Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Hungarian lawmakers approved a bill that will allow a regulator staffed with the appointees of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party to levy fines and shut down media outlets, brushing aside protests from journalists.
The bill prompted local newspapers to run blank cover pages to protest what they claim is an effort to curb press freedom. Lawmakers approved the bill by a vote of 248 to 35, with 16 abstentions, today in Budapest. Orban’s Fidesz party was joined by its junior coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, in backing the bill. Members of the opposition party Lehet Mas a Politika put duct tape over their mouths during the debate.
“Regulating print media can curb media freedom and free public debate, which are indispensable elements of democracies,” Dunja Mijatovic, the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, said, referring to the bill in a Dec. 16 report. “Regulating on-line media is not only technologically impossible but it exerts a chilling, self-censoring effect on free expression.”
Orban, who takes over the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency next month, is extending the influence of his Fidesz party, which won an unprecedented two-thirds majority in Parliament in April.
The government curbed the Constitutional Court’s powers and appointed Fidesz lawmakers as the country’s president and the head of the independent State Audit Office. A former Fidesz candidate for parliament was elected Chief Prosecutor last week.
‘Prevention of Violations’
The Media Council, whose five directors were all nominated by Fidesz, will regulate newspapers, television, radio and Internet media. It will also have the power to issue decrees, which only a handful of state institutions including the government, the central bank and local councils possess.
“The system of legal consequences” puts “emphasis on the prevention of violations of the law and the encouragement of voluntary legal compliance,” the office of Zoltan Kovacs, a secretary of state in charge of government communications, said in an e-mailed statement.
The bill will allow the newly created Media Council to fine television and radio stations as much as 200 million forint ($957,000) for coverage deemed unbalanced, according to the proposal posted on parliament’s website.
Fines for daily national newspapers and Internet news websites would be up to 25 million forint while the ceiling for weeklies would be 10 million forint.
“Media can be forced to reveal their sources, the media authority can search editorial offices, can copy reporters’ notes and mandate that publishers hand over confidential business information and levy serious fines on those that refuse,” Budapest-based daily Nepszabadsag said.
Nepszabadsag, the biggest-circulation Hungarian news daily said it will turn to the Constitutional Court after lawmakers approve the media law. Daily Nepszava and weeklies Magyar Narancs and Elet es Irodalom have run blank cover pages to protest the law.
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