Mise à jour : 25 septembre 2012 (Rédaction initiale : 10 février 2011 )

Analyses Sectorielles

II-3.3: Hungary votes a new media law, which could infringe the European Convention on Human Rights

par Lorraine Boris



The Hungarian Parliament voted a law on December 21st, 2010, which came into force on January 1st, 2011, according to which indirect government control over the media is made very tight. This intervenes at the exact same time that Hungary overtakes the rotating Presidency of the European Council. Hungary has now two weeks to put the law in conformity with European standards, otherwise, the European Commission will start legal proceedings against the country.


Fiche thématique (Media): la Hongrie vote une nouvelle loi sur les media qui pourrait violer la Charte des droits fondamentaux de l'Union Européenne.

Le Parlement hongrois a voté une loi le 21 décembre 2010, entrée en vigueur le 1er janvier 2011, qui rend le contrôle indirect des media par le gouvernement très strict. Cela intervient exactement au moment où la Hongrie prend la Présidence tournante de l’Union Européenne. La Hongrie dispose dorénavant de deux semaines pour mettre la loi en conformité avec les standards européens, sans quoi la Commission Européenne commencera une procédure contre le pays.



Thematischer Bericht (Medien) : Ungarn wählt ein neuen Mediengesetz, das gegen die Charta der Grundrechte der Europäischen Union verstoßen könnte.

Das ungarische Parlament hat am 21. Dezember 2010 ein Gesetz abgestimmt, das am 1. Januar 2011 in Kraft getreten ist, und das die indirekte Medienstaatsaufsicht strenger macht. Dies geschieht gerade als Ungarn die wechselnde EU-Präsidenschaft übernimmt. Ungarn verfügt uber zwei Wochen, um das Gesetz vertragsgemäß zu machen. Ansonsten wird die Europäische Kommission ein Verfahren gegen Ungarn einleiten.


Informe temático (medios de comunicación): Hungría vota una nueva ley sobre los medios de comunicación, lo cual podría infringir sobre la carta de derechos fundamentales de la Unión Europea.

El Parlamento húngaro votó una nueva ley el 21 de diciembre del 2010, lo cual entró en vigencia el 1ero de enero del 2011, en donde se estipula que los medios indirectos de comunicación del  gobierno serán sujetos a un control más estricto. Este suceso ocurre en el mismo instante que Hungría toma la Presidencia del Consejo Europeo.  Hungría ahora tiene dos semanas para armonizar esta ley con los estándares europeos, y si falla en este intento, la Comisión Europea comenzará un procedimiento legal contra este país. 

Relazione tematica (Mass-media): l’Ungheria adotta una nuova legge in amteria di mass-media che potrebbe essere contraria alla Convenzione europea dei diritti umani
Il 1° dicembre 2010, il parlamento ungherese ha adottato una nuova legge, entrata in vigore il 1° gennaio 2011, la quale prevede un controllo stringente ed indiretto del governo sui mass-media, al contempo l’Ungheria lascia la Presidenza del Consiglio europeo. Restano due settimane all’Ungheria per conformarsi agli obblighi dettati dagli standard europei, altrimenti la Commissione Europea comincerà una procedura a livello europeo contro lo Stato.
Informe temático (meios de comunicação): A Hungria adota nova lei sobre meios de comunicação, a qual poderia violar a Carta de Direitos Fundamentais da União Europeia.
O Parlamento húngaro adotou uma lei no dia 21 de dezembro de 2010, que entrou em vigor em 1° de Janeiro de 2011, na qual se prevê que o controle indireto dos meios de comunicação pelo governo passará a ser mais rigoroso. Este fenômeno ocorre no mesmo instante em que a Hungria assume a Presidência do Conselho europeu. Este país agora tem duas semanas para adequar esta lei aos parâmetros europeus e, se falhar nesta tarefa, a Comissão Europeia poderá iniciar uma ação judicial contra este país.


