The media reflects diverse opinions, and the right to free speech and freedom of the press is provided for by law. However, some observers believe that concerns over the broad powers of the media regulatory authority and a perceived decrease in judicial independence could create a climate conducive to self-censorship and political influence. The HCLU noted an increasing bias in news reporting by the public media.
Freedom of Speech: While individuals generally could criticize the government in public or private without reprisal, individuals could be held liable for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Journalists reporting on an event could be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Officials continued to use the libel laws to claim compensation for perceived injuries to their character.
The criminal code includes provisions against incitement of hatred and hate-inspired violence. Any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, or racial group or certain other groups of the population is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. In addition, any person who verbally assaults someone because of his membership in a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to five years. NGOs criticized courts for failing to convict persons for inciting hatred unless the crime was accompanied by a physical assault.
Laws enacted in 2010 broadened the range of views whose expression was illegal to include public denial, doubt about, or minimizing the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist and Communist regimes. The law provides that such crimes carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison. In September 2010 the HCLU filed a petition with the Constitutional Court to overturn the law, arguing that it imposes serious restrictions on freedom of speech. The case remained pending at year’s end.
The law prohibits the public display of certain symbols. They include the swastika, the hammer and sickle, and the arrow cross, a symbol associated with the country’s fascist World War II-era government. The law prohibiting the public display of the five-pointed red star remained in effect despite a 2008 ECHR ruling that declared it to be a violation of the right to freedom of expression. On November 3, the ECHR repeated this judgment in a subsequent case (see section 1.e., Regional Human Rights Court Decisions).
Freedom of Press: On January 1, a series of new media regulations adopted by parliament in November and December 2010 entered into force, while provisions on print and online media and imposable fines became effective on July 1. The new laws concentrated authority over the media (including linear media services, on-demand media services, print, and online press) in a single state administrative body with wide-ranging authorities.
According to the law, the National Media and Info-communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for media issues. The authority of NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the area of frequency management and telecommunications.” The prime minister appoints the NMHH president for a nine-year term with no limit on reelection. The NMHH president also serves as chair of the five-member Media Council, appointed by parliament to supervise electronic and print media content. The four additional council members are elected to nine-year terms by a two-thirds majority vote of the members of parliament in attendance. The new public service broadcasting system merged the supervisory boards of all state-owned public service broadcasting entities (including the state news agency, MTI) into the newly created Public Foundation for Public Service Media (MTVA) and placed their finances and assets under the control of the new Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund. The foundation is managed by an eight-member Board of Trustees, six of whom are elected for nine-year terms, while the chair and one other member are delegated by the Media Council. The Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund is in charge of promoting national audiovisual culture and public service programs, under the supervision of the Media Council.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The laws introduced a new content regulation regime and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. According to the law, all citizens have the right to be appropriately informed about local, national, and European public affairs, as well as other “events bearing relevance” for citizens. The law prohibits inciting hatred against persons, nations, communities, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities, majority groups, churches, or religious groups. The legislation introduced the institution of “source protection” maintaining the confidentiality of information with respect to criminal proceedings. However, the law provides exceptions to journalists’ right to source protection in cases when unauthorized sources reveal classified information if courts or government authorities rule that such disclosure is “in the interest of protecting national security and public order, or uncovering or preventing criminal acts.”
Effective July 1, the Media Council has the authority to impose fines for violations of content regulation, including media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors, public health, public security, national security and consumers and investors. The council may impose fines for violations ranging from 10 to 200 million forints ($41,400 to $828,000), depending on the type of publication and audience size. It may fine individual editors up to two million forints ($8,280). The council can also suspend the right to broadcast for up to a week and is also empowered to render “reprimanding judgments” in cases of content that it considers “unbalanced.” Decisions of the Media Council may be challenged in court by lodging a petition against the council, but the complaint shall not delay the Media Council’s sanction. Through October 20, the Media Council issued 70 resolutions imposing fines totaling 410 million forints ($1.7 million) on 36 media outlets. Twenty-one media organizations challenged the Media Council’s decision in court. All the court cases remained pending at year’s end.
On September 5, the Media Council fined the right-wing television channel Echo TV 500,000 forints ($2,070) over a February broadcast of the program “World Panorama,” which contained openly racist statements. The presenter spoke of “Gypsies,” “Gypsy terrorism,” and the “Nazi liberals” whose goal is to “inflict parasitic human-like figures on Hungarians.” According to the ruling of the Media Council, the broadcast violated media regulations on respecting human dignity and incitement to hatred.
On December 3, two state-run television channels (MTV and Duna TV) blurred out the face of former Supreme Court president Zoltan Lomnici, who was standing in the background during an interview. Lomnici, the president of the Council of Human Dignity, called the incident the most serious attack on the freedom of press in the previous 20 years. The communications director of the MTVA characterized the incident as “a grave ethical offense” and announced the launch of an investigation to find those responsible. On December 8, MTVA management reprimanded two news editors and one film editor as result of the investigation and both channels apologized for the incident. On December 10, the vice president of the Independent Labor Union of Television and Film Makers (TFSZ), Balazs Navarro Nagy, began a hunger strike to protest the lack of punishment for those responsible for the blurring out Lomnici, later joined by four other current or former employees of the state media. On December 15, the MTI managing director fired the news center director and demoted the deputy editor of the news center, while the managing director of MTVA demoted the editor in chief of the news department. The five persons on a hunger strike continued their protest as their demands were only partially met. On December 27, MTVA fired Navarro Nagy and one other hunger-striking journalist, who was also a union leader, arguing that they had provoked their employer and violated the Media Act and the labor code ban on expressions of political opinion during their demonstration. Navarro Nagy called their dismissal illegal, since, as union leaders, their dismissal would require the consent of their respective unions. On December 28, other unions, civil groups, and opposition parties staged a demonstration protesting the dismissal of the two union leaders by MTVA. The hunger strike and the demonstrations continued until year’s end.
