The fight for freedom of speech

Persuading Hungary to change its controversial media laws was a lengthy but essential progress, writes Kate RothwellThe first day of Presidency of the Council of the European Union is a momentous occasion for any country. This is the day when all eyes are on the national leader in question:  what are their priorities, what will they achieve for the Union, what will they change? For the current holders of the EU Presidency however, this was the day on which it all started to go wrong.Hungary took over the Presidency from previous incumbents Belgium on January 1st, and on the same day the Hungarian Government implemented a set of restrictive and much-contested media laws. These laws gave a state-governed media council the power to impose fines of up to €724,000 on media outlets which, according to the council, caused offence with “unbalanced” coverage of issues pertaining to human dignity and morality, such as violence, sex and alcohol.Concerns regarding the legislation were rightly raised by EU Members of Parliament, who even went so far as to tape their mouths and brandish posters with the word ‘censored’ at Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s first addressing of the EU Council. These MPs echoed the feelings of much of the Hungarian press, as many editors had already published blank front pages or cartoons in their newspapers in order to display opposition to the laws.The reasons behind their resistance are obvious; such limiting legislation would be bound to encourage self-censorship among journalists and editors whose publications would be financially crippled by hefty fines.The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA) highlighted a further issue in a letter to the Hungarian Prime Minister, namely the threat that the legislation posed to crucial investigative journalism. “The right to confidentiality, protected by laws in many nations and international conventions, recognises that without a strong guarantee of anonymity, many people would be deterred from coming forward and sharing information of public interests with journalists.”Hungarian journalists were joined in their protest not only by fellow members of the global press, but also by numerous other citizens, as thousands of people poured onto the streets of Budapest in December to voice their outrage at the then-proposed law.The government ignored their cries, but Orbán’s EU peers have had more influence on him than he originally anticipated. He initially defended the legislation by claiming that it was no different to the media laws of many other EU member states, stating that Hungary had “assembled the media law from different sections of European countries”. If this is true, then it was an interesting case of cherry-picking the most backward clauses of the lot.Another governmental argument was that the measures were intended to limit the overly intrusive and undignified reportage of tabloid newspapers and television. The invasive, tasteless nature of reality TV and similarly sensationalist journalism is certainly a pertinent issue for Hungary and also for the rest of Europe, but the answer to this problem must be more a refined solution, and not just sheer censorship.The consternation surrounding the Hungarian media laws has put the country’s capability of holding the EU presidency in grave doubt, and it was only less than a fortnight ago that the issue appeared to reach some sort of resolution. The warning of potential EU legal action eventually pushed Hungary into stating that they would change the laws if the European Commission deemed it necessary.This, of course, was duly done, and Orbán was forced to quietly eat his words last month as the EC identified problems with rules regarding balanced reporting, the proposed registering of all media services with the national media council and the prohibition of “causing offence”.Hungary’s Communication Minister, Zoltan Kovacs, stated that the Hungarian Government would work to make the legislation “more precise”. This statement is an almost laughably inept description of the essential and ethical re-writing of the media laws that Hungary has been forced to concede to.The entire debacle is a huge embarrassment for the country, so much so that even the Prime Minister himself cannot deny that it was anything but the ideal start to the EU Presidency; “I agree this is a bad start, who would want to start like this?” With the government’s implementation of ‘crisis taxes’ on many business sectors also being critically queried by the Commission, Hungary has been surrounded by controversy for the first third of its short six-month Presidency.Whether or not Orbán will manage to salvage his country’s reputation during the final four months is anyone’s guess, but it’s easy to imagine that he’ll have at least three tips for his successors. The first is not to underestimate the importance of freedom of speech, the second: not to overestimate the power of presidency.  And as for the third: start the way you mean to go on.