Attacks on the Press 2000: Hungary

A BATTLE BETWEEN THE CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT and left-leaning opposition over control of the boards that regulate state-owned radio and television dominated Hungarian press freedom debate in 2000.

After the four-year terms of the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT) and three other broadcast boards expired in February, opposition parties failed to exercise their legal right to name representatives to the three boards that supervise domestic state television and radio channels and an international network. On February 28, the ruling coalition appointed the new boards without opposition representation.

After the Constitutional Court dismissed a legal challenge to the incomplete boards, the government moved quickly to exploit its advantage. On March 15, the state networks failed to broadcast an annual address by opposition leader Gabor Demszky, the mayor of Budapest. Demszky strongly criticized Prime Minister Viktor Orban for snatching control of electronic media. The state media blackout was striking, given that Demszky’s previous annual addresses had been broadcast for eight years in a row.

Under the 1996 Media Law, government and opposition parties must be equally represented on state broadcasting boards. During the appointments crisis, the small, extremely right-wing Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP) had demanded half the opposition seats on the boards. The two larger opposition parties, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), insisted that the nominations be split proportionally according to their representation in Parliament. This opposition dispute allowed the government to take over the boards.

On March 2, Citizens for Press Freedom, a local civic organization, staged a protest rally of some 200 citizens and opposition legislators outside the Budapest headquarters of Hungarian state television. Twelve days later, on the eve of the anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian revolution, several thousand people marched across the Hungarian capital to demand independent state broadcasting boards.

Responding to his opponents on state radio on March 15, Prime Minister Orban quoted an opinion poll indicating that only 41 percent of the respondents thought freedom of speech was endangered. Orban blithely argued that this substantial proportion was no cause for alarm. Nevertheless, some members of the governing coalition worked to resolve the conflict, proposing amendments to the Media Law that would create six-member boards with equal nominating power for each parliamentary party. However, Parliament had approved no amendments by year’s end.

Meanwhile, the government-dominated ORTT was severely criticized for its decisions during the year. The body revoked the license of the independent station Tilos Radio, transferring its frequency to the newly created Foundation for Civic Broadcasting, which is closely linked to the ruling Fidesz party. The ORTT also granted frequencies to supporters of the far-right MIEP, but denied a frequency to Radio C, a station of the Roma community. The ORTT also denied a frequency application from an international consortium that included the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France.

At the end of the year, ORTT chairwoman Judit Koermendy-Ekes proposed a comprehensive framework to regulate the print media, the electronic media, and the Internet, which had not previously been regulated at all, unlike other media. The opposition criticized this proposal, as did Internet journalists and service providers.

In a separate development, Parliament added journalists to the government’s list of people to be screened for any links to communist-era secret services. (If found out, former collaborators must either resign their positions or face negative publicity if they refuse to do so, but there is no additional punishment.) While constitutional experts questioned whether journalists working for private entities could be required to undergo background checks, the amendment revealed the government’s desire to increase its control over independent actors in civil society.