By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– An estimated 10,000 Hungarians have demonstrated late Friday against what critics describe as Europe’s most restrictive media law. Under the legislation, media in Hungary can face heavy fines and sanctions if authorities deem their coverage unbalanced or immoral.
Thousands of Hungarians sang Friday that that if they “would be a flag” they “wouldn’t wave”, or if they would “be a rose”, they “wouldn’t flourish. ”
The somber song reverberated throughout the square in front of Hungary’s parliament building where demonstrators gathered to protest against a new media law. They are closely watched by police in cars with flashing sirens.
Under the legislation a Media Council appointed by the center right government can fine broadcasters nearly $1 million, and websites or newspapers over $100,000 if their coverage is deemed unbalanced or immoral.
Hungarian journalists aren’t the only people concerned about what critics call Europe’s most restrictive media law. Activist Sonja Andrassew of environmental group Greenpeace says she fears the legislation will make it more difficult to criticize environmental policies. “We think that the environmental protection is also [about] free press. So if we want to say our opinion about the environment, the global warming or anything we need the press to be free to write down our opinion,” she said.
Some media outlets have already been pursued by the new media authorities.
The voice of Gabor Csabai, the head of Budapest based Tilos Radio, or Forbidden Radio, can still be heard from a tiny studio in a, somewhat rundown building, in Budapest.
But his small, independent station has already faced a legal battle with the Media Council after broadcasting a song of American rapper Ice-T, whose real name is Tracy Marrow.
The Media Council was furious that Tilos Radio aired the rapper’s song “It’s On” in the afternoon saying it could harm youngsters.
After a public outcry, the Council backed down this week, but radio announcers are concerned that the media authority now watches over their shoulders.
Tilos Radio earlier faced protests, that included supporters of the current ruling Fidesz party, over its perceived anti-Christian messages. Csabai denies these allegations. “What I say is that Tilos Radio is an absolutely independent, free radio. Free from any religion, free from any political ideology, free from political parties from financial lines. We are a free, free and independent radio. And honest,” he said.
Critics say that with the media law the center-right government is turning Hungary into ‘Orbanistan’, a reference to Prime Viktor Orban and autocratic Central Asian nations.
But the legal adviser of the media council, Gyorgy Ocsko, says the government does not turn the clock back more than 20 years, when Hungary was still a tightly controlled communist state. “This has nothing to do with the old style censorship that prevailed in the communist times. The legislator had one goal namely to make journalists respect human dignity. And this is our aim with the possible fining and possible sanctioning of let’s say newspapers,” he told BosNewsLife.
The discussion over the media law comes at a time when Hungary is holding the rotating European Union presidency. Officials in Germany have already suggested to take away some presidency tasks from Hungary.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn warned that if the EU does not pressure Hungary to change the law, “it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights.”
The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, has made clear it may pressure Hungary to change the legislation.
Hungarian Prime Minister Orban denies the law violates EU Rules.
He has told reporters that he may only accept changes to the legislation if the European Commission can prove that the law is not in line with European standards. “Now we should have a more professional, legal discussion on the text. The text is very European. There is no special regulation, no special Hungarian legislation in this law. All paragraphs and elements of this [legislation] are imported from EU Countries. So I think it is a European regulation,” he said.
Besides the media law, Orban has also been criticized for using his Fidesz party’s two thirds majority to change the constitution and supervise previously independent financial institutions such as the State Audit Office. (BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key news developments in former Communist and other autocratic nations impacting the Church and/or compassionate proffesionals).