Over recent weeks serious questions have been asked by the European Commission about 30 new laws in Hungary, including a major constitutional revision, and these concerns continue. These laws have passed against the backdrop of a media law adopted in late 2010, which was found by the European Commission to put fundamental rights at risk, and by the Hungarian courts to breach the Hungarian constitution.
The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights clearly states that “the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected,” and the EU has always stood up for media freedom and pluralism. Both the European Commission and I have defended press freedom and fundamental rights from the outset of the intense debate in Hungary over a year ago.
In parallel we have continued to push for the expansion of the internet and the opportunities it provides, including as a vehicle for new media and free expression. That is significant, because however worrying the general media environment may be in Hungary, the opportunities of Hungarians to express themselves and access the opinions of others has grown immeasurably because 98% of Hungarians now have access to broadband internet.
In 2011 the European Commission used the full extent of its legal powers to improve the Hungarian Media Law. The original version of that law could have breached fundamental rights and EU laws in four areas. Without hesitation I pushed for change and achieved those changes. These four issues comprise disproportionate application of rules on balanced information, application of fines to broadcasters legally established and authorised in other Member States, rules on registration and authorisation of media service providers and rules against offending individuals, minorities or majorities.
In taking this action the Commission abided by the binding principle that the EU can enforce fundamental rights only in areas subject to EU law, while in other respects this is the task of national courts and, if necessary, the European Court of Human Rights.
This left the Hungarian Constitutional Court to address matters of concern outside of EU law, which it did in a ruling on 19 December stating that media law “unconstitutionally limited freedom of the written press.” The judgement continues to be valid after the recent judicial changes in Hungary.
Some key elements of the judgement take immediate effect. For example, the court has tightened the conditions under which journalists can be required to reveal their sources; while the Hungarian media authority cannot compel media outlets to hand over data. Other changes must be made by 31 May 2012, including removing the institution of the Media Ombudsman and removing the obligation for the written press to “respect human dignity” and not to use its content to invade privacy.
I urge the Hungarian authorities to respect this court ruling, and to implement it with the same speed and efficiency they applied to the Commission’s assessment on the EU law aspects of this media law.
But I know that media pluralism and freedom cannot be defined and defended by laws alone. At the end of the day the successful practice of pluralism depends also on an atmosphere and a political culture that supports these ideas.
That is why we have followed up our legal demands on Hungary with an EU-wide high level group that is examining what media pluralism and freedom means in practice, and what can be done to improve the culture and law that supports it. That group is led by former President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia. We need to think seriously about whether the EU has sufficient powers in this area to meet public expectations about the defence of media pluralism.
My point is that our freedoms must be defended in many ways – by journalists, by active citizens, by laws at the national and, if necessary, EU levels. No single action delivers us the freedom we cherish and no single action can take it away. And the risks that a given action poses for media freedom, or for political freedom in general, depend on the overall context.
This overall context has heightened concerns about the way radio licensing is being handled in Hungary.
Under EU law a national government is free to lay down general interest conditions when granting radio licenses, including cultural diversity, linguistic diversity and media pluralism – provided that the award procedure is objective, transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate.
But for the same reason that the EU allows media pluralism to be a factor in granting licenses, it is important to see the overall licensing regime in its national media context. The legality of individual licensing decisions is not necessarily the only issue.
Such decisions can have wider implications and raise wider concerns. Especially when some worry that the underlying motive for setting new licensing criteria is to exclude existing, independent voices, rather than the opening up of new ones.
In such an atmosphere it is especially important that the affected parties have their rights of appeal – in court – fully respected if they do not agree with a licensing decision.
I wish also to point out very clearly that the EU does not place a limit on the number of radio licenses a Member State can issue. That is a matter for Hungary alone. It has been strongly argued by the authorities that new licenses have been issued on the basis of fair competition. But if that is true, then I also say ‘the more competition the better.’ I think there is room for more radio voices in Hungary, not less.
More generally, I commit to doing what I can to show my support for vibrant internet radio in Hungary, which is not constrained in any way by limited radio spectrum. I will do that just as I support print and audio-visual media, online and offline. My commitment to you is to do all I can within my powers and with my own voice to ensure that Hungarians can participate in, hear and learn from the media of their choice.
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