Hungary brings defense of controversial new media law to U.S. audience (01/20)     Print Email

Amid the strident furor about media freedom in Europe, Budapest has also started actively defending itself in the U.S. against charges that new Hungarian press laws will restrict reporting and could portend anti-democratic moves on a broader scale.

In a video-linked discussion with members of the policy community in Washington Zoltán Kovács, Hungary’s State Secretary for Government Communications, explained that the new law establishes a “co-regulatory regime” to handle potential disputes about interpreting the new potential for government censorship against what the new law categorizes as “bias” or “unfavorable’ reporting.” For this, the government will work with a new” Hungarian Media Council” comprised of four members elected by parliament and chaired by a fifth member selected by the prime minister.

Critics of the new law, both from the EU and the U.S., argue that the legislation aims to clamp down on freedom of expression and silence any political opposition to the current ruling party. The government says the press measure is part of an approach to curb extremism in a period of economic tensions and frictions.

Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary, has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, enabling the government to legislate at will and even modify the constitution. Critics charge that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will use this parliamentary power (as he did in putting through this controversial law) to enact measures that contradict the basic principles of democracy.

After the outburst of attack by European leaders and the U.S., Orbán pledged to consider revising the press law if it was shown to contravene EU law or regulations on press freedom. But so far the measure seems to lend itself to possible abuse by the authorities. Mr. Orbán, who came to power late last year on a program of economic nationalism, has said that his critics will retreat once his leadership brings strong economic recovery to Hungary.

Mr. Kovács, who was speaking by video from Budapest to a Washington audience hosted by Johns Hopkins School Advanced International Studies, went on to explain that enforcing the law is a major issue facing the Hungarian government. The government’s view, he said, was this: with economic and political tensions high, Hungary wants to limit the ability of extremists to stir up friction in the region – for example, by extremists playing on ethnic tensions surrounding sizeable ethnic-Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries, including Slovakia.

In defending Budapest’s position, it was noted that many European countries had had periods of press regulation – in contrast to the U.S., whose history has always included strong protection for media freedom.

In this instance, “[all Hungarians] agreed that the media needed change,” according to András Koltay, a media-law expert and also a member of Hungary's Media Council. In the video conference he said that “[the new law] respects freedom… and doesn’t allow the [government] to suppress political views.”


Kurt Moss is an Editorial Assistant at European Affairs