No free and plural media in Hungary? The government’s answer to Neelie Kroes

The reaction to Viktor Orbán’s speech a week ago has been uniformly negative. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal agreed with the liberal New York Times that Orbán’s vision of the future of Hungary is incompatible with western values, specifically the values of the European Union of which Hungary is a member.

This speech and its aftermath necessarily turned attention away from other developments, among which one of the most important is an article by Neelie Kroes, European commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. In the last four years there were two female members of the European Commission who especially irritated Viktor Orbán. One was Neelie Kroes and the other Viviane Reding, Commissioner of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. The latter is one of the two Luxembourgians who dared to raise their voices against Viktor Orbán’s policies and therefore incurred the ire of Hungary’s “pocket dictator.”

The article appeared simultaneously on the website of the European Commission in English and in Hungarian in NépszabadságThe original title of the piece is “Media Freedom remains under threat in Hungary,” while the Hungarian title is shorter and therefore somewhat stronger: “Media freedom is in danger.”  Let me republish this short article here:

A free and plural media is the foundation of a free society, and a safeguard of democratic tradition. The new “advertising tax” in Hungary shows it is still very much under threat.

This new tax was introduced in Parliament in just a few days, without significant debate or consultation. Ostensibly an “advertising tax” to raise revenue, in fact it disproportionately affects on single media company, RTL. Indeed, according to their own calculations, they are the only single company that would face the highest rate of the tax; imposing significant losses and putting in jeopardy their ability to operate.

The conclusion is obvious. RTL is one of the few channels in Hungary not simply promoting a pro-Fidesz line; it is hard to see that the goal is anything other than to drive them out of Hungary. The Hungarian Government does not want a neutral, foreign-owned broadcaster in Hungary; it is using an unfair tax to wipe out democratic safeguards, and see off a perceived challenge to its power.

The freedom of establishment is a fundamental principle of the single market.

But it is about more than just one tax or just one company: it is part of a pattern that is deeply worrying; a pattern contrary to the EU’s values. Taxation cannot be an instrument for discrimination, and tax policy should not be a political weapon.

A new media law introduced in 2010 put huge powers over the Hungarian media into a body subject to political interference: breaching the Hungarian constitution and EU law and jeopardizing fundamental rights. Later on, opposition radio station Klubrádió lost its licence; they eventually got it back, after a complex and costly fight, but the episode revealed (in the words of the European Parliament) “biased and opaque tendering practices.” In 2013, new laws placed restrictions on political advertising. Meanwhile, just last month, the editor of oneline newspaper ORIGO was dismissed after it uncovered a political scandal; many ink his dismissal to political pressure.

Some of these criticisms and concerns have been addressed, under pressure from the EU and the international community. Others remain a very real worry.

A recent report from the OSCE shows that the impact this is having. It found that, in the run-up to recent elections, the majority of monitored TV channels showed “significant bias” towards ruling party Fidesz; with RTL being one exception. And it highlights an “increasing number of outlets directly owned by business people associated with Fidesz.” The picture it paints is of a media sector that is (at best) uncertain and self-censoring; and at worst partisan if not government-controlled.

In that environment it is deeply damaging that the government would turn a blind eye: they should be engaging positively to manage threats to media pluralism. The fact is, government control, monopoly and censorship belong to a different, darker, period in Hungary’s history: and no one should seek a return to it.

Fair and unbiased coverage is a principal function of a free and plural media. Undermining that, and attempting to silence dynamic debate, is an attack on Hungarian democracy. For the sake of that democracy, and of the Hungarian people who have fought so hard to enjoy its benefits, we cannot stand by as idle spectators.

Hungary is not the only EU country where such concerns and debates exist; these are also issues raised, with different emphases and in different contexts, in Bulgaria, Italy, the UK and others. Europe needs to get its own house in order to ensure a free and plural media. There are many proposals out there for how to achieve that–including those set out in the Report of the High Level Group chaired by Vaire Viķe -Freiberga. It’s time we started taking those ideas seriously, for the sake of our freedom and democratic values.

An answer came immediately from Gergely Gulyás, who was recently elevated to a new parliamentary position. He became deputy-president of parliament responsible for the legislative work of the House. In brief, all pieces of legislation that come before parliament will have Gulyás’s approval. Quite a position for a thirty-three year old. The tone of the letter is typical of this political leadership: arrogant and sermonizing.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

“We agree with Neelie Kroes that ‘a free and plural media is the foundation of a free society’ and we are happy to report that the Hungarian media is free and plural. And as far as Hungarian society is concerned it is also free.”

