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A woman eyes the selection at a news agent in Budapest January 6, 2011. Hungary will change its much-criticised media law if the European Union wants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday, but he said there was nothing in it that was not in other EU countries' laws. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters/Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
A woman eyes the selection at a news agent in Budapest January 6, 2011. Hungary will change its much-criticised media law if the European Union wants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday, but he said there was nothing in it that was not in other EU countries' laws. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters/Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Hungary's return to the bad old days of state-regulated media Add to ...

For radio listeners in Hungary, this has been the week of the disappearing personalities. Over and over, well-known on-air figures have suddenly gone silent, usually followed by a few minutes of official music and then their complete disappearance from the airwaves.

“They just tell us to get out of the studio and not come back,” says journalist Sandor Jaszberenyi. On Tuesday, he went on the air for an interview, asked for a moment’s silence in protest against Hungary’s new censorship law, then was banished from the airwaves, never to be mentioned again.

He was appearing on a generally pro-government talk show whose long-serving host had suddenly disappeared over the weekend in a nearly identical incident. Two other radio personalities have also been banished – officially suspended from their on-air jobs and removed from broadcast – in similar circumstances, all without mention in any of the national media.

They are the latest victims of Hungary’s new media law, introduced this month by conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose right-wing Fidesz Party won an enormous two-thirds majority in last year’s elections, in an aggressive move to exert government control over the country’s newspapers, broadcast outlets and web sites with a law that places them all under government supervision and monitoring.

This return to the bad old days of state-regulated media gained attention across Europe Thursday when Mr. Orban took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. French and German officials denounced the new censorship regime as contravening the spirit of Europe and a number of officials suggested in statements that Hungary ought to be denied the presidency because of its censorship.

“The question arises as to whether such a country deserves to lead the EU,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said, arguing that Hungary be denied the presidency. “If we don’t do anything, it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights.”

The Hungarian media law creates a five-person media council, comprised entirely of Fidesz supporters given nine-year appointments, who have the power to judge stations on the basis of “balanced coverage” and morality – neither of which are defined in the law – impose fines of up to $1-million and cancel the licences of newspapers and stations that are deemed unacceptable.

The media law and the angry reaction from Europe seemed to open up old schisms dividing the 27-nation bloc, reminding some members of the authoritarian regimes the EU had been set up to prevent, and others of the increasing polarization between wealthy states such as France and Germany and debt-addled economic victims such as Hungary.

Mr. Orban, in a furious statement to reporters on Thursday, denounced the Western European countries for hypocrisy, arguing that his law differs little from similar legislation in France, which has government-appointed editors of some outlets and Germany, which has laws prohibiting anti-Semitic journalism.

He angrily suggested that there was a Western campaign against former communist countries, which are having a high-profile year with Hungary holding the EU presidency until June and then Poland for the six months afterwards.

But journalists in Hungary say the new media law has coincided with a harsh treatment of the media: Outlets that are not owned or controlled by Fidesz have been denied any access to the government, and officials at public broadcasters have been replaced with Fidesz loyalists.

“This is complete nonsense, this law has nothing to do with racism or anti-Semitism or defending small children,” said Peter Nemeth, editor of the centre-left opposition newspaper Nepszava (“People’s Voice”), which published a communist-era symbol on its front page Monday to protest against the law. “Its only message is to threaten the actors in the Hungarian media who are not owned or controlled by Fidesz.”

Mr. Orban’s party and its senior members are the owners of two newspapers and a TV network, all of which have been supportive of the new legislation. His party has long held a grudge against the independent and public-broadcasting media of Hungary, which he blamed for his party’s narrow defeat in the 2002 elections, claiming they had a bias against right-wing parties.

While Mr. Orban insisted that the law would not be abused and would help protect minority groups from extremism, there were alarming signs this week that its goals were ideological. On Thursday the ultra-right-wing party Jobbik, whose members are closely associated with the fascist Hungarian Guard and given to anti-Semitic statements, held a protest outside the national broadcaster arguing that, as a minority group, it was underrepresented in the media.

European leaders have expressed alarm at the way Mr. Orban and his Fidesz party have used their huge majority not just to tame the media but to cement their hold on power. Late last year his government passed bills to redraw municipal boundaries to give Fidesz a 90 per cent election victory, to change the way judges are appointed, and to allow pension funds to be nationalized and seized by the government for debt reduction. Hungary’s constitution requires a three-quarters majority vote for such serious legislation, but its authors did not anticipate a party controlling such a large swathe of parliament.

“Legally, there’s nobody stopping him – the only limits are his imagination and some moral conviction that we’re simply not seeing these days,” said Gábor Horváth, editor of the independent daily Népszabadság (“People’s Freedom”). “It is a type of politics we have not seen in 20 years, not since communism ended.”





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