26 January 2011

Europe protests against new media law

During a 19 January EU plenary session, MEPs showed their disapproval of Hungary's new media law by covering their mouths with tape and holding up banners that read
During a 19 January EU plenary session, MEPs showed their disapproval of Hungary's new media law by covering their mouths with tape and holding up banners that read "censored"
European Union 2011 PE-EP

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As Hungary assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union, EU politicians, journalists and a number of IFEX members have banded together against the country's steadfast refusal to scrap its new media law, report the International Press Institute (IPI), its affiliate the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), and other IFEX members.

During a plenary meeting in Strasbourg last week to discuss Hungary's presidential priorities for the next six months, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban faced some disapproving MEPs who had covered their mouths with tape and held up banners that read "censored".

It was the latest in a series of actions designed to stir up opposition to Hungary's new media law, which came into effect on 1 January.

The law establishes a government-appointed media council to ensure "balanced" reporting, and requires all media types to be registered, including online media such as forums and blogs. Radio and TV stations that break the law can be fined up to up to 730,000 Euro (US$975,000), says IPI.

Thousands of Hungarians protested against the law on 14 January in front of parliament, demanding the government withdraw the legislation. According to news reports, the organisers also launched a movement for press freedom on Facebook. So far, more than 70,000 people have joined the page.

Countries across Europe - worried that the law might have a domino effect - have taken up the cause. Slovaks protesting in front of the Hungarian embassy in Bratislava on 18 January shone flashlights onto the embassy's windows to "repel clouds" over Hungarian democracy and bring light to "the current eclipse of press freedom," reports IPI.

In Austria on 13 January, 11 leading Austrian newspapers published an insert put out by IPI, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Austrian GPA Journalists' Union - calling on the Hungarian government to withdraw the legislation.

"This declaration is also a message to all Austrian politicians who from time to time try to initiate laws which reduce freedom of the media," said IPI.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes has been an unlikely ally. She said to a meeting of MEPs that "beside specific questions concerning the audiovisual media services directive, the new media law raises broader political questions concerning freedom of expression."

"I am fully confident," she added, "that Hungary, being a democratic country, will take all the necessary steps to ensure that the new media law is implemented in full respect of the European values on media freedom and relevant EU legislation."

Prime Minister Orban - who was able to push the legislation through parliament with the support of his Fidesz party, which controls two thirds of the body's seats - has vigorously defended the new media law, arguing it was vital to replace the old media law, which was designed under the country's Communist regime.

After talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso this month, Orban said if EU legal experts found shortcomings in the law, he would be willing to amend it. But Orban has said he was confident the law was not in violation of any EU laws. Brussels is currently undertaking a legal review.

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