During the year national and international human rights organizations continued to criticize the new media laws. Critics particularly emphasized the broad scope of regulatory control of a non-independent administrative body that covers not only broadcasting media but also print, on-demand, and Internet media providers. Domestic civil society groups held several demonstrations to protest against the new media regime in the support of media freedom during the year, including a demonstration on March 15 that attracted approximately 30,000 people in Budapest.
On February 25, EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes declared that the wide range of problematic provisions in the country’s media legislation result in a narrowing of the space in which the media can operate freely and recommended a comprehensive revision of the media law package as a whole. On February 25 and 28, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media issued their opinions highlighting serious shortfalls in the laws, including the vague content restrictions for all media outlets, harsh sanctions, a mandatory registration system, and a weak regime to protect sources. On March 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the country’s media laws, calling on the government to restore the independence of media governance and halt state interference with freedom of expression and balanced coverage.
On March 7, parliament amended some provisions of the media law, removing the requirement for on-demand media content providers to give “comprehensive, factual, up-to-date, objective, and balanced information.” In addition, television and on-demand audio-visual media services provided by foreign media were exempt from content sanctions, with the exception of circumvention of law.
On April 5, the visiting UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, issued a declaration stating that the media legislation still risks generating a climate of self-censorship.
On July 18, parliament amended the media laws so that penalties levied on media companies could be collected the same way as public debt by the tax authority.
In July the NMHH signed co-regulation contracts with the Association of the Hungarian Electronic Broadcasters, the Hungarian Association of Publishers, the Association of Hungarian Content Providers and the Self-regulatory Advertising Council. From July 1, the four contracted co-regulatory organizations started monitoring press and online media products and on-demand services. Upon the authorization of the Media Council, the co-regulatory organizations handle complaints, and the procedures set by their own code of conduct precede any action by the Media Council. Self-governance can only be exercised regarding those who have either voluntarily assumed membership in a co-regulatory body or have voluntarily subjected themselves to the code of conduct. The co-regulatory bodies must keep a register of membership and of the companies that have accepted the code of conduct. The Media Council may review the procedures of the self-regulatory bodies. There was no information available on how many complaints were addressed by the self-regulatory bodies during the year.
On July 21, the Media Council announced it would begin accepting applications for 10 local radio frequencies, including the Budapest 95.3 MHz frequency used by Klubradio, a left-leaning talk-radio station strongly critical of the government that reached an estimated 300,000 listeners. In the call for applications, the NMHH announced its new preference for radio channels that favor a music format with a focus on local events. Eventually, seven applications were submitted for the 95.3 MHz frequency. On December 20, the Media Council issued its decision to award the frequency to Autoradio, a year-old company with no previous experience in broadcasting. Klubradio appealed the decision to the Budapest Metropolitan Appellate Court. The Media Council cannot sign a contract with Autoradio until the court procedure is completed. Domestic and international media and civil society groups harshly criticized the Media Council decision.
During the year and in 2010, all opposition parliamentary parties, the HCLU, the Association of Hungarian Journalists (MUOSZ), and individual citizens petitioned the Constitutional Court for a constitutional review of the media laws. On December 19, the court issued a ruling striking down elements of the two media laws, including provisions on content regulation, protection of journalists’ sources, the obligation to provide data to the Media Authority, and the institution of the Media and Broadcasting Commissioner. The Constitutional Court annulled the effect of the 2010 Act on the Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules of Media Content (SMTV) related to print and the Internet media outlets as of May 31, 2012. The court found that the Media Authority’s authority to review content relating to human rights, human dignity, and privacy from print and online media outlets constituted an unconstitutional restriction of freedom of press as there are other possibilities in the legal system to enforce these rights. The effect of this will be to remove print and online media from the jurisdiction of the Media Council. The court voided the restriction on journalists’ protection of anonymous sources, striking down a clause of the SMTV according to which journalists are only entitled to protect their sources at court and in official proceedings if the information in question is in the public interest. The court ruled against the clause of the 2010 Act on Media Services and Mass Media (MTTV) granting the Media Council the power to obtain protected information (i.e., information protected by lawyer-client confidentiality) without court approval. Finally, the court struck down the institution of the media and communication commissioner stipulated in the MTTV, stating that the powers granted to the official constituted significant interference in press activity. The Constitutional Court refrained from reviewing the constitutionality of other parts of the two laws also challenged by petitioners.
During the year the NMHH dismissed approximately 900 employees from state-owned media outlets as part of a wide-ranging reorganization and downsizing. On July 12, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the South and East European Media Organization (SEEMO) issued a joint statement expressing their concern over the dismissals in the Hungarian public broadcasting sector and claimed that some of the layoffs were politically motivated.
In August 2010 a member of the far-right Jobbik faction in parliament, Gyula Gyorgy Zagyva, allegedly harassed and threatened two journalists of the weekly paper Hetek during the Magyar Sziget music festival in Veroce. According to reports, Zagyva, carrying a whip, told the journalists “you should be glad that you were not beaten up.” He reportedly also said it was a sign of “Jewish arrogance” that the journalists turned on their tape recorder and that he wanted to “stamp out their guts.” Zagyva denied the reports. The Central Investigative Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation on the basis of harassment accompanied by the threat of physical violence. On June 29, parliament waived the parliamentary immunity of Zagyva, and the prosecutor’s office pressed charges against him on September 6. The case remained pending at year’s end.