Hungary's EU presidency may not be enough to stop the press freedom rot

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Tirana, February 9 2011 NOA – On the first of January this year, the day that Hungary began its high-profile, six-month presidency of the EU, a new media law came into force in the country.

Under the new law, Hungary's state media body, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), has the power to fine broadcasters and newspapers for violating "public interest, public morals or order".

Thousands took to the streets in Hungary last month to protest the law, and communications minister Zoltan Kovacs has said that the government will work on the wording of the law to address press freedom concerns.

But some fear the Hungarian government will go back on its commitment to change the much-derided law, despite the scrutiny its EU presidency will inevitably bring.

"I am not optimistic that the media law will change," says Oliver Vujovic, secretary general of the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) – an affiliate of the International Press Institute – despite government assurances this month it would happen in weeks.

"The question is, what will happen when the presidency ends in July? Nobody will be watching."

The law makes the NMHH responsible for deciding if content in the media is "balanced", despite the body being composed exclusively of supporters of the rightist Fidesz government, led by Viktor Orban.

The notion of "balance" is too vague, say critics, Vujovic among them, "If you were to say that only 20 per cent of content can be bad news, then how could you report on a crisis like the one going on in Egypt?"

But doesn't the left have a motive to attack the law regardless of what it says?

"Yes," says Vujovic, "but from our point of view it doesn't matter who is in power, it is just that they accept international media guidelines and standards.

"Does any political party represent the views of media professionals? If we have a media law then I think media professionals should have part in the making of it."

In Hungary's case there was barely any consultation, he says.

Fear of legal trouble now preys on the mind of many Hungarian journalists, Vujovic adds. "If a journalist is afraid to report about something then it shows there is something wrong with the regulations."

Worse still, he warns, is that Hungary's law could spread to places with further to go in their transition to democracy. "Countries could just adopt the Hungarian model and say, 'We are just copying a law from the EU.'"

Croatia, which is hoping to joining the EU next year, is considering laws which would criminalise defamation based on advice from experts who say similar laws exist in EU countries.

"They are right, there are such laws in some EU countries, but they have not been used for the past 15 to 20 years," says Vujovic, warning that it would be a "step back for Croatia".

"Croatia had this kind of law in its legal system before and they changed it some years ago. I hope there will be enough open, public discussion to see that it would be stupid to bring it back."

In Croatia, as in the rest of south-east Europe, the media are rarely businesses in their own right, but serve as the loyal mouthpieces of politicians and tycoons.

"In most of south-east Europe the reader or viewer does not know who is behind the medium. There is a big difference between newspaper owned by the church, right or left party or a businessperson."

Albania is a prime example. With a population of 3.2m of Europe's poorest people, it has more than 20 newspapers with circulations in the hundreds or low thousands. "These are, of course, not economically viable," says Vujovic. Pay and professionals standards are low as a result.

"Why should a journalist working for one of these newspapers fight for professional standards and be in conflict with mafia or criminal groups?

"If the journalists have a problem such as pressure from criminals, then the state should do things to help like giving them protection."

For the most part they do not receive it, Vujovic adds.

"These countries were more active in presenting themselves as advocates of press freedom and democracy before they joined the EU. After becoming members they just thought they had no more obligations."

Britain, France and Germany railed against Hungary's media law and the European Commission launched an enquiry but, "There is no EU instrument to stop a member not respecting basic recommendations on press freedom," warns Vujovic.

The most effective mechanism appears to be the international press and political scrutiny generated by an EU presidency.

But formidable as that is, it may not be enough to stop the rot.