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Monday, 03 January 2011

CORRECTED VERSION: Newly-Constituted Hungarian Media Authority Launches Investigation into Radio Station

Inquiry Focuses Attention on Hungary's New Media Law 

By: Nayana Jayarajan (IPI)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a EU summit in Brussels, Belgium as Hungary prepares to assume the EU presidency; 28 October 2010. Photo: AP /Thierry Charlier

* Please note, this version contains a correction in the final sentence.

Hungary's newly-instituted media council (NMHH) launched an inquiry into Tilos radio station in September, according to a letter from the council on the station's website, (English information here). The inquiry relates to the station's broadcast of two songs by American rapper Ice-T in its 1730h program. According to the letter from the NMHH, the songs' lyrics were objectionable, and violated sections 5/B. § (3) and 5/C § (2) of the Regulations on Radio and Television Broadcasting, which relate to material which may influence the physical, moral or mental development of minors.

Media regulation in Hungary has come under sharp scrutiny in recent months, with widespread criticism of the new media law as being too restrictive and granting wide-ranging powers to the media council to penalize the media for breaching a variety of broad and vague regulations.

In December, an IPI/SEEMO fact-finding mission to Hungary warned that the law had been passed without a "wide, open discussion with media professionals", and that Hungary, which is due to take over the presidency of the European Union, has a responsibility to set an example of press freedom standards in the region.

The new media law, which came into force last Saturday, would allow radio and television stations to be fined up to 730,000 Euros ($975,000) for going against "public interest, public morals and order", or for broadcasting "partial information", with insufficient clarification on what constitutes an infringement of the law, according to local media sources.

In November, Hungary's parliament passed legislation ostensibly aimed at promoting press freedom but which in fact allows for journalists to be forced to give up their confidential sources in cases involving vaguely-defined 'national security'.

In a letter in response to the NMHH’s notification, the radio station contends that the songs are in English, a language spoken by a minority of under-16s in the country, and points out that the official investigation concludes that understanding the lyrics was made more difficult by the colloquialisms used in the songs.  The station also contends that since a small minority of its listeners are under 16 years of age, they should not be obligated to reserve the songs for the post-21h time slot, as the law requires.

Criticism of the law has been widespread and vociferous. IPI called in November and December for a re-evaluation of its terms, as have several other press freedom organizations. The law has also been criticized by EU members Britain and Germany.

The BBC reports the following statement from the UK Foreign Office: "Freedom of the press is at the heart of a free society. We hope that the Hungarian Government will soon resolve this issue satisfactorily and that it will not impact adversely on the successful delivery of the Hungarian EU Presidency."

Hungary on Monday rejected Western criticism of the new media legislation, calling it ill-informed and even absurd, and vowing to uphold press freedom, Reuters reported.

Hungary claims its Media Act conforms with the EU bloc's rules and called the criticism "unfounded, at times outright absurd accusations", according to Reuters.

"A common trait of the opinions expressed by the media is that they apparently lack in-depth knowledge of the Act's text," the Public Administration and Justice Ministry said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

IPI's affiliate, the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), supports this joint SEEMO/IPI statement.