Edited version of the presentation at the conference on “The role of national parliaments in media regulation in Europe” organised by the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and hosted by the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, London, Portcullis House, Attlee Suite on 21-22 May 2013.
Following a short dominant period of the liberal concept of media freedom in Hungary and also in other Central and Eastern European countries after the regime-changes in 1989-90, new characteristic perceptions about the media have emerged in the region. According to these assumptions an (exaggerated) role was attributed to the media and to professional journalists who were supposed to have crucial influence on public life and even on the outcome of parliamentary elections. These theories, conspiracy theories about the power of the media - media power - have spread all over in the nineties.
Especially on the right side of the political spectrum, fresh claims and - later - efforts in order to create a so-called balanced media (landscape) have been elaborated by ideologists and political entrepreneurs. Their argumentation has reflected a very different concept compared to the mainstream notion of media freedom. The demand to ensure free choice on the market to media consumers has been unmasked by a second statement. According to this - not at all hidden, but ambitious - explanation, parliamentarians have been elected by the people and therefore they have a mandate to regulate the media - whilst nobody has ever authorised journalists to control and judge elected politicians in the media in order to influence political debates and outcomes without any democratic legitimacy.
Such majoritarian views have been strongly rooted in history: the mindset and reflexes of many politicians have been inherited from the communist period when the only party formally and informally controlled the mass media of the time. In the new democracies, especially in Hungary, however, after the collapse of the party-state media wars were fought for political and social influence and control often covered by anticommunist rhetoric and a mobilisation effort in defence of national "values" and against foreign influence. These turbulent years also had a significant impact on the way of thinking of top decision-makers. The gloomy experiences and sharp conflicts with media organisations, leading journalists and editors have given motion and motivation for a desire to regulate the "hostile" media. Hostile means here politically hostile in a very partisan environment: most of the media organs have become as polarised as parties and the society itself. Not competition on the media market, but belonging to partisan camps and to serve their parochial mission has become the number one game in the town. In such a situation whatever critical voices in the media and stories covered by investigative journalism have been simplistically considered to be the products/attacks coming from the "other side" of the political spectrum. The political consequences of the biggest scandals have been efficiently mitigated by the conscious use of "loyal" media outlets and journalists, who were on "our side" in the antagonism towards the other political elite group. This phenomenon has been present in the functioning of the Hungarian media system in general; yet, a peculiarly loyal and dependent media empire has been built in order to counter-balance the alleged "left-liberal" media power in the last decade on the right side of the partisan map.
Since 2010, surprisingly, the conservative-populist Fidesz-government with its two-third super-majority in the Hungarian parliament has not presented any clear-cut open ideological concept based on the above mentioned ideas. The lack of any communication strategy connected to the media has contradicted to PR practices implemented in other controversial policy areas under the “revolutionary” rule of the government where arguments in defence of the legal measures and political steps have followed an easy-going routine, saying: “we can and should do what we do because of our strong mandate received from the people”, or, “we use new, unorthodox measures and methods in our Hungarian laboratory and whole Europe follows or will follow us”, as well as another reasoning that “we have to do what we do since the socialists ruined the country in the last eight years”, etc. The arguments in the case of the introduced media laws have been much more modest and defensive. The Fidesz-government have insisted that the new regulations were in accordance with EU laws, the elements of changes they invented were also to be found in the regulations of other EU member states, or, later, leading politicians have declared that “we actually do not use the media laws in such a way as our opponents had hysterically prophesised”, hence, there were no (serious) fines introduced by the Media Council against media outlets and nobody has been imprisoned, and so on. Since the official rhetoric used by the Hungarian authorities has been similar to the language of an innocent and naïve person who has been hurt again and again in consequence of a “double standard” approach of “badly informed” foreign critics, the real motivation of the restrictive media regulations have remained in darkness.
Although Prime Minister Orbán had declared in December 2010 that "we do not have any tiny intention to change the media laws" three waves of forced changes were to be observed following the series of international protest against the Hungarian media regulations. First, four amendments were introduced in compliance with the urgent wish of European Commission, which, in fact, according to Commissioner Neelie Kroes, had limited legal competences regarding the regulation of national media fields. Secondly, the Hungarian Constitutional Court, still using its weakened legal strength found important parts of the laws unconstitutional and escaped the on-line and printed media from any government penetration. Thirdly, after an agreement between the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland and the Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, the procedure of the election of the president of the Media Council has been modified recently.
Nevertheless, in the last three years, the same Media Council, the supervisory and regulating media authority with elected members representing only the ruling party had a continuous long fighting with the oppositional Klubrádió about its licenses (and finally lost the legal battle, but, in the meantime, redistributed the radio market advancing right-wing broadcasters), the public TV was the victim of full Gleichschaltung (uniformisation) on such a big scale as it never happened before under previous governments, the official Hungarian News Agency gained a monopolistic position on the news market, and the symptoms of self-censorship amongst journalists have been documented by many observers – just to mention the most striking consequences of the media policy of the government.
The core problem of the media laws has remained unsolved: the power of the politically unicolour Media Council is still remarkable. The above mentioned compromise between the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and the Hungarian deputy prime minister has been criticised by a group of Hungarian NGO-s, including our Hungarian Europe Society. The answer by Secretary General Jagland to our joint letter has raised hopes again that the agreement was not the end of the whole story. Moreover, a fresh scandal is on the horizon: it seems to be very likely that the new president of the Media Council will be once again an active Fidesz politician, this time Tamás Deutsch, member of the Fidesz delegation inside the political group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. In case the potential choice of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán turns to be reality, his decision in favour of a loyal MEP to become the head of an “independent” public body would express with no doubt that the new in-built guarantees - especially the shift that it is now the President of the Republic who would appoint the new leader of the media authority following a proposal of the Prime Minister, and it is not the Prime Minister himself who appoints the President of the Media Council - are merely cosmetic changes.
The correction of the current distortions in the Hungarian media system as well as the re-creation of the necessary checks and balances in the whole constitutional regime should be implemented on the short run in Hungary. Still, on the mid-term, the elaboration of political and legal guarantees in order to avoid any antidemocratic experiments inside the European Union needs to happen also on European level. Regarding the media sphere, the Freiberga-report of the high-level group established by the European Commission, the report on media freedom signed by MEP Renate Weber, which was approved yesterday, on 21 May in the European Parliament, just like other analyses including the working documents of the report on the political changes in Hungary prepared by Rui Tavares, which is the prelude of the forthcoming plenary resolution in the European Parliament, as well as the unprecedented monitoring of the Hungarian case in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe and the investigation of the Venice Commission about the state of the Hungarian constitution – all these processes express the significance of the negative Hungarian development in the eyes of the European elites.
Not independently from the Hungarian case, there is an approved European citizens' initiative on media pluralism “in action” claiming for a new directive or for the modification of the audiovisual directive in order to regulate first of all extensive media ownership concentration and, secondly, to block disproportional partisan-political influence especially inside national public media authorities. The European campaign in Hungary is led by a coalition of eight civil organisations including our Hungarian Europe Society.
All these common efforts must have a positive outcome in Hungary and all over in Europe - the sooner, the better.