According to Gulyás, everything is in order with the advertisement tax. It has been in the works for years. RTL Klub is not being discriminated against, because the tax depends on advertising revenues. RTL just happens to receive the largest share of ad revenues. Every segment of society must bear its fair share of the tax burden. RTL is no exception. Political revenge on the part of the government is out of the question because RTL Klub until now spent little time on politics. However, since the passage of the tax law the station “has been one-sidedly slandering the government and its politicians.” It seems that for Gulyás reporting on political scandals is nothing but slander.

Gulyás also objected to Kroes’s contention that the Hungarian government wants to drive out foreign companies. In this connection she reminded the Hungarian political leadership of “the freedom of establishment [which] is a fundamental principle of the single market.” Foreign companies have a large share of the Hungarian media market and this will most likely be the case for a long time to come, he said. As for “democratic values,” Gulyás would like to know exactly what kinds of values Neelie Kroes has in mind. After all, in 2013 the secretary-general of the Council of Europe found everything in order with the 2010 media law that Kroes is now criticizing.

Gergely must have been happy to find a factual error in Kroes’s letter in connection with Klubrádió. Indeed, Kroes wasn’t precise enough. Although Klubrádió valiantly fought for its survival for more than three years, it did not lose its license in Budapest. But what Gergely neglected to mention was that it did lose eleven other frequencies throughout the country. By now Klubrádió can be heard only in Budapest.

Gulyás was equally at a loss to know what Kroes could possibly mean by “biased and opaque tendering practices” in allotting radio frequencies. Gulyás “would like to inform the Madame Commissioner” that all the rules and regulations are constitutional and transparent; all applicants are treated equally, and there is the possibility of legal appeal.

As far as restricting political advertisement, Gulyás finds nothing wrong with the current practice. Every country in the Union has some restrictions. As does Hungary. And the current practice is fair because it gives the same chance to all parties regardless of their financial strength. It is in fact a highly democratic practice.  With respect to the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, allegedly for political reasons, there is no proof of it and “it is irresponsible of the commissioner to bring it up without any proof.”

As for the OSCE report which Kroes claims found bias in television news coverage in favor of the government, this allegation is also incorrect. If there had been such a bias, the liberal-socialist opposition parties would have gone to the Media Authority to protest, but with the exception of far-right Jobbik no party did.

Finally, Gulyás complained about the political pressure coming from the European Union every time the Hungarian parliament passes laws affecting foreign banks and companies.

This last accusation leads me back to Viktor Orbán’s speech. It looks as if the simultaneous appearance of two very strongly worded editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal surprised the right-wing political analysts. They can’t imagine that these two papers would independently call for strong sanctions against the Orbán government because they were genuinely shocked by the message delivered by Viktor Orbán on the virtues of “illiberal states.” Instead, they pulled out a favorite from the Hungarian right playbook, a conspiracy theory.

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz of Nézőpont Institute, a right-wing think tank with large orders from the government, believes that “foreign interest groups may be behind the attack [on Viktor Orbán] which will be deprived of considerable revenues because of the reduction of utility prices, taxes on the banks and advertisement.” Csaba Lentner, an economist who currently teaches at the newly established Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (National University of Civil Service)  thinks that The New York Times editorial might in fact be against international law because a newspaper from the United States is urging action by the EU against Hungary. A bizarre contention. I might add that Lenter, who is currently a great supporter of Fidesz, was a MIÉP member of parliament between 1998 and 2002. MIÉP was an openly anti-Semitic, far-right party.

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55 comments

  1. If the Russians invade Ukraine in force there is a real possibility they will get hit with tactical weapons, I suspect they have been warned by US commanders in Poland and the Baltic nations of that possibility. The US fighter bombers pre-positioned in the front line states all have tactical capacity. NATO and the Germans have nothing to say about what the US does with its forces in these nations because of their failure to forward deploy forces to provide a shield to these nations. So if Putin wants to start a world war by all means invade the rest of Ukraine.

  2. The EU is not supporting Orbán or Fidesz, the EU is supporting Hungary and the Hungarian people. They should, if they can, try to make sure that their funds are being spent properly, but they can’t (and shouldn’t) stop those funds just because they don’t like Orbán, or what he’s doing.

    That would be collective punishment, which, although it may be hard to believe it at the moment, is illegal.

  3. I can only answer that with a quotation from László Seres: “aki valóban patrióta, tehát nemzeti ügynek tekinti az Orbán-kormány bukását, annak támogatnia kell az EU esetleges szankcióit Magyarország ellen.”

    In English: a real patriot who considers the removal of the Orbán government a national cause must support the EU’s possible sanctions against Hungary.

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