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In the middle of Europe, a democracy introduces press censorship

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Hungarian right-wing government’s law demanding news sources be ‘fair and balanced’ could threaten freedoms

As the world’s attention focuses on WikiLeaks and the debate it has spawned about the extent of press freedom in the information age, one European country has taken a decisive step away from that freedom.

Hungary’s recently elected right-wing government has introduced a law demanding — under threat of fines and even shut-down — that news sources be “fair and balanced,” to borrow a phrase from a US news network. The move has critics fearing that it could lead to a silencing of critical media outlets.

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Under the new Law on Media and the Freedom of Press, national TV channels whose news coverage is found to be “unbalanced or offensive to human dignity or common morals” could be fined the equivalent of almost $1 million, reports the New York Times, while daily newspaper and Internet news sites could face fines of up to $120,000. Weeklies and magazines could see fines of almost $50,000.

Most problematically, human rights groups say the law is vague on what constitutes an offense, and will be administered by an agency controlled by the prime minister’s allies — a perfect recipe for political oppression.

The law has raised concerns among Hungary’s European Union partner countries, particularly given that the country will assume the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1. Germany, in particular, has questioned whether Hungary can now be considered a legitimate representative of European values.

“As soon-to-be EU president, Hungary bears a special responsibility for the image of the European Union in the world,” a German government spokesman said.

“The plans clearly violate the text and the spirit of EU treaties,” Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselbron, said. “It raises the question of whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU.”

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The law has also raised concerns among human rights groups. Amnesty International, which described the law as “unprecedented in the European Union,” suggested that the agency created to determine whether news outlets are in compliance is stacked with political allies of the prime minister and would essentially have the freedom to punish news outlets as it sees fit.

A newly created National Media and Communications Authority (NMHH) will have the power to impose heavy fines, ranging from up to 35,000 Euros for periodicals to up to 730,000 Euros for broadcast media, for content it considers to run counter to the “public interest”, “common morality” and “national order”. Fines can also be imposed for “unbalanced” news reporting.

None of these terms are clearly defined in the law and their interpretation is left to the NMHH. The NMHH also has the power to shut down news outlets.

There are also concerns about the political independence of the National Media and Communications Authority, whose five board members were appointed by the ruling Fidesz party without broader consultation or any parliamentary scrutiny.

But the controversy surrounding the law hasn’t ruffled Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose right-of-center coalition government holds a two-thirds supermajority in parliament, giving Orban even the power to change the constitution.

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“We are not even thinking in our wildest dreams about making amendments to the law,” Orban said in a TV interview, as quoted at the Times. “I am not inclined to react with wobbly knees to debates in parliament or Western reactions. There is not a single passage in the law that does not correspond to the media law in EU countries.”

For Hungary, which broke away from the communist block in 1989, the collective memory of widespread, politically-motivated press censorship is relatively fresh. That hasn’t been lost on Orban’s critics. Der Spiegel reports:

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Outraged opposition politicians demanded to know how this differs from censorship in the days of former Communist Party General Secretary János Kádár, and demonstratively taped their mouths shut in parliament. Some Hungarian newspapers have published empty front pages in protest at the law.

Government representatives assured critics that the new law would not be applied in a restrictive manner. But when a journalist of government-owned radio station MR1-Kossuth Radio used a minute of silence to protest the change in the treatment of the press, he was suspended.

Gyorgy Konrad, a prominent Hungarian writer and communist-era dissident, said the law reminds him “very much of 1933 when the [Nazi party] came to power with an electoral majority under seemingly democratic conditions.”

He added: “Even if Hungary is a small country in comparison with Germany, and if a reign of terror is unlikely, there is no calling this a democracy anymore.”

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