First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.
The fall of communism in Europe opened a door to democracy and all the rights that come with it — freedom of press, speech, expression etc.
And the right to elect officials who might do all those other rights in. Such as the good people of Hungary.
The electorate reacted to eight years of bad governance and arrogance by the Socialist party by voted in a center-right candidate who railed against the elites and main stream media.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed and his parliament enacted Dec. 21 a new media law with language that is deliberately vague but pleasant-sounding to the people of the country who dislike elites. The media law that could just have easily been written by the crew that used to run the country 25 years ago. (For the historically challenged, that would be the Communist Party.)
To be sure there was more to the Orban victory in April 2010. But the rhetoric focused on how the government was run by elites who had no respect for the common people.
The “populist” theme was added to the poor showing of the Hungarian economy. Then to tap the last nail into the Socialist’s party chances, a tape emerged of the then prime minister telling colleagues he lied to the voters and that hundreds of tricks kept the country from falling apart.
In April the Socialists were out and Orban was in.
Orban stepped right in to fix the problems of the country. In fact, he pledged to get Hungary’s economy back on track after the country required a bailout from the EU.
The only problem is that he saw any organization or group that opposed him to be part of the problem. And this problem had to be addressed before he could deal with the other issues facing the country. (Sound like a certain Venezuelan leader we all know?)
Anne Applebaum at SLATE reports that since taking office less than a year ago, Orban appointed a council to rewrite the constitution, cut funding for the national audit office and stripped the supreme court of its powers.
But it is the media law that is now getting attention. (After all, it was passed by the Orban-dominated parliament just this past week.)
Running to 180 pages, the law is pretty simple and vague — as is usually the case with people who want to do in freedom of press: “Do what we say or we will break you.”
Under the law:
- The government sets us a state-run media council — composed entirely of ruling party appointees.
- The media council is tasked with protecting “human dignity.”
- The media council can issue fines against news organizations up to US$1 million is the news reports are not balanced. (No definition on what “balanced” means.)
- The government has also ordered a limit on crime-related news. Such news cannot take up more than 20 percent of airtime. (And as usual with folks who try to control the media, the law does not define “crime” or mention if government corruption is included under the “crime” category.)
The law also seems to be reaching to give the government the power to censor the Internet. Here the government seems to be relying on the “human dignity” aspect of the law. Can you say “Great Firewall of Hungary”? (Maybe they can cut a deal with China and Iran to get the technology and cheap staff to monitor the Internet.)
To be sure, not everyone is sitting still for this.
Right from the start, journalists in Hungary and Europe stepped up almost as soon as the legislation was introduced: Protests at new media law in Hungary.
And again when the law was passed: Adam Michnik Editorial Criticising Media Legislation in Hungary.
Within days of the law’s passage, the chilling effect was seen in a radio interview.
Journalist Sandor Jaszberenyi was on Radio Kossuth’s morning show Dec. 28. Before taking a question about plans to open the abandoned Chernobyl reactor site to tourists, the journalist asked for a minute’s silence in protest at the media law.
The show’s host cut short the interview. Listeners then heard the radio station’s theme tune for a while. When the show restarted it was without Jaszbberenyi.
Jaszberenyi said the incident was an example of how self- censorship was already in place in Hungary.
His was not the first act of defiance on the air against the law by working journalists. The day the law was passed, two Radio Kossuth presenters interrupting their program for a minute’s silence.
They were suspended indefinitely by the station.
This legislation also came at a very embarrassing time for the European Union. Hungary is taking over the rotating presidency of the EU. The EU has raised a number of issues with Hungary over the law.
Hungarian parliamentarians say the door is not locked on making changes.
A leading member of the ruling party in parliament told the BBC that if the law was applied “in a wrong way, or there are problems” parliament would change it.
But then he fell back on the old chestnut of all those who want to stop a free press from looking into how things are done in government. He said they want to “improve” journalism in Hungary and “not to wage a war” against it.
For my money, whenever a government tries to dictate how journalism should be done, it is waging war on it.