The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the media were active and expressed a wide range of views, although there were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech”, and allegations that government action helped consolidate media outlets in the hands of progovernment owners.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The public denial of, expression of, doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes is prohibited by law and is punishable by a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a petty offense the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech.
According to the Action and Protection Foundation (TEV), in the first six months of the year there were 16 instances of anti-Semitic hate speech. TEV filed police reports in two of the cases; police action on the cases was still pending at year’s end. On August 24, Budapest district prosecutors pressed charges against a Budapest-based book publisher for the public denial of the crimes of the Nazi regime based on his publication of a translation of a book written by a Swedish author. The prosecutors also requested the permanent removal of the publisher’s website and related websites that were blocked by an initial court ruling in 2016. The case was pending at year’s end.
On June 23, parliament passed a law prohibiting discounted pricing of billboard space for state-financed entities, including political parties. Opposition parties charged that the law was specifically designed to limit their expression, noting that the law was introduced shortly after the opposition party Jobbik launched a campaign criticizing the government as corrupt on billboards provided to the party at a discount by a businessman critical of the government. Opposition parties’ legal challenge in the Constitutional Court against the amended law remained pending at year’s end.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. A massive consolidation in the media market that started in 2015 continued during the year, resulting in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices in radio, print, and online media, especially outside of Budapest. In August and September, individuals friendly to the government purchased the last remaining independent regional newspapers, placing all 18 regional daily newspapers in the hands of progovernment owners. According to independent press and NGO reports, the state body responsible for media, the National Media and Info-communications Authority (NMHH), facilitated further media concentration by favoring bidders close to the government in frequency tenders for regional radio stations. The NMHH tender documents leaked or partially provided to the press via freedom of information act requests suggested that on a number of occasions the NMHH overrode regulations in order to allow actors with close ties to the government to win the tender.
The NMHH, subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating the media. The authority of the 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 NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, which is the decision-making body of the NMHH and supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consisted exclusively of persons named by the governing parties.
The state news agency, MTI, is established by law and is mandated to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media, for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government.
In 2016 the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) reported that the government effectively subsidized private media through advertising by ministries and state-owned companies. According to the CMPF, government advertising contracts favored media outlets allied or linked with the government and the ruling Fidesz party.
Since 2010 National Assembly speaker Laszlo Kover has temporarily suspended parliamentary access to several dozen people, mainly journalists, for alleged violation of parliamentary rules regulating activities such as press coverage inside the building. In May the Hungarian Association of Journalists criticized Kover for banning 60 individuals, most of them journalists, from parliament. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU)’s November 2016 appeal to the ECHR to overturn Kover’s decision to ban certain journalists from parliament remained pending.
Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, written and verbal harassment were commonplace.
The government characterized Hungarian-American business executive George Soros as the mastermind behind opposition political parties and various purported plots against the government. (see also Sections 2.b. on Academic Freedom, 2.d. on Freedom of Movement, 5 on Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights, and 6 on Anti-Semitism).
On July 22, Prime Minister Orban gave a speech in which he criticized media outlets purportedly operated by “Soros’s mafia network.” Fidesz politicians have repeatedly stated that journalists of the “Soros media” were not real journalists but rather Soros agents.
On September 5, the online news site 888.hu, which has close ties to the government, published a sharply critical piece in which it listed eight journalists by name and accused them of being “Soros propagandists.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.
The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and states in particular that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by the public media.
The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($720,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.
As of September 1, the Media Council issued 43 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, imposing fines totaling 8,030,600 forints ($28,900) on 36 media service providers. The most common citations were for unlawful advertising methods violating the dignity of a person or group.
Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Individuals may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.
Public officials continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists, and the HCLU reported that the libel laws had a chilling effect on journalists reporting about politicians. The courts, however, tended to rule in favor of freedom of expression, asserting that this liberty overrides other considerations. On September 19, the Supreme Court ruled against Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt in his defamation lawsuit against opposition politician Viktor Szigetvari. Szigetvari had called Polt “a partner in crime” and his agency “Fidesz’s prosecutor’s office” in connection with a brokerage scandal. The court ruled that Szigetvari was expressing an opinion, which needs not be proven true and is protected under the law.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet and generally did not censor online content. There were no substantiated reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintains a Database of Central Electronic Unavailability Resolutions intended to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation. The system also blocks websites suspected of violating such laws, based on preliminary court rulings. The database is not public. NGOs criticized the system for its lack of transparency.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 79.3 percent of the population used the internet.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
On April 4, parliament used a fast-track procedure to amend the higher education law regarding the operation of foreign universities in the country, widely seen as an attempt to close the U.S.-Hungarian Central European University (CEU), which George Soros founded in 1991. The amendment included a provision requiring universities from non-EU countries operating in Hungary to have a physical presence in their countries of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the other country of accreditation, and ensure that the name of the university in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. Three U.S.-accredited universities active in the country were found to violate the new requirements, but only one--the CEU--was found in violation of all three criteria. Public statements by government officials including the prime minister called the CEU “Soros University” and characterized it as a threat to the nation.
On August 11, a preliminary decision by the Venice Commission (VC) called on the government to exempt foreign universities already operating in the country from the obligation to provide education in their country of origin and challenged other provisions. The VC endorsed the preliminary opinion on October 6. A suit challenging aspects of the law was also filed in the Constitutional Court. The case remained pending at year’s end.
The CEU worked with the government to reach an agreement that would allow the CEU to comply with the law. On October 3, the CEU announced it had signed an agreement with a foreign college to provide educational services in the United States, thereby satisfying the final key condition of the legislation. On October 17, parliament voted to extend until 2019 the deadline for foreign higher education institutions to comply with the amended higher education law. Government officials pointed to the extension as responding in part to the VC’s opinion. High-ranking Fidesz officials told the media the government extended the deadline to avoid having to make a gesture toward the CEU before next year’s elections and during Fidesz’s national campaign against “Soros’ dangerous plan.”
In September media reported that the University of Debrecen’s rector would conduct an inquiry into departments that publicly criticized the university’s decision in August to award Russian President Vladimir Putin the title of “honorary citizen.”