The media reflects diverse opinions, and the right to free speech and freedom of the press are provided for by law. However, some observers believed that concerns over the broad powers of the media regulatory authority could create a climate conducive to self-censorship and political influence. The HCLU continued to report a 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.
In September the Hungarian News Agency (MTI) filed a lawsuit against journalist Gyorgy Balavany for comments he posted in a blog claiming that public-service media used taxpayer money to misinform the public. The MTI sought 10 million forints ($45,000) for damages to its reputation and commercial interest. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media noted that the lawsuit could constrain media pluralism on the Internet and have a chilling effect on media.
The criminal code includes provisions against incitement of hatred and violence against a member of certain groups. Any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, or certain other groups of the population, is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. In addition any person who physically 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 continued to criticize courts for failing to convict persons for inciting hatred unless the crime was accompanied by a physical assault.
The law prohibits public denial of, doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist and Communist regimes, and punishes such acts by a maximum sentence of three years in prison. In 2010 the HCLU filed a petition in the Constitutional Court to overturn the law, arguing that it imposes serious restrictions on freedom of speech. At the end of 2011 the Constitutional Court dropped the HCLU’s petition due to the elimination of the ability of citizens to bring matters before the Constitutional Court (actio popularis).
The law prohibits the public display of certain symbols, including the swastika, SS-badge, 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 ECHR rulings in 2008 and 2011 that declared the law a violation of the right to freedom of expression. The 2011 ECHR ruling ordered the government to pay a total of 6,400 euros ($8,448) in compensation and expenses to Janos Fratanolo (applicant in the Red Star case) by June 8. On July 2, parliament passed a resolution submitted by the minister of public administration and justice stating that it disagrees with the ECHR ruling and reaffirms penalizing the use of emblems of totalitarian regimes. In addition the resolution stipulated that parliamentary parties, rather than the central state budget, have to pay compensation if the country is ever admonished by the ECHR for prohibiting the use of symbols of totalitarian regimes. On July 17, the government paid the judgment to Fratanolo, which the cabinet deducted from the government’s subsidies to parties.
Freedom of Press: The law stipulates that the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central government administrative body for media problems. 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 areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The prime minister appoints the NMHH’s president for a nine-year term with no limit on reappointment. When confirmed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, the NMHH president also serves as the chairperson of the five-member Media Council, which supervises electronic (television, radio), online, and print media content and spectrum usage. During the year the governing parties nominated all Media Council members. The public service broadcasting system merges the supervisory boards of all government-owned public service broadcasting entities (including the MTI) into the Public Service Foundation and places their finances and assets under the control of the new Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund.
On May 1, Freedom House published a report that assessed freedom of the press in the country as “partly free,” a downgrade from the previous year’s assessment as “free.” The report cited as reasons for the decline, “the establishment of the National Agency for Data Protection (NAIH), a politically motivated licensing procedure affecting opposition station Klubradio, increased reports of censorship and self-censorship, and worsening economic conditions for independent media entrepreneurship.”
Violence and Harassment: In 2010 a member of the far-right Jobbik faction in parliament, Gyula Gyorgy Zagyva, harassed and threatened two journalists of the weekly newspaper 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 stated that 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 opened 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. On November 19, the Vac Municipal Court found Zagyva guilty of harassment and placed him on probation for one year. Both the defendant and the prosecutor appealed the verdict, and the case remained pending.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations, communities, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities, majority groups, churches, or religious groups. The law also provides “source protection” for maintaining the confidentiality of information with respect to criminal proceedings.
The Media Council has the authority to impose fines for certain violations of content regulation, including media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The council may impose fines for violations up to 200 million forints ($900,000), depending on the type of media service and audience size. It may fine individual editors up to two million forints ($9,000) and can also suspend the right to broadcast for up to a week. Decisions of the Media Council may be challenged in court by lodging a petition against the council, but the complaint does not delay the Media Council’s sanction. Separate petitions can be filed with the court to request to delay the implementation of the Media Council decision until the court case is complete. Until the end of November, the Media Council issued 109 resolutions imposing fines totaling 80 million forints ($360,000) on 66 media outlets. Fourteen resolutions were challenged in court.
During the year national and international human rights organizations continued to criticize the media laws. Critics particularly emphasized the broad scope of regulatory control of a nonindependent administrative body that covers not only broadcasting media but also print, on-demand, and Internet media providers. Domestic civil-society groups held demonstrations to protest numerous government policies and to support media freedom, including for the second year in a row a demonstration in Budapest on March 15 that attracted tens of thousands of persons.
