The debate over Hungary’s controversial media law is set to continue next week when Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, meets members of the European Parliament (19 January).
Orbán’s principal reason for visiting the Parliament is to present Hungary’s priorities for its six months in the chair of the EU’s rotating presidency. But the occasion is likely to act as a magnet attracting further criticism of the new law (see Page 5).
Since the media law came into force on 1 January, it has provoked blank pages in protest in Hungarian newspapers, as well as unusually frank criticism from some EU foreign ministers and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a body that monitors freedom and democracy.
The European Commission is set to launch a formal investigation into whether the media law is consistent with press freedom.
However, as of yesterday (12 January) the Commission still had not received official notice of the law, the formal step that allows it to begin its work.
Speaking in Budapest last week (6 January), José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, said he would not pre-judge the outcome of the report into what he described as “very tough, very hard, legal issues”. Nor would he say when the report will be published.
Standing next to Barroso, Orbán said that he was ready to change the media law if required. “We will follow closely the implementation of this law and if we see that any of the criticisms have come true, we are ready to remedy these.”
But the centre-right prime minister strongly implied that he saw no need to change the law, insisting that it went no further than similar laws in other member states.
According to Orbán, “the scope of the Hungarian media authority is not larger than the scope of media authorities in any other European country”. He said he would envisage changes only if there were “common sense and reasonable arguments”.
The differences in tone were clear. Orbán framed the debate as an issue of respect for his country’s young and hard-won democracy. “Hungarian democracy should receive the same respect as any other democracy in Europe,” he said, adding: “I am sure that the legal opinion formed [by the Commission] will be one that does not discriminate against Hungary.”
Barroso suggested that Hungary had to keep up the EU’s reputation. “This is a democratic country and I think it is important we have no doubts about it,” he added. “There is a need for Hungary to have the full backing of the member states and the European institutions to make this presidency a success.”
He also stressed the possibility that the law might be changed. “I really welcome the fact the prime minister is ready to consider changing the law if some problems are justified.”
Barroso confirmed that the Commission is also investigating whether a Hungarian tax on banks breaks EU rules, following complaints of discrimination from foreign companies.
Orbán acknowledged that the controversy over the media law had got the presidency off to a bad start. “It is quite evident that no one likes to start a presidency like this.”