Attacks on the Press 2001: Hungary

Even as Hungary moved closer to joining the European Union, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Party (Fidesz-MPP) continued to bully Hungary’s public service broadcasters and retaliate against unfavorable coverage in the independent media.

Hungary’s ruling coalition–which includes Fidesz and two other parties–used its control over the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT) and three other broadcast boards to promote its own political agenda.

Meanwhile, the ORTT took punitive measures against independent broadcasters. After the independent television station RTL aired an interview in April in which a guest identified as a hit man was asked how much he would charge to kill the prime minister, the ORTT fined the station US$17,600 and ordered it off the air for 10 minutes during prime time. On October 2, the ORTT criticized certain domestic television stations for overdramatizing their coverage of the terrorism crisis in the United States, rather than seeking to calm their audience.

In late March, Fidesz parliamentary deputies proposed a new privacy bill that would have amended the criminal code to allow media outlets to be prosecuted for invasion of privacy. The bill also contained a “right to reply” provision that would have forced media outlets to publish responses to editorial comments.

Despite protests from local press groups, Parliament adopted the law on May 30. But on June 12, President Ferenc Madl refused to sign the law and instead referred it to the Constitutional Court for an opinion. On December 4, the court ruled the law unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the Fidesz parliamentarian who proposed the bill said he planned to modify and reintroduce it.

In a positive development, Hungary’s first Roma-language radio station, Radio C, which reaches Budapest’s 100,000-strong Romany community, was granted a permanent license. In addition, a new press freedom group was established in 2001.The Budapest-based Hungarian Press Freedom Center seeks to protect and enhance press freedom in Hungary through advocacy, research, training, and legal assistance for journalists.

May 7

Magyar Hirlap

Prime minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Young Democrats-Civic Party (FIDESZ) banned employees of the newspaper Magyar Hirlap from attending party functions, The Associated Press reported.

The ban came after Magyar Hirlap published a March article saying that “no one wants the liquidation of Viktor Orban and [FIDESZ party chairman] Laszlo Koever from public life.” FIDESZ officials were outraged at the implication that Orban and Koever might be murdered.

Magyar Hirlap editor-in-chief Ilona Kocsi wrote an editorial apologizing for the article. On May 11, a FIDESZ official stated publicly that he considered the matter closed after Kocsi’s apology, Hungarian Radio reported.

Magyar Hirlap journalists were unable to cover a FIDESZ congress in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged while the ban was in effect.

May 17

RTL Klub

The National Radio and Television Board ordered RTL Klub television to pay a US$17,600 fine and go off the air for 10 minutes during prime time, Agence France-Presse reported.

The ruling came in retaliation for an April interview on RTL Klub during which the presenter asked a man posing as a contract killer how much he would charge to kill Prime Minister Viktor Orban.