible and will have to disconnect the site. Moreover, the editor-in-chief of the internet site can be personally fined 2 million forints in case the Media Council finds the site in violation. Hírszerző mentions two blogs that work like newspapers: Mandiner and Véleményvezér.
One can already see how "well-meaning" citizens will turn to a newly appointed Media Commissioner with their complaints which the commissioner will have to investigate. Hundreds and hundreds of complaints will pour in, I'm sure. The Commissioner will function as an ombudsman. He will be the defender of the interests of the readers and listeners. Each medium must sign a "behavioral code" and stick to it. As media experts pointed, out such a restrictive media law cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. One must go east which, I guess, is fine with Viktor Orbán who said not long ago that, although Hungary belongs to the west, lately the winds come from the east and "our sails must be adjusted accordingly."
It was Ildikó Lendvai who summed up MSZP's reaction to the proposal. She is a master with words and thus comes up with wonderful turns of phrases. When it came to the canned news from MTI, Lendvai recalled an old joke from the 1960s. At least this is when I heard it from a friend of mine who lived in Paris. Kohn visited a western country and stocked up on coffee, which was in short supply in Hungary in those days. In addition, it was very expensive. He had a whole sackful of the stuff. He landed in Ferihegy, the Budapest airport, and the customs official inquired from him what was in the sack. Birdseed for the parrot, answered Kohn. The official opened the sack and said: "But this is coffee, not birdseed." Kohn replied: "Whether he likes it or not, this is what he gets." (Eszi nem eszi, ezt kapja.)
Indeed, Fidesz propaganda is what the listeners of MR and the public television stations will get. As for the independent stations, they will have to be very careful to follow the behavioral code and will get their news, free of charge, from the same MTI that will put together the news for the public televison stations and radio. A lovely arrangement, don't you think?