In December 2011 the Constitutional 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 court also annulled the effect of the 2010 Act on the Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules of Media Content related to print and the Internet media outlets as of May 31.
On May 9, the ombudsman requested the Constitutional Court review provisions of the media laws to determine whether regulations guaranteeing the independence of the Media Council are sufficient. The ombudsman’s office stated that it had received more than 200 individual complaints that media regulations do not exclude political influence on the Media Council and by extension on the press, and thus restrict freedom of expression unconstitutionally. The ombudsman referred to some regulations of the media law concerning the mandate of the president of the Media Council as “meaningless and inapplicable.” At year’s end the case remained pending in the Constitutional Court.
On May 11, the Council of Europe published an opinion on two acts related to the media. Among its findings the council criticized the law for vague content regulations and the potential politicization of media regulatory bodies, and called for the abolition of the position of media and communications commissioner.
On May 24, parliament amended media-related acts to comply with the 2011 Constitutional Court ruling. The revised laws provide stronger provisions for the protection of sources, ease content restrictions for print media, soften the Media Council’s authority to oversee content regulation compliance, and reduce the authority of the media and communications commissioner. The HCLU acknowledged increased guarantees for source protection but stated that the laws did not go far enough to improve content restrictions for print and online media or to prevent the Media Council from making arbitrary decisions about frequency awards. Human Rights Watch stated that the new amendments fell short of complying with both the domestic court judgment and the Council of Europe’s recommendations.
On November 26, European Commission Vice President Nellie Kroes “welcomed the changes” in the media legislation but stated that “these changes do not address all the outstanding substantial concerns.” She urged “immediate action ensuring the real independence of the Media Council, measures to reduce the excessive concentration of power in the hand of the Media Council, and better measures to ensure the effective independent functioning of publicly-funded media.” On December 4, Council of Europe General Secretary Thorbjorn Jagland stated that further steps were required from the government in media regulation, arguing that the system for nominating and appointing the head of the media authority and members of the Media Council should be changed to emphasize proficiency and independence.
Domestic and international media and civil society groups continued to criticize the Media Council’s failure to sign a contract with Klubradio, a self-identified opposition talk radio. In December 2011 the Media Council issued its decision upon a public tender to award the Budapest 95.3 MHz frequency used by Klubradio to Autoradio, a new company with no previous experience in broadcasting. Klubradio appealed the decision to the Budapest Metropolitan Appellate Court. On March 14, the court returned a nonappealable verdict that invalidated Autoradio’s bid due to technical deficiencies and required the Media Council to declare another winner. On July 5, the Media Council issued an order annulling all bids for the frequency, including Klubradio’s, because they failed to meet technical requirements. Klubradio challenged the decision and, on July 18, the Budapest Metropolitan Appellate Court threw out the Media Council’s order. On August 15, the Media Council issued a resolution to invalidate Klubradio’s bid, but the station appealed and, on September 26, the Budapest Metropolitan Appellate Court annulled the Media Council’s decision. On November 8, the Media Council announced that it turned to the prosecutor’s office to resolve contradictions between the court ruling and the law. On November 26, Kroes wrote in a blog entry that “when the Media Council questions the consistency of the ruling of the court, it is questioning the rule of law.” On December 20, the Media Council, on the advice of the Prosecutor General’s Office, revoked the original 95.3 MHz frequency tender, leaving neither Klubradio nor Autoradio the winner. The Media Council stated there were contradictions between various court rulings and the media law.
There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or credible reports that the government monitored e-mails or Internet chat rooms without appropriate legal authority. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 59 percent of the population used the Internet in 2011.
On September 24, Freedom House published a report that rated the country’s Internet and digital media freedom as “free.”
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
On July 1, parliament amended the Act on National Archives to stipulate that all documents of the Hungarian Labor Party and its legal predecessors, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party and its civil and youth organizations, as well as the National Council of Trade Unions and trade unions, are government-owned documents. The nationalized documents produced between 1944 and 1989 were the private property of the Institute of Political History and, in part, the property of trade unions stored at the institute. The Institute of Political History managed the collection in accordance with rules governing public archives and allowed free access to the public. On December 2, the ombudsman submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court seeking the elimination of the provision since it “provides general expropriation without compensation and makes research of documents more difficult.” The ombudsman argued that the legal provision constitutes the “restriction of the freedom of scientific research since it is not clear what were the motives and legal aims of the nationalization of these documents, which previously were in the property of a private archive open to the public.” The case remained pending at the Constitutional Court at year’s end.