Red card to Hungary for its stronghold on the media

, by Marie Thureau, Translated by Nelly Tsekova

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Red card to Hungary for its stronghold on the media

Hungary took the rotating presidency of the EU on January 1st 2011, just as a controversial law on the institutional control of the media came into force. Viktor Orban’s government thus marked the beginning of the EU Presidency through legalizing a censorship that violates the Treaty on European Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Bad start!

The Lisbon Treaty institutionalized the European Council, with a full-time president whose term of two and a half years is renewable once. The six months’ rotating presidency of the Council (of ministers), however, is still maintained. Since January 1st, it’s Hungary’s turn. But is it really reasonable?

EU membership, yes but...

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister for the second time since the victory of the conservative party, Fidesz, at the legislative elections in April 2010, has led the rotating presidency of the Council (of ministers) of the EU since January 1st,

His first mandate from 1998 to 2002, saw him making efforts to get Hungary into NATO and undertake negotiations for accession to the EU, after having fiercely opposed communism in his country.

But the Prime Minister has also made himself known by asking countries like Romania, Slovakia...where there are sizeable minority groups of Hungarian origin, to commit to preserving the Magyar culture and to allow political autonomy for these people. These claims have provoked strong reactions from ultra-nationalist parties in the abovementioned countries.

In 2001, Viktor Orban generated a new controversy by allowing the free circulation in Hungary of the Magyar minorities settled in the former Hungarian regions lost in 1920, during the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This law gave many rights to these minorities, an incentive for immigration, especially for the Transylvania region, which is part of Romania today.

The Council of Europe criticized this law, but the European Commission didn’t consider it incompatible with the EU legal system, merely asking that there be agreements with the neighboring countries directly concerned. A memorandum has been signed with Romania, extending the right of Romanian workers to obtain unconditional temporary work permits.

To this mixed review can be added the problems with the integration of Roma people and the attacks on freedom of the press made by the government!

A particularly Hungarian approach to democracy

Culture ... but not just any culture!

In Le Monde, dated December 28th 2010, an article would have caught your attention. It stated that the director of the National Theatre in Budapest, Robert Alföldi, meant to host a concert organized by the Romanian Embassy, on November 30th. The program featured works by Romanian George Enescu and Hungarian Bela Bartok. But to allow Romania centre stage on the eve of December 1st, the national holiday of Hungary, was anathema to many Hungarians. The hostile reactions were such that the concert was canceled. Transylvania is considered by many to be naturally Hungarian.

Leading the dispute was, of course, the extreme-right party, Jobbik, but also, regrettably, Fidesz, the conservative party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Jobbik is vehemently opposed to of Robert Alföldi, who may step in after the dismissal this summer of Balázs Kovalik, the artistic director of the Budapest Opera, the resignation of conductor Adam Fischer in September, as well as the those of the Opera director Lajos Vass and his assistant, in October.

Government pressure on the cultural sphere, the elimination of subsidies for any forms of free artistic expression, the appointment of zealous servants to head the cultural organizations...all of these element this resemble a totalitarian regime rather than a democratic one! But of course “when you want to drown your dog, you say he has rabies ...” And then some would say "it’s only culture!

Removing the political obstacles

Having obtained two thirds of the seats in Parliament, Fidesz sweeps everything on its way! Thus, when the Constitutional Court turned down an important budgetary measure proposed by the Prime Minister, the Parliament passed a law prohibiting this Court to rule on texts concerning the budget, taxes... And as one is always best served by our friends: the President of the Republic, the Court of Accounts, the Attorney General ... are all close to Viktor Orban!

Railing against the media!

Nothing can stop the Prime Minister, especially not the EU, which took in late December a rather convenient winter break! On the night of December 20th to 21st, the Hungarian government passed the third part of a controversial law strengthening institutional control on the Hungarian media. Different national media groups were amalgamated, followed by the creation of a National Authority for Communications and Media (NMHH) headed by a close associate of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and controlled mainly by his party, Fidesz.

The finishing touch is the new requirement that both the private and public media correct any information which is deemed “derogatory” by NMHH unless they want to get fined for “lack of political objectivity”. In addition, journalists will be required to disclose their sources and submit their articles before publication at NMHH’s will.

This law was passed on January 1, 2011...simultaneously with the launching of the controversial Hungarian Presidency!

Defend Europe!

The European Union is envied for the values that only it defends. In an article in The New York Times dated December 7th, Moisés Naim, former Venezuelan minister of industry, recalls the importance which the European example holds for the rest of the world: “(...) a world without an influential and integrated Europe means a worse world for everyone. Europe spreads values and standards that are necessary and equally rare in today’s world”. [1]. We can’t prove him wrong, the European model is envied with good reason. So we must defend this unique model without the slightest concession!

Indignant reactions!

It seems logical that the media in Europe and in the rest of the world reacted strongly! Such an attack on the freedom of the press cannot be ignored! We must salute the quality of the articles and especially the reactions of the Hungarian newspapers protesting with great courage!

In the European Parliament the Greens and the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) have strongly protested against this violation of fundamental freedoms defended by any democracy! They have unfortunately not been followed by the EPP, which doesn’t see a problem with this!

At State level, Germany, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom quickly condemned the draconian law while France has been reluctant to follow suit! François Baroin described the law as "incompatible with the application of a certain idea of freedom of the press, validated by all the European treaties”. [2].The OSCE has also reacted strongly against it.

The European Commission requested an explanation from the Hungarian government on the exact meaning of the text of the controversial law. Specific questions will be posed by Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who will explore the way in which Hungary will ensure freedom of the press and the proper implementation of the directive for audiovisual services, as well as that of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU [3].

A second issue is also on the agenda of this meeting to be held on January 7th. Indeed, Brussels expects an explanation for an unusual “crisis” tax passed in October, which targeted certain sectors of the economy, mainly represented by large foreign companies. An investigation was initiated by the Commission as this tax does not respect the principle of tax equality.

But Hungary is surprised by the commotion caused by the decisions it considers in accordance with EU law and its values! For the moment, Viktor Orban has refused to revisit these decisions, which are hardly “euro-compatible”!

What does the Treaty of Lisbon say?

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights, including rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity between women and men prevail”. (TEU, Article 2). [4]

The values enumerated in this article apply without exception to all the Member States. Hungary does not respect them!

Can we punish Hungary?

Yes, definitely! “On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. (...) The Council, acting by qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of that Member State in the Council”. It goes without saying that no presidency is possible without the right to vote!

In addition, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights [5] states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises”. If we cannot legally rely on the Charter of Fundamental Rights to condemn Hungary, this article of the ECHR does hold the Hungarian government liable.

You can always find an excuse for a procedure by claiming it is difficult and takes time, that there isn’t a precedent, that pointing the finger at Hungary would be a way to lock it in an isolation conducive to the ideas of the extreme Jobbik… but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs!

This is not a question of abandoning Hungary, rather it is a way to show that no one can violate, without being sanctioned, the Treaty of Lisbon and, particularly, the democratic principles without which the EU would have little reason to exist.

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