Context and Summary

On December 21st, 2010, the Hungarian Parliament adopted two bills that aim at changing the country's media supervisory regime. This forthcoming reorganization creates a new Media Council elected by the Parliament, and whose Chairman is directly appointed by the Prime Minister for a 9 year term. Since the right-wing party in power has a vast majority in the Parliament, no representative of the opposition will sit in the Media Council for at least 9 years. This new organization is supposed to emerge as the modernized head of the media supervision in the country, including both analog and electronic media. The Media Council’s goal is to supervise the proper application of the December 21st, 2010, Act, especially to ensure that the information provided in the media is “balanced”. The scope of the law is very large, since encompasses every kind of media – press, television, or internet media, as well as online media operating from outside Hungary in order to circumvent the law. Every media operator – including bloggers – must register with the Media Council. The new media regulation authority has a strong sanction power, and can consequently impose financial sanctions up to 700.000€ for television and radio stations, 90.000€ for newspapers and websites and 7.250€ for private persons – which corresponds to one and a half years net average wage in the country. The Media Council can also decide to cut the public subsidies of any media found guilty under the law, as well as suspend broadcasters for 30 days if found guilty.
The rapidity of the vote and promulgation of the law – during the last part of December 2010, as well as the suspension of several journalists who openly expressed their disapproval of it, led to the law's being firmly condemned both inside and outside the country by some organizations. In Hungary, the left-wing opposition, and the far-right appealed before the Constitutional Court, but with few chances of success since the nomination process of this Court was changed in April, right after the elections, and that the current party in power, the Fidesz, has the majority of seats. Also, the Constitutional Court’s powers of judicial review were limited after it ruled against a retroactive tax on private persons. At the European level, the OSCE, the LibDem and the Green Members of the European Parliament, Amnesty International or journalist organizations such as the European Federation of Journalists, all condemned the law as an important regression on the scale of democracy.
In a more moderate way, several European countries, including Great Britain, France, Luxemburg and Germany also condemned the law, underlining that the decrease of European standards on freedom of the press highly undermines Europe's attempts to promote a free, democratic political space. They also noted that such an Act makes it harder for the Union to demand high levels of freedom of the media of neighboring countries wanting to join the Union, whereas intra-European freedom is mitigated.
On January 17th, 2011, Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, deemed the Hungarian law “unsatisfactory”, after the results of the preliminary investigation led by the European Commission. The main doubts expressed by the Commissioner concerned the requirement of “balanced” treatment of information, as well as the lack of criteria guaranteeing the independency of the Media Council. On top of that, the scope of the law – which should apply to every media company operating in the country, even when its seat is in another Member State – directly violates the country-of-origin principle of the European Union. This principle specifies that media companies based in the European Union must comply with the law of their headquarters – and to this law only, since the European Union is constructed around the mutual recognition of the equivalence of Member States’ laws. A violation of this principle would infringe the freedom of establishment and to provide services, true cornerstones of the European Union.
Based on these two findings, Neelie Kroes demanded of the Hungarian Vice-Prime Minister that the law be put in conformity with European standards. She indicated that the Hungarian government already indicated that adjustments would be made, and reminded that non-compliance would mean the European Commission would commence legal proceedings against Hungary. Hungary continues to defend the validity of the new Media organization, stating - via the High Representative of the High Authority for Media and Telecommunications Annamaria Szalai - that the criticisms expressed by foreign countries mainly resulted from a confusion between the media law, new taxes adopted to face the crisis, bank levies and pension fund related problems. She also underlined that the previous legal organization of the media sector in Hungary was, to a certain extent, more severe than under the new law's provisions.

Brief commentary

This new organization of the media landscape in Hungary is indeed a significant trial of the boundaries of the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, this Charter, being part of the body of law of the European Union, applies in every Member State, bearing a higher normative value than any national statute. Yet, the apparent misapprehension of the Charter by the Hungarian government, although justified, in its eyes, with regards to Hungary's national history, is a sign of the distention of European standards of freedom of the press – signs already perceptible in Italy and Romania, according to the European Federation of Journalists.

The new regulatory structure adopted by Hungary is also an interesting case of the concentration of several powers under the aegis of one single authority. Indeed, the previously existing authority was in charge of broadcasting services only – which is the case in most countries in which media regulation exists. Now in charge of every media, regardless of their nature, the Media Council certainly has an easier and stronger overlook over the entire media system, which is quite rare for a recently created authority. Because of the usual mistrust of the legislature towards the regulator, it is mostly common that the powers of a regulatory authority expand in function of its authority over the market and its public perception(1).

Yet, the new Media Council, although endowed with broad powers, might lack the hindsight to understand the technical specificities of different media markets – the Internet, the press and broadband media – and thus, weaken the accuracy of the choice of regulation over State control. Furthermore, the unification of the legal framework on media imposes the exact same system of rights on media activities which are distinguishable in terms of network organization, market structure and impact on the public life. This accumulation makes difficult the existence of fertile ground for all market specificities to be taken into consideration, although this is one of the Regulator's essential advantages. For instance, it requires all media to be registered by the Authority, without considering the difficulty of such a task for online media – especially considering the remaining porosity of the notion of media as it is in the law. Such a regulatory system is likely to create imbalances in a sector involved in the functioning of public political life. Media regulation, because it concerns a crucial sector for public liberties, differs from the more technical regulation of certain sectors, as for instance electricity.

Yet, the Hungarian government expressed its mistrust of international criticism, by recalling the role of the specific history of the country – which has been democratic since the fall of the communist bloc – and by stating that this law is perfectly legitimate – as an emanation of the Parliament. Indeed, the Fidesz, actually in power, benefits from very broad support among the population. As such, the presence of some of its members, democratically elected, in the Media Council, can be considered legitimate. Their undisputed domination of the seats of the Council is also the logical consequence of the Fidesz having over two thirds of the seats in Parliament. In regulatory authorities, the independence of the regulator is often subsumed by the fact that it is not a member of parliament – and thus, not directly elected, it should not be caught into the doldrums of conflicts of interest.

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