Since the introduction of a new Media Law in 2010, the Hungarian media has been subject to the legal requirements of ‘balanced reporting’.
Failure to abide by the government’s interpretation of something that is a basic tenet of journalism results in heavy fines, proportional to the popularity of the media outlet.
Curiously, as of 2013, half of the complaints for unbalanced reporting were brought by the far-right Jobbik party, which had the majority of its claims upheld. Complaints for alleged anti-Roma coverage, on the other hand, were all dismissed.
The Media Law also forces all new media organisations to register with the authorities within 60 days of launching.
In addition, this year civil society NGOs, including independent media organisations operating with this status, have come under government scrutiny over their ties to foreign donors.
Yet Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national conservative Fidesz party, which was reelected for the second time in April 2014 with 44.87 per cent of the vote, retains widespread support at home.
In addition, the situation in other countries in the region tends to obscure the worsening situation for critics of the government in Hungary.
“When I meet Ukrainian colleagues, they ask me whether any journalists have been killed here over the past 10 years, and I have to tell them that none have,” explains Attila Bátorfy, editor at the Kreativ magazine.
But just because journalists haven’t been killed on the job it doesn’t mean journalists don’t face other threats.
A poll by the media policy research institute Nézőpont Intézet revealed that 48 per cent of Hungarian journalists claimed they had been forced to act contrary to their professional convictions at least once in the past 12 months.
“The situation is bad for us, but it can’t be on EU decision-makers’ minds every day,” says journalist and activist Attila Mong, who left Hungary and eventually settled in Berlin after the 2010 legislation.
Although a Constitutional Court ruling in 2011 required the government to revise the most contentious provisions of the Media Law (such as the requirement for journalists to reveal their sources), other elements, such as the powers of the politically-appointed Media Council still exist.
According to Open Society Foundations(OSF), the Council has a mandate to interfere with editorial decision-making.
The OSF report claims that the power of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, the broadcast media arm of the Media Council, is “absolute” and “unprecedented in other European democracies.”
László M. Lengyel, chairperson of the Hungarian Press Union, adds that recent labour legislation, adopted four years ago, has further weakened the bargaining power of journalists’ union.
“This is not because of the economic crisis, but because of legislation and government policy,” he told Equal Times.
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