By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungary’s parliament is voting Monday on a government backed media law that critics say will turn the clock back and re-introduce “totalitarian rule” in the former Communist-nation. Under the legislation, journalists can face huge fines if their coverage is deemed unbalanced. The controversy comes just weeks before Hungary is to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on January 1.
The well-known Hungarian song-writer Lilla Vincze sings nostalgically about romance and Hungary in a famous Budapest bookstore. Among her audience are Hungarian journalists, writers and readers who have come to support the struggling left-leaning newspaper Nepszava, one of several publications protesting a new media law.
The legislation, introduced by the center right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has been compared by the opposition to the kind of thing which went on during Hungary’s Communist era and other totalitarian regimes.
Under the new law a government-appointed Media Council will have the power to decide whether a publication has broken rules on what it calls balanced and ‘moral’ reporting, and can issue heavy fines, payable immediately.
Printed and Internet media can face fines of up to 90,000 euros and broadcasters more than 700,000 euros if, for example, their coverage is deemed unbalanced.
EMPTY FRONT PAGE
Nepszava’s chief editor Peter Nemeth has already published a blank front page to protest the proposed law.
“This front page was empty, absolutely empty,” he tells BosNewsLife. “If this new law will be accepted than in the New Year when Hungary becomes the president of the European Union, we will repeat this action. We want to send a message to the European Union that this media law is not good.”
He says the law will turn the clock back more than 20 years to the period when Hungary was still a Communist nation. “It will be similar, absolutely. It will give a chance for dictatorship.”
There is also international concern that the legislation will lead to censorship. But Andras Koltay, a member of the new Media Council, loudly laughs when confronted with this criticism “I don’t think there is a danger this legislation will force journalists into self censorship.”
Instead, he says, “The law will ensure more balanced media.” He adds it also will bring order in the media, because they are currently having to work on the basis of confusing laws from the 1980s and 1990s.” He argues that the law is to the advantage of both the media and the public.
Back at the Budapest Writers Bookstore questions remain as to how the controversial law will be enforced. Eighty-one year-old Hungarian author and philosopher Agnes Heller, a former dissident, says she has been asked to join an alternative Internet television station aimed at challenging the upcoming legislation.
She says Prime Minister Orban does not realize times have changed in the Internet era. “Nowadays you can have a server in another country. And you can not censor an Internet production if the server is in another country,” Heller explains.
“Some people organize a so called samizdat television station on the Internet and asked me to participate. So the technology is above it. In the classical style of the Soviet Union technology allowed that everything could be supervised. Now not everything can be supervised, so Orban will not succeed.”
Yet the ruling Fidesz party, which holds a crushing two-thirds majority in parliament, supports the law, which is expected to come into force next year. Critics say the legislation will make Hungary ‘Orbanistan’, a reference to Prime Minister Orban.