Media gagged: Hungarians hungry for journalistic freedom

Hungary’s government has adopted a controversial new media control law. It will see hundreds of journalists laid off and freedom of the press severely curtailed, opponents say. But many have been forced into silence over fears for their job security.

Critics say the law’s governing principle is simple: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil – at least not if it is about the Hungarian government.

“It’s about hiding things and hiding the truth and not covering controversial issues to toe the line of the government. That’s the whole message of this law,” says Sandor Orban, executive director of the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media, an alliance of media NGOs.

Covering broadcast, print and online content, the controversial new law has also established a new media authority to oversee its implementation. But those working for the media regulator were all chosen by the ruling Fidesz conservative party and were all loyal supporters of it prior to selection.

“Public service broadcasting is now completely controlled by the government. There have been some major layoffs and they put people loyal to the government into key positions at public TV and radio channels,” Orban says.

Journalists who have voiced criticism have felt the wrath of the new authority.

Radio host George Bolgar works for Klubradio’s most popular daytime talk show, and he has seen firsthand the effect the law has had on colleagues.

“They were journalists for public radio, and when the media law was introduced they had one minute’s silence on the national radio. They were right away suspended and then one left the radio. In effect was dismissed. And the other was fired,”
he told RT.

Hundreds of others have suffered the same fate, with a wave of layoffs across the industry. It all has contributed to an uneasy situation in the media, and those who want to keep their jobs scared to step out of line.

But some argue the shake up is a good thing and that the layoffs in Hungary’s over-inflated public media sector have been long overdue.

“This government has not only been talking about it, but they laid the people off because they saw that it is unsustainable. So I think this debate has become very politicized. It’s more about politics than using professional common sense. If something is unsustainable you have to cut costs,”
says Marton Gyongyosi, deputy leader of the Jobbik party's parliamentary fraction.

That view, though, has been strongly contested. Many talented investigative journalists have found themselves out of a job.

“First of all the dismissal criteria is not transparent at all. And secondly they fired people on the basis of political considerations. In other words, they are firing those who are not loyal to the new system,” says politics expert Peter Bajomi-Lazar, who is a senior research fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

The recent firings and uncertainty about the implications of the law are just some of the recent events that are causing serious concern about Hungary’s democratic future.

“Every democratic government needs an independent media. So if this government thinks that it can oversee the whole media, it can influence the whole media, it can regulate the whole media, it’s on very bad ground,”
George Bolgar says.

Despite heavy criticisms from both within the country and internationally, the government is sticking by its new media laws. And the changes they might bring could be set to radically transform the face of Hungary’s media.

­Tamas Szigeti form the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union told RT he believes major parts of the new law are unconstitutional.

“Even though it has not been so far decided upon, we expect the court to issue a decision shortly. The main problem is the media regulation set up a whole range of content regulations,” he said.

He also stated the main EU criticism came from the European Council.

“The problem with the European Union is that it took a very narrow step in dealing with the Hungarian media regulation, meaning there is just one single directive which concerns radio and TV, but the Hungarian media regulation goes well beyond the printed press and online press,” Szigeti explained.

Szigeti added these media regulations will have a significant impact.

“In the long term this regulation will have a chilling effect on the criticism towards economic power, political power and government,” he concluded.